Friday, February 27, 2015

Bring on the corned beef

Preparing corned beef lunches in Dothan last year

While many congregations have corned beef lunches this time of year as fundraisers, Valdosta’s Temple Israel seemingly sets out to feed the whole town.

About 50 families in the south Georgia congregation work on the annual event, which has a goal of 6,000 sandwiches this year. The population of Valdosta is around 54,000, so that means over 10 percent of the city will be dining on corned beef from Temple Israel.

The event began in 1998 with a goal of 1500 sandwiches. It was an instant hit, and demand kept increasing each year. The record was 6,500 sandwiches in 2012.

The lunches are $10, with a 50 cent surcharge if ordered online. They include one-third pound of Hebrew National corned beef on rye, kosher pickle, chips, dessert and drink. The sale takes place on March 13, 15 and 16 and a portion of the proceeds goes to local non-profits in addition to being the congregation’s largest fundraiser each year.


This year’s food festival season began with the annual Montgomery Jewish Food Festival at Temple Beth Or on Feb. 22, and the annual corned beef luncheon at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville on Feb. 26.

Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge will have its 31st annual Deli for Lunch corned beef sale from March 15 to 17. Drive-thru and pickup will be available at Beth Shalom on March 15 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on March 16 and 17 there will be deliveries of orders of five lunches or more from 10 a.m. to noon.

The $9 lunches include a corned beef sandwich on rye, potato chips, dill pickle and homemade brownie. Tuna and egg salad sandwiches will be available by request.

Tickets are available at Beth Shalom, or orders can be placed online.

Springhill Avenue Temple’s Sisterhood Corned Beef Extravaganza in Mobile will be on March 17. The $10 lunches include a quarter-pound corned beef sandwich on rye, kosher pickle, New York-style cheesecake and bag of chips.

Orders must be placed by March 10 and can be picked up at Springhill Avenue Temple from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Delivery is available for orders of 10 or more.

The annual corned beef sandwich sale at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles will be on March 16. Lunches are ordered in advance and delivered or picked up at Temple Sinai during the day.

Alexandria's Gemiluth Chassodim will have its corned beef lunch on March 17. The $8 lunches include a sandwich, cole slaw, potato chips and pickle. The lunches will be available for dine-in or carry-out, and delivery is available for orders of 10 or more.

Beth Israel in Jackson will have its 48th annual Bazaar on March 25, but this year it has been renamed the Beth Israel Congregation Bazaar instead of the Sisterhood Bazaar.

The menu includes deli sandwiches and salads, brisket, stuffed cabbage, matzah ball soup, kugel and carrots, baba ganoush and chopped liver. There is a dessert section and a Take Home booth with frozen casseroles.

The 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. event also includes a silent auction, raffle and white elephant sale.

In Tuscaloosa, Temple Emanu-El will hold its second Jewish Food Festival on April 19, starting at 11:30 a.m. Last year was the congregation’s first time holding the event as a stand-alone, as it previously had been part of the opening night of Tuscaloosa’s now-defunct Jewish Film Festival.

The festival has boxed meals available, or a sampler bar where one can try a variety of items.

Dothan’s Temple Emanu-El will have its annual corned beef luncheon on April 30. Last year, the congregation sold just under 2,000 lunches, and 500 of the lunches were donated to nine local non-profits.

Arkansas festival big enough for a stadium

Perhaps the largest Jewish food festival in the region takes place in Arkansas every year.

The 2015 Jewish Food Festival will be at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on April 26. Last year, the first in the new venue, the festival attracted over 12,000 visitors despite severe weather, according to the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. By comparison, the Jewish population of the entire state is estimated at fewer than 2,000.

For the last three years, the festival has been named runner-up for Best Food Festival in the Arkansas Times.

The event begins with a Jewish breakfast at 8:30 a.m. The festival itself runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and includes corned beef sandwiches, lox, bagels and cream cheese, kosher hot dogs, rugelach and traditional Israeli dishes including kabobs, falafel and Israeli salad.

There are cultural and religious booths describing everything from Jewish life in Arkansas to ancient Israel, numerous artists, a children’s area and entertainment. There is a replica of the Western Wall for visitors to place prayer notes, and the notes are later taken to the real Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Performances include the B Flats, a Klezmer band, the Shechinotes and other acts. Admission is free.

Proceeds from the festival go to benefit Jewish Federation of Arkansas’s work in the community, which includes allocations to Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations, financial assistance to Jews in need, scholarships and other resources for Jewish children and families, and funds to support charitable work in Israel.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thorne's new book gives name, story to Lot's wife

When Lot and his family flee from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, his unnamed wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at the destruction.

Birmingham author T.K. Thorne not only gives her a name, but an entire backstory as the central character in her new novel, “Angels at the Gate,” which comes out this month.

