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Russian Jewish Students Get Shavuot Do-Over Test Date

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 09:46

Russia’s education ministry has agreed to provide Jewish students an alternative date for a matriculation exam which took place on the Shavuot holiday.

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Thousands celebrate Moscow festival honoring chief rabbi

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:40

(JTA) – Approximately 4,000 Jews attended Moscow’s first “Festival of Judaism” which organizers planned as a celebration of the 50th birthday of Chief Russian Rabbi Berel Lazar.

The festival was held on June 8, two days after Lazar’s birthday, at the Jewish Museum And Tolerance Center in Moscow and featured 50 stations where staff and volunteers presented visitors with explanations about elements of the Jewish faith including teffilin, kashrut and scripture, Museum Chairman Rabbi Boruch Gorin told JTA.

“This was the first time we organized an event of this sort, which we planned as a way to celebrate rabbi Lazar’s 50th birthday, but we hope to make it an annual event,” he said. Gorin, who is a Chabad rabbi, added that Moscow has few Jewish events of the scale seen at the museum during the festival, with the exception of  the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem Day celebrations and Lag B’Omer events.

The event was advertised on Russian Jewish  media, social media and news sites “and this obviously generated a large turnout and a predominantly-Jewish crowd,” Gorin said.

Russian Jewish pupils get alternative date for matriculation test

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:31

(JTA) — Russia’s education ministry has agreed to provide Jewish students an alternative date for a matriculation exam which took place on the Shavuot holiday.

The concession was announced last week in a letter addressed to Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia.

“Students and graduates unable to take the Unified State Exam for religious reasons may be tested on June 16,” read a letter that Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science  sent last week to Lazar.

Boruch Gorin, a senior advisor to Lazar, chairman of Moscow’s Jewish museum and editor-in-chief of the Jewish L’Chaim paper, said that the ministry had agreed in the past not to schedule state exams on the summer holiday of Shavuot, which fell this year on June 3-5 “but they seem to have forgotten this year.”

Education ministry officials initially declined Lazar’s request for an alternative date, saying that “providing an alternative date would be illegal because of the secular nature of the education system,” Gorin said. “So Rabbi Lazar brought up the matter several weeks ago during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who asked the ministry to nonetheless make the change nonetheless. Earlier this month we received confirmation an alternative date would be provided.”

Citing the Russian constitution, the ministry letter also said that the ministry “places an emphasis on the secular character of the state education as a matter of policy.”

The matriculation exam is a general test combining question on various subjects “and without it, graduates cannot get accepted to universities so it’s fairly crucial.”

Observant Jews are not allowed under Orthodox Jewish religious laws to work on Shabbat and on important Jewish holidays, including Shavuot.

Russia has a Jewish population of approximately 360,000 Jews, most of whom are not observant.

Rabbi vs. Rabbi Blackmail Case Rocks South Africa

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 08:00

A bizarre case of blackmail by one rabbi on another has come to light in Cape Town, South Africa, according to the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport.

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Jewish 'Fanaticos' Mix Love of Soccer and Faith at World Cup

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 06:00

The eyes of the world are glued to the soccer stadiums of Brazil. But a group of Argentinian fans has a slightly more spiritual focus during the World Cup.

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The Elephant in the Room

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 17:44

EDITORIAL: The Republican Party has shifted so far to the right that even Eric Cantor is hounded out. That’s bad for the GOP, bad for America — and bad for the Jews.

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Chabad Rabbi on Scooter Chases Down Burglary Suspect in Palm Beach

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 14:15

A rabbi rode a motor scooter to chased down a suspected burglar after spotting him outside of a Palm Beach, Florida Chabad house.

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Should robots count in a minyan? Rabbi talks Turing test

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 12:56

A “Bot-Mitzvah” depicted on the TV show “Futurama.” (Via Hulu)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Robots can hold a conversation, but should they count in a minyan?

A chatbot at Britain’s University of Reading was heralded this week as passing the Turing test, showing a conversational ability that managed to fool people into thinking it was human.

Using the fictional identity of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy with the name Eugene Goostman, the robot convinced a third of a panel’s members that they were interacting with a fellow human being.

While some have expressed skepticism about the achievement’s significance, the advance of artificial intelligence raises profound questions.

