Jerusalem Pride stabber beaten in prison over murder of teen girl


The man who is serving a life sentence for killing a 16-year-old girl at least year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade was beaten up by fellow inmates during an argument over the murder.

Yishai Schlissel, a Charedi Orthodox Jew, was hospitalized Wednesday after being assaulted by the two inmates at the Ayalon Prison.

Schlissel went on a stabbing spree at the annual march through Israel’s capital in the summer of 2015, killing Shira Banki and injuring six other marchers.

On Wednesday, Schlissel was treated for his injuries, which reportedly were light, at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center outside Tel Aviv. Police opened an investigation into the incident.

According to the initial findings, Schlissel was allowed to go into a courtyard with the two prisoners, who are serving sentences for convictions related to organized crime. An argument broke out between Schlissel and the men regarding his murder of Banki. The two prisoners punched Schlissel in the face until guards separated them.

After a stabbing attack at the 2005 Jerusalem gay pride parade, Schlissel served 10 years in prison. Weeks after being released, and days ahead of the 2015 parade, he wrote an anti-gay diatribe calling the event “shameful” and “blasphemous” and alluding to plans to carry out another attack.

After his arrest, Schlissel refused legal counsel and said he did not recognize the legitimacy of the court as it does not abide by Jewish law. At his June sentencing hearing, Schlissel broke his silence in court for the first time, explaining that his crime was motivated by “love for God.”

Charedi lawmaker in Israel compares Reform movement to mentally ill person


A Charedi Orthodox lawmaker in Israel reportedly compared the Reform movement to a mentally ill person.

[MORE: Knesset members react]

Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism party made his remarks Tuesday in the lead-up to a Knesset debate the next day on the Supreme Court’s decision that non-Orthodox converts can immerse in a public mikvah, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works,” Eichler was quoted as saying. “The High Court can’t force a hospital to allow the court’s surgeons and the court’s medicines into the operating room. And so it is intolerable that the directors of ritual baths will have to allow organizers of Reform religion-changing ceremonies into a Jewish ritual bath.”

Eichler also reportedly said the Supreme Court has “no authority to enforce Jewish law, whose source of authority is the Torah, which the High Court does not recognize as a source of its legal authority.”

He also said: “The High Court decision to force the members of the Jewish religion to carry out ritual bath rules and conversions according to the Reform religion, which does not believe in the purity of the ritual bath … is a serious infraction of freedom of religion for the members of the Jewish religion, which has clear laws. Religious freedom is promised in the Declaration of Independence to the members of all religions in the State of Israel, including the believers in the Jewish religion.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that mikvahs in Israel must open to non-Orthodox conversion rites. Previously, Israeli mikvahs have denied access for conversion immersions to Reform and Conservative converts. Israel’s mikvahs are run by Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, which operates in lock-step with the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement Wednesday called Eichler’s remarks “another example of the extreme intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. Clearly they feel a seismic shift in their decades-old monopoly on Judaism in Israel. Their stranglehold on Judaism is being loosened, and their response is desperate and pathetic.

“It is hard to imagine what twisted Torah MK Eichler studies when he characterizes the largest movement in Jewish life as ‘mentally ill.’ Our Torah teaches us the values of pluralism and of tolerance — and it teaches us not to use phrases like ‘mentally ill’ as an epithet.”

Rabbis Denise Eger and Steven Fox, president and chief executive, respectively, of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, called Eichler’s comments “disturbing and ignorant,” adding that they are “insensitive and backwards.”

“At the very moment that hundreds of Reform rabbis from North America are in Jerusalem celebrating the vibrancy of Reform Judaism in Israel and calling for tolerance, the MK’s comments are an unfortunate reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve equality for all Jews in Israel and around the world,” they said in a statement. “We condemn these comments and the worldview they represent.”

In an Op-Ed posted Wednesday on the website of the Jewish Press, an Orthodox Jewish weekly newspaper, Eichler asserted that “the prime minister, the supreme court and the secular establishment are subservient to the Reform millionaires.”

He added that Reform clergy are “investing millions in bribing Israeli public opinion shapers, something the Christian missionaries and certainly the Muslim preachers would dare to do.”