A book launch is scheduled for March 5 at the Harbert Center in Birmingham from 4:30 to 7 p.m., with remarks at 6 p.m. She will return to her native Montgomery on April 9 for a 7 p.m. talk at Temple Beth Or.

Her debut novel, “Noah’s Wife,” received an award as Book of the Year for Historical Fiction. A short film from her screenplay “Six Blocks Wide” was a finalist in a film festival in Italy and has shown at other juried festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

Her more recent book was the non-fiction “Last Chance for Justice: How Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers,” about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

Thorne said “Angels at the Gate” began with “Noah’s Wife.” She hadn’t thought about writing stories of Biblical women, but “she deserved more” than one brief unnamed mention in the Bible.

After “Noah’s Wife” received critical acclaim, she thought her Biblical career was behind her, until a co-worker joked “what’s next, Lot’s wife?”

Though her initial reaction was that Lot was the hero in the story and the whole episode was too dark for her, one question intrigued her. In “Noah’s Wife,” she did a lot of scientific and historical research to make the story more realistic. In the story of Lot, there were angels — how do you explain that rationally?

After a year of research, she started to write “my midrash, my commentary — my imagination layered on a foundation of archaeology, historical theories and ancient writings.” She realized that while she had a lot of information about the period, she knew nothing about the main character. Finally, she started typing about Adira, whose mother died in childbirth and who was raised in her father’s caravan as a boy.

“Adira means ‘strength’ in Hebrew and I liked that the masculine form was Adir,” Thorne said.

Adira rejects her looming changes into womanhood as a threat to her nomadic life and independence. Then two mysterious strangers arrive — Northmen who are said to be holy, perhaps “angels.”

After raiders invaded the caravan, she loses everything — her father, her freedom and the “angels.” Torn between an impossible love and her oath to return to her tribe and live the “proper life for a woman,” she sets out on a quest for revenge and to find her “angel.”

Thorne is a retired Birmingham Police captain and now is executive director of CAP: City Action Partnership, which works with businesses, residents and the police and has reduced crime in the central city by almost two-thirds since 1995. She is said to be the first Jewish police officer in Birmingham.

Thorne will also speak to the Baldwin County Writers Group in Daphne on March 21 at 10 a.m., sign books at Little Professor in Birmingham on March 25 at 4 p.m., and at Page and Palette in Fairhope on April 10.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Birmingham’s Asaf Stein to receive Israel aliyah prize at Knesset

Asaf Stein, a Birminghamian who moved to Israel in 2012, was named one of the recipients of the Bonei Zion — Builders of Zion — Prize from Nefesh B’Nefesh. Six recipients will be honored at a Knesset ceremony in May for making “a major impact on the State of Israel.”

Stein will receive the Israel Defense Forces and National Service Young Leadership Award.

The awards were announced today. Also being honored are Professor Charles Sprung, Director of the General Intensive Care Unit at Hadassah Medical Organization, in the field of Science and Medicine; Jon Medved, founder and CEO of OurCrowd in the field of Entrepreneurship and Technology; Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, founder and executive director of ITIM in the field of Community and Non-Profit; Chana Reifman Zweiter, founding director of Kaleidoscope Mainstreaming Network in the field of Education; and Asher Weill, consultant and editor of English publications for Limmud FSU for Culture, Sports & Arts.

An additional Lifetime Achievement Award is being given to Tal Brody for his contribution to shaping and impacting Israel through sports and dedicated public relations efforts on behalf of the State of Israel.

Hundreds of immigrants from English-speaking countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, U.K. and the U.S., were nominated for the prize. The prize recognizes outstanding Anglo immigrants who have helped Israel in a meaningful way by encapsulating the spirit of modern-day Zionism and contributing in significant ways towards the State of Israel.

“It has been incredibly inspirational, for the second consecutive year, to see the remarkable number of Anglo Olim who are making a significant impact on the State of Israel. These Bonei Zion Prize recipients exemplify how Olim are making historic advancements and contributing, each in their own field, to the success of the country and our nation,” said Nefesh B’Nefesh Co-Founder and Executive Director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass. “We hope that highlighting the achievements of these Olim, in addition to expressing our gratitude to the recipients, will serve as a catalyst to inspire others to make Aliyah and follow in their footsteps.

Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh works with the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency for Israel to revitalize Aliyah from North America and the U.K. by removing or minimizing the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles of Aliyah. Services have been provided to over 42,000 newcomers.

Stein is “affectionately referred to by his peers as ‘Dr. Golani.” He is regarded as an unusual case even by the standards of lone soldiers, those who immigrate to Israel without their families and enlist in the IDF.

Stein, son of Susan and Michael Stein, is an alumnus of the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. He earned his doctorate in biomedicine from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and then decided to immigrate to Israel and join the IDF. He had volunteered in Israel in 2009 and set a goal of becoming a soldier in a combat unit, though he was much older than most entering the IDF.