“From the practical legal perspective, robots could and should be people,” Rabbi Mark Goldfeder wrote in an article published on CNN’s website in response to the robot’s feat. “As it turns out, they can already officially fool us into thinking that they are, which should only strengthen their case.”

Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, is working on a book on robots in the law tentatively titled “Almost Human.” An Orthodox rabbi, Goldfeder spoke via online chat with JTA about whether robots could some day be welcomed as members of the Jewish community and what the Jewish tradition has to say about this issue.

JTA: What got you so interested in the topic of robots in Jewish law?

Goldfeder: It was a natural evolution from apes actually. I started off looking at the line between humans and non-humans in Jewish law, and realized that the demarcation was not as clear cut in ancient times as appears to be now.

Throughout the discussions in rabbinic literature we find creatures like Bigfoot, mermaids, centaurs, etc., and yes the golem, who in many ways resembles a robot.

Once you assume it may not be a strictly speciesist argument, the move from great apes to robots is quite understandable — given, of course, the caveat the robots may not be technically alive in the classical sense.

What are the basic criteria that would make a robot/monkey/mermaid Jewish?

Well, we start with the Talmud in Sanhedrin, which tells us the story of Rava sending a golem to Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira ends up figuring out that the golem was not human — it couldn’t communicate effectively and couldn’t pass the Turing test, apparently — and so he destroys it.

The halachic literature asks why this was not considered “ba’al tashchis,” wasteful, since maybe the golem could have counted in a minyan.

While they conclude that this golem at least was not able to be counted — they leave open the possibility of a better golem counting — it seems then that creation by a Jewish person would give the golem/robot presumptive Jewish status. For living things there is always parentage and conversion.

I should of course clarify that this entire discussion is “l’halacha v’lo l’maaseh,” a theoretical outlaying of views.

Good clarification, though being a robot seems like a convenient excuse to opt out of a bris.

In halachic terminology we would consider him “nolad mahul” (i.e., it is like he comes from the factory pre-circumcized).

Theoretically speaking, say a robot walked into your office and said, “Rabbi, I want to count in the minyan.” Would that be enough evidence for you to count him?

Not necessarily. For the purposes of this discussion, I would accept the position of the Jerusalem Talmud in the third chapter of Tractate Niddah that when you are dealing with a creature that does not conform to the simple definition of “humanness” — i.e. born from a human mother or at least possessing human DNA, but it appears to have human characteristics and is doing human things — one examines the context to determine if it is human. When something looks human and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah might consider the threshold to have been crossed.

This makes sense from a Jewish ethical perspective as well. Oftentimes Jewish ethics are about the actor, not the one being acted upon. If I see something that for all intents and purposes looks human, I cannot start poking it to see if it bleeds. I have a responsibility to treat all that seem human as humans, and it is better to err on the side of caution from an ethical perspective.

In your opinion — more sociological than halachic — what’s your read on how seriously should Jewish institutions be preparing for the eventuality of artificially intelligent congregants or constituents?

I think the difference between science fiction and science is often time. If you were to ask me now, I don’t think Jewish institutions need to start worrying about it quite yet. Even with the Turing test officially passed, we are quite far from the situation of having a robot capable of walking among us unsuspected. But I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.

Why Eric Cantor's Loss Will Hurt Jewish Democrats, Too

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 06:00

Liberal Jews are dancing gleefully on Eric Cantor’s political grave. But Noam Neusner writes they shouldn’t gloat — his loss is a sign of big trouble for them too.

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Eric Cantor's National Profile Proved Toxic in Rural Virginia District

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 21:59

A combination of over-confidence, neglect of his district and voter anger at congressional leaders fueled Republican Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss in Virginia, an upset that rocked the Republican Party.

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Eric Cantor Loss Plunges Jewish Republicans Into Despair

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 18:45

Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat left Jewish Republicans speechless. But what does his demise say about the future of the party — and its always tenuous tie to the Tribe?

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Cantor resigning House leadership post

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 17:28

(JTA) — U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor said he will resign as House majority leader a day after losing a Republican congressional primary in Virginia.

Cantor made the announcement late Wednesday afternoon at a meeting with House Republicans and later at a news conference, the Hill reported.

The resignation will take effect by the end of July. Elections for majority leader and whip will be held June 19, the Hill reported.

Cantor, 51, the only Republican Jewish lawmaker in the House of Representatives since 2009, lost in his Richmond district to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat in a major upset.