New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds


Just as Charedi Jews in the United States are likely to enroll their kids in a yeshiva, attend synagogue every week and vote Republican, so too are Modern Orthodox Jews.

But also, just as non-Orthodox Jews in the United States tend not to marry before the age of 25, earn at least a bachelor’s degree and have a significant number of non-Jewish friends, so, too, do the Modern Orthodox.

And unique among Jewish Americans, the majority of Modern Orthodox households earn at least $150,000 per year, and a large majority believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79 percent), and that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (64 percent).

In a ” target=”_blank”>groundbreaking 2013 study of U.S. Jews. The new data reveal what was already widely, yet anecdotally, known — that while Charedi Jews differ greatly from non-Orthodox Jews in virtually every demographic, political, economic and religious category (and, in fact, align more closely with Evangelical Christians by most religious, social and political measures), Modern Orthodox Jews, by contrast, straddle two worlds.

For example, in their views on Israel, American politics and religious observance, the Modern Orthodox and Charedi communities are closely aligned. But when it comes to levels of household income or education or immersion in the non-Jewish world, the Charedim are on one side, and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are on the other.

Pew’s 2013 report raised alarm among Jewish professionals in the U.S., particularly non-Orthodox ones, about the high rate of intermarriage among Conservative, Reform and nonaffiliated Jews, and about the percentage of Jews raised in Conservative and Reform households who became unaffiliated later in life. And although this report is simply looking deeper at data collected two years ago, Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research, predicted the Jewish-American community could look very different in the future if the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews of comparably high birthrates and young marriages continue.

“There’s a possibility over time that Orthodox Jews, as they grow as a share of all American Jews, we’ll have an American-Jewish community that may actually be more cohesive [close-knit] than it is today, more observant than it is today, more socially and politically conservative than it is today,” Cooperman said, adding, though, that “one man’s cohesion is another man’s insularity.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at , University, said “Anyone interested in the future of Jewish life has to pay attention to the Orthodox,” a point made in the wake of the Pew report two years ago. Sarna added that this new report highlights “where Modern Orthodox Jews are indeed more similar to American Jews generally, or to Conservative Jews, and where they are not.”

Although the information about the dividing lines between Charedi and Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is not groundbreaking, this report is revealing in that it shows how split the Modern Orthodox are between following Charedi trends versus non-Orthodox trends — not a surprise, given that Modern Orthodox Judaism emphasizes strict religious observance while remaining actively engaged with the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world.

For example, while the Modern Orthodox, like the Charedim, overwhelmingly keep kosher, observe Shabbat and believe in God, they, like non-Orthodox Jews, are highly educated and have more liberal views toward homosexuality. Further, while 75 percent of currently married Charedi Jews married before their 25th birthday, only 48 percent of married Modern Orthodox Jews can say the same, putting them closer to non-Orthodox Jews. And while 32 percent of Charedi adults are ages 18 to 29, and only 6 percent are 65 or older, only 9 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are 18 to 29, and 25 percent are 65 are older, making the Modern Orthodox more like the non-Orthodox than Charedim in terms of average age.

But although Modern Orthodox Jews differ in significant ways from non-Orthodox Jews, the real driver behind Orthodox Jewry’s competitive demographic advantage are Charedi Jews, who, Pew says, comprise 62 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population.

“When it comes to demographic things like family sizes and age of marriage, the Charedim really stand out. And, in fact, the Modern Orthodox, in terms of family sizes, don’t look that different from Conservative and Reform Jews,” Cooperman said. “The data suggests it’s really the Charedim, through natural growth, who are growing particularly fast.”

He also pointed out that it’s natural growth — not conversion or movement among denominations — that sets apart the Orthodox. For although 30 percent of Orthodox Jews weren’t raised Orthodox, 43 percent of Conservative Jews, 45 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent of nondenominational Jews moved into those religious streams later in life.

“This is not the group that has the most converts or Jews by Choice,” Cooperman said of Orthodox Jewry. “This is not the group that’s growing because people are coming from other streams of Judaism. This is the group that has the most organic, the most natural growth through large families.”