He beat the odds and was accepted to the elite Golani Brigade, telling skeptical high-ranking commanders who told him only four men near his age had ever been accepted to a combat unit that he would become the fifth.

He has spoken to Friends of the IDF Southeast gatherings and in October returned to Birmingham to speak at the joint Israel Bonds and Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation event. He was part of last summer’s ground operation in Gaza.

Now 30, Stein is nearing the end of his IDF service. According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, “His friends and colleagues in Golani laud his positive attitude and his lack of aversion to jobs that others, 10 years his junior, might consider beneath them. Asaf is an inspiration and has truly earned his nickname, Dr. Golani.”

(photo by Rabbi Barry Altmark)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Purim events in the region

Now that Mardi Gras has come and gone, it’s time to get the noisemakers and costumes out for Purim. Here’s a selection of Purim events in the region.


Auburn’s Beth Shalom will have a Hogwarts Purim celebration on Feb. 28 with ISJL Education Fellow Lex Rofes, featuring a megillah reading and carnival. The 7 p.m. event will include a dessert feast, and wizard-style costumes are encouraged.

Knesseth Israel in Birmingham will have its Blacklight Purim carnival on March 4 at 5:45 p.m. There will be glow-in-the-dark bubbles, blacklight basketball and neon stomp rockets. The megillah reading will be followed by a dinner prepared by Eli from Eli’s Jerusalem Grill.

In Birmingham, Temple Beth-El will visit Temple Emanu-El for a Peter Pan Purim Spiel and carnival, on March 1 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Beth-El will have its megillah reading on March 4 at 6 p.m.

Chabad of Alabama will have Purim in Hollywood on March 5, with a 5 p.m. megillah reading and 5:30 p.m. party. For the red carpet, guests are encouraged to dress as their favorite Hollywood star — with a caveat that the wardrobe be “appropriate.”

Chabad is welcoming “funniest home videos” to be sent in advance of the event. Admission is $18 for adults, $10 for children, with a family maximum of $60.

Hillel at the University of Alabama at Birmingham will have its first masquerade party on March 3 at 6:30 p.m., at Blazer RLC. Admission is one non-perishable food item for the UAB food closet.

You Belong in Birmingham will have a Pour ‘Em for Purim party at the Abroms/Engel Institute for Visual Arts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on March 7, starting at 7:30 p.m. There will be music, a cash bar, food and desserts, and “party-goers are encouraged to dress up in the spirit of Purim.” Tickets are $10.

There will be a Birmingham community-wide Purim carnival at the Levite Jewish Community Center on March 8, starting at 12:30 p.m. Co-sponsored by the three congregations and Chabad, the event is being planned by Community Youth Group. There will be inflatables and interactive booths and games. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children.

Temple Emanu-El, Dothan, will have a Purim potluck dinner and service on March 6 at 6 p.m. Bring a main dish, salad or vegetable for 8 to 10 people. The service will start at 7 p.m., and costumes are encouraged. The Purim carnival will be on March 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Etz Chayim in Huntsville will have a hot dog dinner on March 4 at 6 p.m., followed by a BBYO presentation of the rhymed megillah.

Huntsville's Temple B'nai Sholom will have its Purim party on March 7 at 7 p.m.

Chabad of Mobile will have Purim in the Shtetl on March 5 at 5:15 p.m., at the historic Blacksher Hall. There will be a Tevye show with Broadway actor Walter Hook, a feast of “old world favorites,” a multimedia Megillah reading and slideshow, Purim crafts, “tie-dye hamentaschen” and costumes are encouraged. There is no charge but donations are welcome.

Rabbi Yosef Goldwasser of Chabad of Mobile said they would be happy to read the megillah at homes, nursing homes and offices, for those who can not make it to the event.

Ahavas Chesed in Mobile is having a free pizza dinner on March 4 at 6 p.m., followed by megillah reading and making shalach manot at 6:30 p.m.

Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile will have its Purim celebration on March 6 at 6 p.m. with a musical Purim play, followed by dinner hosted by the Sisterhood and religious school, catered by Tyner’s. There is no charge for dinner but reservations are requested by Feb. 24.

In Montgomery, Temple Beth Or will have its Purim service on March 4 at 6 p.m. Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem will have its Purim service and dinner with the Not Ready for Prime Time Megillah Readers on March 4 at 6 p.m.

Tuscaloosa's Temple Emanu-El will have its Purim party at 10 a.m. on March 8.

Florida Panhandle

Chabad Emerald Coast in Destin will have Purim in the Lower East Side, March 5 at 4:30 p.m.

B’nai Israel in Panama City will have a Purim celebration during religious school on March 8 at 10 a.m. The students will present a play and have a megillah reading.