After a career in the Virginia legislature, Cantor was elected to the House in 2000 and was made chief deputy whip just two years later. He rode the Tea Party wave to majority leader after the 2010 elections.

Peace, Love and Understanding: David Broza Talks about Peace and Music at the Commission on Social Action Meeting

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 15:00

At the recent Commission on Social Action (CSA) meeting, CSA members and those participating in the Social Action Skills Training Seminar had the opportunity to hear David Broza perform songs from his latest album, a collaborative project in which music is used as a conduit to discuss peace.  Broza’s newest album, called “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem,” is an effort to bridge the Jewish-Arab divide in Israel. 

Broza describes his album and the efforts behind its creation: “It’s better than talking.  A lot of people dream and say, ‘I want to do, I want to do, I want to do.’  The interesting thing is to do and stop talking.”  The album is a compilation of coexistence anthems by Israeli, Palestinian and American musicians.  In his presentation as the keynote speaker on the Monday night of the conference, Broza talked about the relationship with Palestinian musicians he has built over the years, which you can read more about in a New York Times article called “Seeking to Bridge the Arab-Jewish Divide With Music.”

In addition to speaking about both his own and his family’s experiences as Israelis, his musical background, and his most recent project, David Broza also sang several titles from his new album.  One song that struck a chord with attendees is called “The Lion’s Den.”  The song is based on a poem written by Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was killed in Pakistan in February of 2002.

Broza also spoke about the song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” On the album, the song is sung by David Broza and the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an ensemble of high school students from East and West Jerusalem who sing together and engage in dialogue.  The last song of the evening was his most famous song, “Yehiye Tov,” which translates to “it will be all right.”  Broza explained how he wrote the song based on a poem by Yonatan Geffen in 1977 on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel.  The emotion in the room was palpable as Broza talked about the expectancy and hope of Sadat’s visit and what this might’ve meant for peace in the Middle East.  Broza explained that since the initial song had been written, he’s written several new verses as different events have taken place in Israel.

We are grateful to have had David Broza share his commitment to music as a conduit for peace. To learn more about David Broza’s most recent project, and hear samples of the songs on the album, visit his website.

Cantor Sings Sad Song – in Virginia

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 13:36
U.S. Congressman Eric I. Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives was surprisingly defeated by a Tea Party affiliated candidate who challenged Cantor in a Republican primary election in Virginia. Cantor, who is the highest ranking elected Jewish Republican in the U.S. (the only one in Congress), and one of the most […]

Republicans Scramble After Stunning Eric Cantor Loss

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 12:42

Republican lawmakers are scrambling to identify the party’s future leaders after the shock primary election defeat of Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, by an upstart candidate from the Tea Party movement.

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Cantor’s loss leaves Jewish Republicans bereft

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 12:15

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at a news conference in the Capitol, Oct. 5, 2013. (Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Eric Cantor’s defeat in one constituency, Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, triggered mourning among another: Republican Jews.

Since 2009, Rep. Cantor (R-Va.) has been the only Jewish Republican in Congress. After the 2010 GOP takeover of the House, he became the majority leader. He is the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in congressional history.

But the meteoric rise of Cantor, 51, came to a screeching halt on Tuesday when he was trounced in a major Republican primary upset in his Richmond-area district by a poorly financed Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, an economics professor.

“Obviously we came up short,” Cantor told his stunned followers in a Richmond hotel ballroom. “Serving as the 7th District congressman and having the privilege of being majority leader has been one of the highest honors of my life.”

The defeat, with Brat garnering 55 percent of the vote to 44 percent for the incumbent, was a shock to Cantor and especially to Republican Jews for whom Cantor was a standard-bearer.

“We’re all processing it,” said Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He was an invaluable leader, he was so integral to the promotion of, to congressional support of the pro-Israel agenda. It is a colossal defeat not just for Republicans but for the entire Jewish community.”

Cantor also was a natural ally for socially conservative Orthodox Jews who at times have been at odds with the Obama administration on religion-state issues.

In a statement, Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Orthodox Union, called Cantor a friend who has “been a critical partner for the advocacy work of the Orthodox Jewish community on issues ranging from Israel’s security and the security of Jewish institutions in the United States, to religious liberty to educational reform, and opportunity to defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.”