Sarna said he wishes Pew would look deeper into the Charedi community and at the impact that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has had on American Jewry. In terms of demographic growth and religious observance, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews are very similar to non-Chabad Charedim, but in terms of outreach to the non-Orthodox world and engagement with the non-Jewish world, the Chabad movement is more similar to the Modern Orthodox. “It would be interesting to get more of a sense of the spectrum,” Sarna said.

Cooperman said he’d love to be able to more deeply analyze the Charedi community, which he would further divide among Chasidic Jews and “yeshivish” Jews, but added that the difficulty of studying such a small group of the U.S. population would be very expensive and difficult. “We’re looking into subdivisions that are two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population,” Cooperman said.

The next major Pew survey of American Jewry likely won’t be for several years, Cooperman said, explaining that the cost and complexity of the survey makes doing it annually impractical. And while this report certainly indicates where American Jewry may be headed, Cooperman cautioned against conflating a glimpse at the present with a forecasted trajectory.

“A snapshot in time cannot predict the future,” he said.

If these trends do hold, though, they could indicate a monumental shift in American Jewry in terms of Modern Orthodoxy’s role within it. “Nobody will be surprised if a generation from now, instead of being 10 percent, they’re 20 percent,” Sarna said.

Assailant in Jerusalem LGBT parade stabbing deemed fit for trial


The Charedi Orthodox man charged with stabbing six participants in the Jerusalem Pride Parade has been deemed psychologically fit to stand trial.

[Community reactions to the attack]

Yishai Schlissel, who is in police custody, was found fit to stand trial after a psychiatric evaluation Friday, a day after he allegedly stabbed six, seriously injuring two, i24news reported.

Schlissel had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving 10 years for a similar attack at Jerusalem’s 2005 gay pride parade.

Schlissel waived his right to an attorney and said he did not recognize the court’s authority, because it did not adhere to biblical laws.

In addition to government officials like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, numerous Orthodox groups and leaders, including the country’s two chief rabbis, have condemned the attack.

“Judaism and bloodshed do not go together,” Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern said Friday, during a visit to the wounded, according to i24news.

Charedim demonstrate over arrest of draft-dodging Yeshiva student


About 500 Charedi Orthodox men demonstrated in Jerusalem against the arrest of a yeshiva student who ignored a call-up notice for army service. The protesters, who also took to the streets in the predominately Charedi city of Bnei Brak, blocked intersections, set fire to trash bins and threw rocks and bottles at police on April 10.

The protest came less than a month after a similar demonstration over the arrest of another yeshiva student who failed to enlist, despite being called up, and about a month after hundreds of thousands of Charedim protested in Jerusalem against a new conscription law that would require Charedi Orthodox Jews to serve in the military.

Under the law, Charedi men would be criminally charged for evading the draft, but the penalties would not go into effect until 2017. In addition, draft orders for Charedi men up to age 26 will not go into effect until up to a year after the law is implemented.

Purim story: No Yeshiva Deferments


The funhouse sideshow of Charedi life in Israel and in the New York area bursts forth every Purim, as the ultra-Orthodox transform themselves into fez-wearing Turks, medieval noblemen and so on.

We enjoy the easing of cultural barriers in the humor and evincing of a shared humanity. But this year’s twin pre-Purim Sunday anti-draft demonstrations, one blocking Jerusalem’s main entry point and the other on Wall Street, illustrated that the divide within the Jewish people is in earnest. The Purim parody is an all-Charedi affair — a group that refuses to confront the central teachings of the Purim megillah itself.

In truth, the Charedi rallies have taken up the power of prayer, whose efficacy the megillah offers to an endangered population. At Esther’s command, Jews fast and wail to fight the evil decree against them. They use their spiritual powers as their first response, one that is necessary, albeit not sufficient.

However, the public prayers of the last few weeks are themselves problematic in their self-serving focus: This is the opposite of true prayer, which at some point is also for the other. The evidence is clear from the total Charedi rejection of prayer for Israel’s soldiers, or for the police ensuring their safety, that we simply are not within their prayer circle of concern. They care less than we think.