There will be a Purim service and celebration at Temple Beth-El in Pensacola on March 8 at 11 a.m., followed by the community-wide Purim festival at Creative Learning Academy from noon to 2 p.m.


There will be a Purim carnival at Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, joined by the Lake Charles and Lafayette communities, on March 8 at 9:30 a.m.

B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge will have a Purim Movie and Munchies on March 4 at 6 p.m., viewing “One Night With the King.” There will be a Purim baking contest, judging homemade hamantaschen.

Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge will have a potluck dinner on March 4 at 6 p.m., followed by services and a megillah reading at 7 p.m.
Jewish Community Day School in Metairie will have an episode of “Shushan’s Got Talent” on March 4 at 8:30 a.m.

B'nai Israel in Monroe will have a Purim service on March 6 at 6 p.m., conducted by Mike Rhymes.

The Northshore Jewish Congregation in Mandeville will have its Purim Spiel by Frank Levy on March 5 at 7 p.m.

Shir Chadash in Metairie will have Ma’ariv and megillah reading starting at 6:15 p.m. on March 4, followed by kosher pizza and salad prepared by chefs from PizzaNOLA. There will be music by the Panorama Jazz Band.

Beth Israel in Metairie will have Family Purim Night and Breakfast for Dinner, March 4 at 6 p.m. Services and the megillah reading will start at 6:30 p.m.

Chabad in New Orleans will have a megillah reading and Purim bash Uptown at 6:15 p.m. on March 4, and a late reading at 9:30 p.m. There will be a megillah reading Uptown and at Chabad in Metairie during morning minyan on March 5. The Lambeth House Purim party and megillah reading will be at 10:30 a.m., followed by a downtown reading at noon, place to be announced.

The Chabad Jewish Center in Metairie will have Purim in Paris: Je Suis Purim “in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in France,” on March 5 at 5 p.m. There will be a megillah reading at 5 p.m., followed by the party at 5:30 p.m. There will be French cuisine, including French wine and a crepes station, a costume contest and live music by the Panorama Jazz Band. Reservations by March 2 are $18 for adults, $10 for kids, going up to $25 for adults and $15 for kids after March 2.

Gates of Prayer in Metairie will have a Purim celebration with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Walt Handelsman on March 4 at 6 p.m. starting with a pizza dinner. There will also be Purim Spirits for Young Professionals at 6 p.m., and cartooning will start at 6:30 p.m.

On March 5, the Jewish Community Day School will make baskets for seniors at Sunrise Senior Living and sing Purim songs for them. They will have a festive lunch at the school at 11:45 a.m., and the community is invited. Cantor David Mintz of Touro Synagogue will read the megillah at the school at 12:45 p.m.

The New Orleans Jewish Community Center will have its annual community-wide Adloyadah Purim carnival on March 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. There will be a costume parade, rides, music, Israeli food, hamantashen, and New Orleans snowballs, human hamster balls, inflatables, Middle Eastern and deli food. A children’s all day play pass is $12, or $10 with non-perishable items for the Broadmoor Food Pantry.

Anshe Sfard and Krewe du Jieux will have a New Orleans-style Purim on March 4. There will be a megillah reading at Anshe Sfard at 6:30 p.m., with the Noisician Coalition. Around 8:15 p.m., Krewe du Jieux will lead its 15th annual Purim second line, following the Panorama Jazz Band, marching in memory of Louis Lederman, Anshe Sfard member, Bone Tone Brass Band leader, beer enthusiast and reigning "Post-Humorous" King of the Jieuxs for Krewe du Jieux.

The Second Line will go to The Avenue Pub. Manager and fellow Tribe-member Polly Watts will provide the first round of shots on the house. Costumes are welcome, but the pub event is for ages 21 and up. There is no charge for the event but donations are appreciated.

Touro Synagogue in New Orleans will have the Megillah According to the Beatles, March 1 at 10 a.m. Esther, Mordecai, Achashveros and Haman will be joined by John, Paul, George and Ringo for a “magical mystery tour through Shushan.” The congregation is urging the use of boxes of macaroni and cheese as noisemakers, and the boxes will then be donated to the Broadmoor Food Pantry.

Temple Sinai in New Orleans will have a musical journey, “Into the Torah,” on March 4 at 5:15 p.m. The show is a musical journey where a child is "called by God" to go "Into the Torah" to be a Jewish Hero and save the Jewish people. Along the way, she must collect an apple from the Garden of Eden, a sleeve from Joseph’s coat, the staff of Moses, King Ahashveros’ signet ring and the shield of Judah Maccabee. A dinner sponsored by the Sisterhood will follow. There is no charge for the dinner but canned goods for the food bank are requested.

The Temple Sinai Brotherhood will sponsor a Family Fun Day at Audubon Park Shelter 11 on March 1 at 10:30 a.m.