Cantor was elected to Congress in 2000, at the age of 37, after having served nine years in the Virginia legislature. From the start he made clear that he had three bedrocks: his faith, his state and his conservatism.

His first floor speech, on Jan. 31 2001, was in favor of making the Capitol Rotunda available for Holocaust commemoration, and in two minutes Cantor wove together the importance of Holocaust education — a nod to two Virginia founding fathers and an embrace of the foreign policy interventionism that would guide the George W. Bush administration.

“The remembrance of this dark chapter in human history serves as a reminder of what can happen when the fundamental tenets of democracy are discarded by dictatorial regimes,” a hesitant and nervous Cantor said.

“While we in the United States, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, have experienced years of peace and prosperity, we must not forget that genocide and human rights abuses continue to occur elsewhere around the world,” he said. “As the leader of the free world, the United States must use its power and influence to bring stability to the world and educate people around the globe about the horrors of the Holocaust to ensure that it must never happen again.”

Cantor’s popularity in his district, his ability to garner supporters in the Republican caucus and his fundraising prowess soon caught the eye of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who in 2003 was set to become House majority whip. Blunt named Cantor his chief deputy, a stunning rise for a congressional sophomore who had not yet reached 40.

Cantor’s Jewish involvement deepened as his days grew busier. Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, he started to keep kosher and take private classes with Orthodox rabbis. His three children with wife Diana, whom he met at Columbia University, were active in Jewish youth movements.

Confidants say his commitment to Israel intensified after a cousin, Daniel Cantor Wulz, was killed in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

For Jewish leaders, Cantor was a critical address within the Republican Party for the Jewish community’s domestic agenda, said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“When there was a need for a heavy lift for much of our Jewish federation agenda, we could count on being able to call Eric and have him help us get to the finish line,” Daroff said.

Cantor at first seemed to be riding the Tea Party wave. During the 2010 midterm elections, he joined with Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, calling themselves the Republican Party’s “Young Guns”  in setting up a political action committee that championed younger conservatives in a GOP that they said had become too moderate and complacent.

In a book co-written by the three at the time, Cantor welcomed the Tea Party wave.

“They saw that the powers in charge here are ignorant of what the people want and frankly arrogant about it,” Cantor said in the book, referring to the protests against President Obama’s health care plan that had sparked the Tea Party movement.

In the book, he again rooted his conservatism in the South and in his faith.

“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent and Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their ‘G’s,” referring to his colleagues.

At the time, Cantor seemed to think he could harness the Tea Party insurgency.

“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending, and three, a return to free markets,” he told JTA in an October 2010 interview on the eve of the midterm elections. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”

As majority leader, Cantor stayed to the right of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and many believed he would soon challenge Boehner to become the first Jewish House speaker.

Cantor and Obama have not had a good relationship — Cantor has not attended a single Jewish event at the White House during Obama’s two terms, although he has been invited to all of them.

Until two weeks into the October 2013 shutdown of the federal government, Cantor resisted agreeing to a deal, and he conceded only when it became clear that the shutdown was damaging Republican electoral prospects.

Heeding a Republican establishment that believed the Tea Party had gotten out of hand, Cantor more recently tilted toward the center, championing job creation programs, criticizing foreign policy isolationists within the GOP and expressing a willingness to consider elements of the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill, although until now he has resisted bringing it to the House floor.

That tilt and, according to some local news reports, a perception that Cantor was not sufficiently invested in his district helped contribute to his defeat. Brat especially focused on criticizing Cantor’s tentative embrace of a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors.

Hadar Susskind, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that is a leader on immigration reform, said it was bizarre to accuse Cantor of being overly accommodating on immigration.

“He has been the single largest obstruction in the effort to reform our immigration laws, so those efforts lose nothing with his defeat,” Susskind told JTA.

Democrats immediately seized on Cantor’s loss as evidence that the Republican Party is becoming increasingly extreme.

“When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can’t earn the Republican nomination, it’s clear the GOP has redefined ‘far right,’ ” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.

Steve Rabinowitz, a publicist who represents Jewish groups as well as liberal and Democratic causes, said he was conflicted about Cantor’s departure. On the one hand, he couldn’t help but be amused that Cantor’s flirtation with the Tea Party came back to haunt him. On the other, Rabinowitz suggested that Cantor’s defeat was a minus for the Jewish community.