Beyond prayer, the Purim story instructs us that, to make salvation possible, Jews must defend themselves. It has no exemptions. There are no yeshiva deferments. There are no deferments for women, for anyone. God’s very name, the God who hovers over every word in this scroll, is not present so that no one can think “The Name [HaShem, or God] will take care of things.” Or that some secular or less religious group will bear the entire burden. No beit din (religious court) forms to forbid the fight; no prayer demonstrations condemn the “real culprits” to be those assimilationists, the intermarried Esther and the goy-posturing Mordecai.

None of those easy ways out are countenanced. The Jews need to engage the enemy everywhere in those 127 satraps, even boarding ships in the middle of the night to find ancient missiles meant to annihilate us. But all Jews in this biblical story were evidently thrilled to bear the burden.

The special mirrors in the Charedi funhouse can render their own prayerful contributions as exceptionally large and that of the Israel Defense Forces as tiny. It must be entertaining for a moment to entertain such unusual and exalted visions. But when you teach that as reality, you doom a complete section of society to delusional thinking, which guarantees apathy, anger and the social ills that ignorance and poverty bestow.

The Purim megillah further teaches us a practical teleology of all things Jewish at the end of the story. We send gifts of food in order to increase social solidarity, an unknown value in Charedi society regarding anyone else. Could you imagine the impact of a Charedi women’s auxiliary sending Shabbat cakes or kugels (one of those gigantic wheels) up to soldiers on the borders, or doing something or anything for someone else? In these two anti-draft demonstrations, the only baked goods were a Purim pie in the face to anyone not wearing the official black and white.

The megillah tells us to share matanot l’aniyim (monetary gifts for the poor), not to sign up and join the class of alms recipients. That position has been the rejected one in Jewish tradition.

Today, the greatest givers of tzedakah are the population who work, pay taxes and try to keep an increasingly impossible welfare burden of Charedim on their shaky feet, just so they can point to their own self-serving “free loan societies” as something other than the confession of a pathetic self-imposed poverty. Poverty with a lack of generosity toward even fellow Jews and the capacity to follow through on any meaningful parnasah, or income from work — how can they ever be within the category of ba’alei chesed v’tzedek (doers of loving-kindness and justice) to our wider (including non-Jewish) population, a condition of positive, life-enhancing kiddush HaShem? The energy expended now is in squelching reports of their own who are recognizing what really took place — a battle between rival rabbinic factions.

Finally, we are bidden to record and to read this Purim story. Every Jewish high-school child in a non-Charedi household in Israel receiving his or her tzav giyus (draft notice), knows that they must take up the burden and defend Jews,  must create a society that has concern and active care for others. Even the most immature, callow youth has a sense of this. But the “giants” of Torah teach the opposite. And they call what they teach Torah learning. Its proper name is Purim Torah.

This article is reprinted with permission from Haaretz.


Rabbi Daniel Landes is director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He was a founding faculty member of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and of Jewish Law at Loyola Law School, and served in the renewal of B’nai David-Judea Congregation of Los Angeles. 

The challenge of defining Charedim


The Iranian nuclear issue and Palestinian peace talks may be dominating the news about Israel nowadays, but if discussions within the Jewish state focused on any social challenge this year, it was the question of how to integrate the Charedi Orthodox population into Israel’s workforce and military.

A new centrist party, Yesh Atid, won 19 Knesset seats in January promising to cut subsidies and draft exemptions for the Charedi community. As the government has pushed legislation cutting Charedi benefits, Charedi leaders have debated how to respond.

But observers assessing trends and responses among Israel’s Charedim first need to ask a crucial question: Whom do we count as Charedi?

This week, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel came out with a novel way to define the community that departs from previous measures used by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Existing studies define Charedim based on whether they attended advanced yeshivot, and whether they avoided army service or eschewed college. Families with too many college degrees or too many soldiers were placed outside the Charedi box.

This method becomes a problem when you’re trying to measure, say, a rise in Charedi college attendance or army service. The Taub Center’s methodology avoids those pitfalls by choosing metrics that set Charedim apart from other Israelis while avoiding statistics that it’s trying to track (like Charedi presence in the workforce).