The Shreveport community Purim party will be on March 1, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at B’nai Zion. A Chinese lunch will begin at 11:30 a.m. There will be face painting, balloon animals, a joke booth and prizes for everyone in costume.

B’nai Zion will have its Frozen Purim megillah reading on March 6 at 6 p.m., followed by a special oneg. Costumes are encouraged.

Agudath Achim Sisterhood in Shreveport will have its Purim covered dish dinner on March 4 at 6:30 p.m., for dairy or pareve dishes. The Sisterhood will provide drinks, bread and hamantaschen. A megillah reading will follow.


B’nai Israel in Columbus will have a Purim celebration on March 1 at 12:30 p.m. The Sisterhood fundraiser will include food and games, and the requested donation is $10 to $20.

Beth Israel in Gulfport will have its Purim carnival on March 1 at 10 a.m., and the megillah reading will be on March 4 at 6:45 p.m., with participation from Chabad of Southern Mississippi. After the traditional reading there will be an interactive English rendition.

Chabad of Southern Mississippi will have a daytime reading on March 5, starting at 4 p.m., followed by a festive meal.

In Jackson, Beth Israel will have a Frozen Purim, “Let Me Go, Let Me Go.” The 7 p.m. play on March 4 features Anna as Esther, Elsa as Vashti and Olaf as Mordecai.

The Beth Israel Temple Youth carnival is March 1 at 11:30 a.m., and marks the return of the BITY Auction, where the teens’ services can be purchased by congregants.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Louisiana's Richmond, Mississippi's Thompson won't attend Netanyahu address to Congress

Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond announced that though he is a “staunch supporter of Israel through actions and words” he will skip the March 3 address that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give to a joint session of Congress. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is also on the list of those not planning to attend.

Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address Congress by House Speaker John Boehner. Originally scheduled for Feb. 11, the talk was pushed to March 3 so Netanyahu could also address the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.

Though media outlets reported that the White House was not consulted about the invitation, it was later revealed that Netanyahu accepted after the White House was informed of the invitation.

That has not lessened the controversy between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, who have had frosty relations on a personal level.

Obama announced that he would not meet with Netanyahu during the visit, citing a precedent of not meeting with foreign leaders just before their elections. Israel’s next election is on March 17.

Vice President Joe Biden said he would be out of the country for the March 3 talk. However, the day after making that announcement, he met with Yitzhak Herzog, leader of Israel’s Labor party and the primary opposition to Netanyahu.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont also said he will not attend what he referred to as Netanyahu’s “tawdry” speech.

Netanyahu was invited to address a joint session of Congress on 2011, and the White House did not respond to Boehner’s notice of the invitation. Netanyahu addressed Congress without controversy.

Netanyahu’s speech is intended to make the case for a stronger approach to Iran’s nuclear program, and he has said that he is willing to make his case to anyone who will listen. He also has said that his speech is not meant to cause conflict with the administration.

But some have criticized the speech as burnishing his image two weeks before he is to face Israeli voters.

Richmond said Congress “is not a political pawn, nor is it the forum to set foreign policy decisions without consultation from the president. For these reasons I have decided not to attend this joint session."

He noted that he has met with Netanyahu during a trip to Israel that he made during his first year in Congress. “A secure and prosperous Israel is in the best interest of the United States and the world. Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons undeniably threatened Israel's, and ultimately the United States' security."

But Richmond feels that Netanyahu’s speech “serves the opposite purpose” in the fight to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In particular, the Congressional Black Caucus has been vocal in urging its members to not attend the speech. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia started the push because the members see the invitation as disrespectful of Obama.

Richmond echoed that in his comments to Politico. “It is very disrespectful to this president, and what concerns me more is that I think it’s a pattern that is starting to develop from this speaker that we’re getting more and more disrespectful of the office of the presidency. I think it’s silly and petty.”

Rep. Steve Cohen, who is Jewish and serves a primarily African-American constituency in Memphis, told JTA in his district “a lot of people see this as dismissive of the first African-American president.”

Many caucus members said they would be willing to meet with Netanyahu or Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at a separate time, though Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson flatly said he would not, and called Dermer a “long-time, right-wing political hack.”

Huntsville Temple provides venue for 27 same-sex weddings in one day

By Larisa Thomason

On Feb. 12, Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville hosted 27 weddings in a single day — many more than in the previous decade — and the congregation’s rabbi didn’t officiate at a single one.

Instead, Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar welcomed local ministers and non-sectarian wedding officiants as they thronged into the building’s sanctuary, library and classrooms to perform weddings for same-sex couples. She was joined by many Temple members who volunteered to serve wedding cupcakes and coffee, act as tour guides for the historic building, and cheer the happy couples.