“Wearing my mainstream Jewish skullcap, it’s clear the community needs people like Eric Cantor,” Rabinowitz said. “This is a loss for the Jewish community. I have my disagreements with him, but he’s been there for the community.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ Open Letter to President-Elect Reuven Rivlin

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 11:07

[Editor's Note: This letter from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform, Judaism, to Reuven Rivlin, Israel's president-elect, originally ran in Haaretz.]

Dear President-elect Rivlin,

I want to offer my warm congratulations to you upon your election as the 10th president of Israel. What a tremendous opportunity you have to serve our beloved Jewish State at this critical time! In your acceptance speech, you immediately signaled that you are resigning from the Likud party to become the president of all Israelis: “Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, those who are more observant and those who are less.” I was very pleased to read these words which herald a new breadth and depth to your leadership.

I would be less than candid, however, if I did not admit to some concern about your ability and willingness to work with the largest denomination in North American Jewish life, the Reform Movement, and our Israeli counterpart, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. In 1989, you visited Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in New Jersey. In an interview after your visit you told a reporter from Yedioth Aharonot about your experience, where you disparaged, with stunning insensitivity, the dominant religiosity of North American Jewry, our Reform Movement.

I’m hoping that you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism that animates almost 900 congregations representing over a million and a half North American Jews.

Mr. President elect, we are strong, we are proud and we love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We honor and respect the many different expressions of Judaism – from the ultra-Orthodox to secular Jews. You may not agree with everything we do or how we express our deep Jewish commitment, but please know it is no less than yours, or any of the chief rabbis. The world has too many people who have disdain or antipathy toward our people and our beloved homeland, so please do all you can to model ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jews.

Just a few weeks ago, I led a mission of our Union for Reform Judaism leadership. Our 50 lay leaders observed Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) at Mt. Herzl and spent Shabbat with our burgeoning Israeli Reform Movement in thriving congregations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Mevasseret Zion and Gedera. We met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, both of whom addressed our rabbis by the title “Rabbi” that they deserve (as do most Israeli leaders).

We spoke with Israel’s leaders about the many challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. We renewed our deep commitment to Israel.

We continue to speak out for Israel no matter where we are. In fact, next week I will be addressing the Presbyterian Church’s large general assembly gathering in Detroit, Michigan, as they consider harsh boycott, divestment and sanction resolutions. I am going there to engage with them and to argue against the delegitimization of the State of Israel.

Then, I will travel from Detroit back to Israel just in time to observe Shabbat Korach in the Jerusalem neighborhood where my wife and I purchased a home during the second Intifada. We wanted a place in the holiest of cities to bring our children to and we wanted to express our commitment to Israel especially in the darkest of days.

This summer, thousands of our Reform Movement’s young people and families will be arriving to study, to take part in tikkun olam service programs, for touring, and for Birthright and NFTY (our North American Youth Movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth) trips. Upon their return they will become some of Israel’s best ambassadors as they spread knowledge, appreciation and support for the Jewish State. I hope they do not hear harsh or delegitimizing words about their Jewish lives from Israeli politicians in the Knesset or in the president’s residence that would have an adverse impact on their growing love for an Israel where they can see their own identity fully realized.

I, and our entire Movement, stand ready to work with you to strengthen our people and our Jewish State. I also hope you will accept my invitation to visit our thriving congregations, our academies of higher Jewish learning, our 14 overnight summer camps, the largest Jewish camp system in the world, teeming with young Jews living exuberant and committed Jewish lives.

President Elect Rivlin, yours is an awesome responsibility to represent the State of Israel to supporters and detractors alike. May the Holy One who blessed and sustained our ancestors bless you, and may you find new room in your heart for our extraordinary Movement which stands ready to partner with you to help Israel be a beacon of tolerance and light to all people.


Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Reform Rabbis Join Push To End North Carolina Same-Sex Marriage Ban

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 10:35

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis joined a lawsuit against North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages.

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N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wants Oversight of Orthodox E. Ramapo School Board

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 08:35

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants the state Department of Education to ensure oversight of a troubled school district run by an ultra-Orthodox school board.

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Eric Cantor Loses Republican Primary to Tea Party Challenger by 56%-to-44% Margin

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 21:26

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost a Republican primary to a Tea Party challenger on Tuesday in a stunning upset that gave the conservative Tea Party movement the biggest victory in its short four-year history.

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