Instead, the Taub Center looked at recent electoral maps and identified precincts that voted in high numbers for Charedi political parties — a traditional measure of communal loyalty. The center found that in those districts, 80 percent of families were Charedi.

But how to separate that 20 percent? Answer: TV sets. Surveys of the Charedi community have found that fewer than 10 percent of Charedim watch any television at all, and that those who do watch TV watch very little — perhaps only outside of the home. Taub’s conclusion: If you live in a Charedi-voting district but own a TV, you’re almost definitely not Charedi.

If the political and social forces pushing for Charedi integration succeed, military service, academic degrees and employment will become increasingly less relevant to the task of classifying Charedim as time goes by. But until “The Voice” becomes popular in Me’ah She’arim, the Taub Center’s methodology seems safe.

Western Wall rabbi to Charedi girls: Avoid plaza for Women of the Wall service


The Western Wall rabbi requested that Charedi Orthodox girls not fill the plaza for the next Women of the Wall service.

Aiming to reduce tension at the plaza, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz made the request on Thursday, one day before the monthly Rosh Chodesh service by the group.

Rabinowitz said in a statement that the mass gathering could spark tensions at Judaism’s holiest site and upset a fragile compromise on multidenominational prayer that has been taking shape through a committee convened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Women of the Wall comes to the Western Wall to pray at the beginning of each Jewish month. In recent months, Israel’s haredi rabbinic leadership has sent thousands of haredi women and girls to pray there during the services, filling the women’s section of the plaza and preventing Women of the Wall from entering.

According to the statement, a confrontation between the haredi girls and Women of the Wall – whom Rabinowitz called a “provocation” – could upset the “sensitive security situation at the Temple Mount, which is now at its zenith.”

“When Jews fight with each other at the Western Wall, there is no greater desecration of God’s name,” the statement read. “Therefore we should await the decision of the committee, so that we can create order that will return calm and brotherhood to the Western Wall.”

Charedi soldier attacked by haredim in Mea Shearim


A Charedi Orthodox soldier was attacked by dozens of haredi rioters in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

The soldier, a resident of central Israel who was visiting the haredi Orthodox enclave to visit relatives, hid in a nearby building where he changed into civilian clothes and called police for help, Ynet reported Tuesday.

The attack came two days after Israel’s Knesset approved a proposal to draft haredi Orthodox men into the Israeli military.

“Another IDF soldier was attacked today by dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem,” Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in a post on Facebook. “This is intolerable and we do not will suffer it.

“I call on the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox political parties condemn the violent attacks and incitement against the IDF without reservations, without offering reasons and without any justifications.”

Lapid added that violence against Israeli soldiers “is a direct threat to the State of Israel and we will treat it.”

Aryeh Deri, head of the Sephardi haredi Shas party, condemned the attack.

“I’m appalled of the deeds of extremist teens who shamelessly hurt a Jewish soldier,” he said.

Small Charedi protest, no Torah allowed at Women of the Wall service


Hundreds of protesting Charedi Orthodox youth did not prevent or significantly disturb the Women of the Wall’s monthly service at the Western Wall.

The women were not, however, able to read from a Torah scroll during the service as planned.

Sunday’s service, which – according to Women of the Wall – attracted 300 women, was conducted under heavy police protection. The women prayed in a corner of the Western Wall Plaza’s women’s section, enclosed by a barricade and surrounded by police.

A barricade and police line also divided the male Charedi protesters from the women and their supporters.

Women of the Wall gathers at the beginning of every Jewish month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh service at the Western Wall. Members have been arrested in the past for wearing prayer shawls due to a law that forbade any practice that falls outside of the wall’s “local custom.” In April, a judge determined that the group’s activities did not contravene the law. Since then, none of the women have been arrested.

The group’s service last month – the first since the court ruling – attracted thousands of protesting Charedi girls who packed the plaza. A large group of Charedi men also protested last month, some throwing coffee, water, rocks and a chair at the women.