How did this happen? It’s a joke few comedians could resist: gay marriage became legal and Alabama froze over. Except that the weather was no joke to the organizers of Huntsville’s Wedding Week. The group had planned to offer five days of weddings in Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville to mark the first week of legal recognition. Local ministers and wedding officiants, florists, photographers and bakers offered their services for free.

Over 40 same-sex couples married in the park on Feb. 9, the first day. They were soon joined by some confused heterosexual couples who had expected to have courthouse weddings and were disappointed to learn that Madison County Probate Judge Tommy Ragland had decided, “because of budget constraints,” to stop performing any weddings. That action meant that Huntsville’s “Wedding Week” got larger and more popular than the organizers had ever imagined.

Then the weather report grew colder than anyone imagined. Temperatures on Thursday were expected to be barely above freezing with a biting wind thrown in. “Freezing temperatures and outdoor weddings don’t mix,” noted Lynne Abbott, a Universal Life Church minister and one of Wedding Week’s organizers.

On Feb. 10, the group scrambled to find a nearby indoor venue and had nearly given up when several B’nai Sholom members who had dropped by to watch the weddings heard about the problem. “They called Rabbi Bahar and she immediately offered the building to us,” Abbott said.

The resulting flood of happy couples filled the Temple building to the brim. At one point, organizers said, there were three weddings in progress at the same time: in the library, the sanctuary and the rabbi’s study.

“Wedding Week is for everyone,” said volunteer Alix Moorehouse. She and her wife had a “Holy Union” ceremony in 1994 and married legally in Connecticut in 2009. “This is what equality means: everyone is treated the same and we all work together. The weddings in the park were incredible and I didn’t think the week could get any better, but here I am standing in a historic Jewish Temple celebrating same sex weddings.”

Even with the short notice, B’nai Sholom congregants worked together to make the event a success. Bahar said she was thrilled by how many congregants “just dropped by” to help serve cake, kvell with the brides and grooms, and do whatever they could to help. The Temple’s leadership was equally supportive, with B’nai Sholom President Sherman Banks offering this unequivocal endorsement: “We’ve got no choice. It’s who we are.”

Still, there were restrictions. Couples were welcome to use the Temple’s library, classrooms, and even the Sanctuary for ceremonies, but non-Jewish couples married in front of the bimah, not on it. Bahar stressed that the congregation wanted to be open to everyone, but with a few caveats. “We also had to retain a level of sanctity for our congregation.”

B’nai Sholom has long welcomed same-sex families and Bahar said her only disappointment was that she didn’t get to perform a Jewish wedding. “With all this love in the air, I really wanted to do a wedding, but I need a couple — and at least one of them needs to be Jewish!”

Asked why the Temple was so eager to participate when asked, Bahar shared the Talmudic lesson that one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. A local church has opened its doors to the B’nai Sholom for Passover, she said, because the late 19th-century building isn’t large enough for the expected crowd. “We’re holding our community Passover Seder in a Christian church on their holiday of Good Friday. The Church of the Nativity is opening its doors to us and this was our opportunity to open our doors to another segment of the community.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Domenica's Alon Shaya opens Israeli restaurant in New Orleans

After exercising his passion for Italian food for several years, Alon Shaya is looking to his roots in his new venture, Shaya, which is having a soft opening this week.

The restaurant will have traditional and modern Israeli cuisine, influenced by his past and his recent visits to Israel.

He and his family moved to Philadelphia from Israel when he was four, and he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother.

The restaurant’s name and cuisine are a nod to his heritage. “I wanted to celebrate my family’s lineage through not only Israel, where I was born, but my father is Hungarian, my grandparents are Bulgarian, their grandparents came up through Spain, my father’s family came up through Persia.” He wanted the menu to “reflect that story and pull some influences from Israel but also places like Eastern Europe, Spain, Morocco, Greece.”

It will show that influence through a “beautiful combination of flavors, ingredients and techniques.”

Shaya started his culinary career at a Las Vegas casino but was “lured” to New Orleans in 2001 and became Chef de Cuisine at Besh Steak.

In 2009, Shaya and John Besh partnered to open Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel. “I’ve had a chance to cook Italian for people for most of my career and that has always been one of my huge passions,” Shaya said. “I even moved to Italy and lived there for a while.”

In 2012 Shaya was New Orleans Magazine Chef of the Year, and he has been a finalist for Best Chef in the South at the James Beard Awards for the last three years.

Last Spring, he and Besh opened Pizza Domenica, a casual offshoot.

Still, “people are always saying, when are you going to cook some Middle Eastern?” he said. He would answer “eventually, I really want to.”

Trips to Israel furthered that dream. In 2011, he and Besh were part of a delegation of chefs sent by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans to the community’s Partnership2Gether community in Israel, Rosh Ha’Ayin. “Going on trips to Israel over the last few years has inspired me to want to start cooking this food for our customers,” he said.

The visit to Rosh Ha’Ayin “really kicked off what was inside,” he said. “I went there and ate all this amazing food, walked through the markets and saw all this really great stuff, and when I came back it influenced my cooking right away.”

He started adding Israeli influences to his menus, but the dream grew stronger.

“We have such a strong team of people who were ready for a bigger opportunity” at his restaurants, and in opening Shaya nine of them are being promoted. Also, “this space came up that we are excited about,” so “all those stars aligned.”

That space, at 4213 Magazine Street, is the former Dominique’s on Magazine. Shaya said the art deco vibe already was reminiscent of Tel Aviv.

“We thought it was the right time for New Orleans, the right space… and this team is unstoppable,” he said.

The new restaurant is already creating a lot of buzz. Southern Living named Shaya one of the 50 people changing the South in 2015, saying that he “shows off the foods of his native country and fills underrepresented space in the South’s rich dining scene” with the new place.

Eater National featured the restaurant in its 33 most anticipated restaurant openings of early 2015.

He has been assembling a team of chefs and managers running the day-to-day operations “and I will be overseeing all three operations.”

Shaya will have a wood-burning oven in the dining room to make pita bread, “so we will be constantly making fresh pita bread to order” throughout service.

For those who have had home hospitality in Rosh Ha’Ayin, he has been working on Yemenite kubana bread. “I’m not sure if it will be on the opening menu, but it will make an appearance,” Shaya said.

A section of the menu will elevate regular hummus with seasonal toppings. Among the ones he has been working on are curried cauliflower and onion, roasted tomato and fried eggplant, seared duck breast with buttered leeks.

The restaurant will also feature “all the beautiful salads and spreads that come out to the table when you sit down to eat in Israel.”

Small plates will include items like stuffed grape leaves stuffed with slow-roasted brisket and shiitake mushrooms, a saffron roasted chicken salad, French avocado toast with smoked whitefish, and tagines with braised short rib with coucous, citrus and fennel.

“There will be plenty to choose from,” he said, adding that it will range from simple meals for $10 to $15 per person, “or you can come in and make an anniversary dinner out of it and be there for hours, get some really great wine and order four courses.”

Opening Domenica “was an opportunity for me to grow and learn and do something I was passionate about,” he said, and his business partners “have made all of these dreams come true and allowed me the opportunity to truly do what I love.”

Shaya added, “we’re ready to go, we’re super-excited to be cooking Israeli cuisine.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Friendship Circle up and running in Birmingham

On Feb. 22, thousands of runners will take to the streets of Birmingham for the Mercedes Marathon. Among them will be a few dozen members of Team Friendship, including Rabbi Yossi “The Runnin’ Rabbi” Friedman from Chabad of Alabama.

Team Friendship is participating as a way to raise a goal of $60,000 to support the Friendship Circle, which brings together teenage volunteers and children with special needs for fun, friendship and socialization.

Rabbi Levi Weinbaum, who is co-director of Friendship Circle Alabama with wife Mushka, said participation in the race has two goals. First, the circle is growing but there isn’t much awareness about the circle in the broader community, and “as we were getting bigger we needed to find a way of supporting the Friendship Circle and hopefully this will be an annual fundraiser.”

The Friendship Circle began in Detroit in 1994. The Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan asked Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his wife, Bassie, to start an organization that would bring friendship to those who need friends. The idea came from a grant from a family where there was a special friendship between a Chabad rabbi and their son, who had passed away.

Weinbaum said the Shemtovs started sending their teenage children to visit special needs children in the community, and found that their teens were getting as much of a benefit, if not more, as the special needs children.

By 2003, the Detroit circle had 350 teen volunteers serving 150 children with special needs. The success there inspired establishment of circles across the country, then around the world. Today there are around 80 locations with 5,000 children and 11,000 volunteers.

In 2004, the Friendship Circle built the Meer Family Friendship Center in the Detroit area, a hands-on area where the children and their friends can practice life skills.

The Birmingham circle started in the summer of 2013 through the Bais Ariel Chabad Center. Before long there were three volunteers visiting two children. At the end of the year there was a dinner honoring the teen volunteers, with 45 in attendance.

Entirely through word-of-mouth, the circle soon grew to seven children and 13 volunteers, and now the program serves 12 children with 23 volunteers. More growth is certainly possible, Weinbaum said, “we have people waiting for visits, we just need more teens.”

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin of Chabad of Louisiana said they are in the planning stages of bringing Friendship Circle to New Orleans. The closest Friendship Circles otherwise are in Atlanta and Houston.

The program’s cornerstone is Friends at Home. Pairs of teen volunteers visit children with special needs in the place where they are most comfortable — their home. The Sunday visits are for them to simply do whatever interests them.

At the first meeting, there are games that are brought along as icebreakers, but they haven’t been needed as the volunteers and the children hit it off immediately.

Weinbaum said they are now planning at least two programs or events per trimester, and special needs teens are also invited to attend Chabad’s teen programs with their Friendship Circle buddies.

One program starting up for older participants is Chef Academy, where those in Friendship Circle can cook meals that they can then bring home.

Another aspect of the program is Mom’s Night Out, where the mothers of special-needs children can have “time to get out, relax and mingle with friends and get support that they are not in it by themselves.”

Each year, Weinbaum explained, “we add to the program. We’re not trying to explode overnight.” Right now almost all of the participants are in the Jewish community and they are looking for more Jewish teens to volunteer. Weinbaum hopes to eventually have a facility like the one near Detroit that would be open to the broader community.

Weinbaum notes that the visits are not therapy sessions, as the volunteers are not trained to be therapists. “They are there to be friends.”

The program’s philosophy comes from the command “v’ahavta l’re-echa kamocha,” to love your neighbor as yourself. “Anyone is eligible for a friend,” Weinbaum said. “Anyone who is not making that connection, we try to make that connection.”

The circle works with “every single type of kid, whatever the reason may be… and make sure they have friends coming over.”

The program cites Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s unconditional love for everyone and desire that every person should feel that they belong.

Among those participating are children with autism, cerebral palsy, ADD/ADHD, aspergers and other conditions that make it difficult to form friendships or socialize.

Some of the kids in the program are popular in school but “nobody hangs out with them” otherwise and they never go out with peers. For some of the participants, being in Friendship Circle has been the first time they have been “a normal teen.”

The framework is that Sunday visits are to be at least 45 minutes twice a month, but Weinbaum said he doesn’t know of any that have been for less than an hour. As a friendship grows and the families get more comfortable, the visits can expand.

Weinbaum noted that some teens have reported that their friends rely on the visits and “how can we do it just twice a month?”

The volunteers say that working in the Circle has affected their outlook toward others and sensitized them toward those who are alone.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said simply, “I love the program.” Mizrahi was the founder and director of The Israel Project before becoming president of RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit group in Washington advocating for greater inclusion for people with disabilities.

Friendship Circle “is really well-respected nationally because they fill a lot of gaps that exist in the system.”

Mizrahi noted that “this is a real issue “ in the Jewish community, because Jews are more likely to have children with disabilities. There is a greater chance because of generations of in-marriage and the tendency among Jewish families to start having children at a later age. “There is a correlation between the age of the parents” and many disorders.

“We have to understand this is part of our population,” she said. And “for every child with a disability there are two parents and siblings.” If the special-needs child can be fully welcomed by the Jewish community, “then you can increase engagement of the whole family.”

And generally, “it is pretty easy to accommodate kids with disabilities. You just have to ask parents what they need.”

For some parents, that need is anonymity. For many there is a fear of having a child labeled as special-need or having a child with a mild disability compared to those with more serious cases, and in school there may not be any outward sign of the special need. Weinbaum said the program is designed to help keep participants as mainstream as possible and they do not label. Privacy requests are respected.

Even the display of Friendship Circle magnets, which have proliferated on local cars, “doesn’t mean anything” specific as it could denote a participant, a volunteer, a supporter or a donor.

As a way of thanking the volunteers there is a special dinner each year, and in March Weinbaum plans to take some of the older volunteers to a Chabad Teen Shabbaton in New York, where one of the highlights will be Havdalah in Times Square, with the group taking over most of the large screens in the square.

The circle’s programs run entirely on donations, and there is no cost to the families. Weinbaum explained, “You are taking a child to therapy, to a specialist. You are paying a lot of money. Every single one of our programs is 100 percent free for the families.”

About 45 runners have signed up on Team Friendship in the Mercedes Marathon. While some may run the entire marathon, there are slots set up for non-profits where relay teams can be formed and the runners seek sponsors.

Weinbaum, who moved to Birmingham in early 2013, grew up in a community where there were two children with special needs who were “always part of our lives. We went to their houses, they came to our home.”

While studying, he volunteered with Friendship Circle in New York and knew that wherever he ultimately was sent as a Chabad emissary, he wanted there to be a Friendship Circle. “It’s needed in every community, it’s just a question of someone working to find the people and getting all the teens,” he said.

When he brought up the idea after arriving in Birmingham, there was some skepticism as to whether the community really needed a program like that, but the numbers have demonstrated the need. Weinbaum noted that a couple of the participating families had been going to churches because there was nothing available in the Jewish community.

Several of the special-needs children “would never have been involved with the Jewish community if not for Friendship Circle,” Weinbaum noted, and one who did not have a Bar Mitzvah was thinking of having one.

“It does not matter where you are on the circle,” Weinbaum said. “You feel incredible.”