This month, only a few hundred Charedi protesters showed up at the service. Leading Charedi rabbis had called on thousands of men to protest Women of the Wall peacefully, but much of the plaza was empty Sunday morning. Behind a heavy barricade, Charedi men chanted and held signs – and a few threw eggs – but the women’s prayer often drowned out their protests.

While the women were able to complete their service unhindered, they were not allowed to read from a Torah scroll. The group hadn’t brought a scroll to the wall for years, but planned to resume the practice following the court ruling. On Thursday, however, police informed them that a regulation forbade bringing a scroll to the women’s section.

The group plans to challenge the regulation in court.

“It was a beautiful prayer,” said Women of the Wall spokesperson Shira Pruce. She added, though, that: “We were not happy to be enclosed in fences by police. It was very painful.”

Choosing between love and obligation


“Fill the Void,” which won Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Award last year, is a love story unlike any Hollywood fare and it is set in a Jewish community unfamiliar to most Jews.

The movie is by and about a Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, enclave in the center of Tel Aviv, centuries removed in time and place from the swinging citizenry a few blocks away.

The film’s central character is Shira, at 18 the youngest daughter of the family, about to be married to a promising young man of the same age and background.

Then tragedy strikes. Shira’s 28-year-old sister, Esther, dies while giving birth to her first child, and amid the mourning, Shira’s match is put on hold.

Esther’s husband, Yochai, now a widower responsible for the newborn baby, realizes that he will have to remarry eventually and a matchmaker comes up with a prospect, a devout widow in Belgium.

When Shira’s mother learns that Yochai, and, worse, her only grandchild, may leave the country, she seeks to forestall this calamity by having Shira marry her dead sister’s husband.

While hoping that Shira will marry Yochai, her parents leave the decision up to her, and the conflicted girl must finally make her own choice.

“Fill the Void” is the first feature film for both director-writer-producer Rama Burshtein, and for Hadas Yaron, who portrays the young Shira. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Yaron and Burshtein sat down for separate interviews with the Journal.

Yaron is 23 and had no problem playing an 18-year-old girl, but she faced another difficulty. Coming from a secular family — no actual Charedi girl would act in the movie — Yaron had to get the feel of living in a closed Chasidic environment.

But once she put on the modest clothing demanded for the role, she said, “I felt very holy and harmonious.”

With only one previous role in a minor film on her resume, Yaron got into her part so convincingly that she won Israel’s best actress award last year and did likewise at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2012.

Asked how the role affected her, Yaron responded, “I learned that you can’t judge people by how they look or how they are dressed.”

Director Burshtein had the advantage of having lived in both the secular and ultra-Orthodox worlds. Born to an Israeli father and an American mother, she moved from New York to Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, shortly after her birth.

She returned to New York at 17 and remembered, “I was totally secular and pretty wild … but at the same time, I was always a seeker.”

Once she was introduced to the Charedi community through a friend, “It was an instant conversion … it was like coming home,” she said.

As Burshtein believes, and illustrates in “Fill the Void,” it is a common misconception that in the Chasidic community parents pick husbands for their daughters, regardless of the girl’s wishes. Actually, she argues, while parents may arrange the options for marriage partners, the final decision is up to the daughter.

In any case, she maintains that whatever the differences in outlook among denominations, “being Jewish is all about feelings.”

Given that love and passion are common to all humans, what may be more pronounced among the Charedim is “the power of commitment.” By that, she means the determination to “do the work” needed to make the marriage successful and permanent.

The best time for a girl to embark on such a commitment is when she is around 17, Burshtein counseled.

In her own life, Burshtein, 46, practices what she preaches. She and her husband, a psychotherapist, have three sons and one daughter between the ages of 16 and 11, having had the four kids in the span of five years.

While planning the outline of “Fill the Void,” Burshtein was determined not to get into the religious-secular conflict in Israel, and she cited her reason in a director’s statement accompanying the film.

“I set out on this journey out of a deep sense of pain,” she wrote. “I felt that the ultra-Orthodox community has no voice in the cultural dialogue. You might even say we are mute. … Our political voice is loud — even boisterous — but our artistic and cultural voice remains muffled and faint. I’m not good at agendas and politics … I am good at telling about those things I’m passionate about [and] they are all tied to the ultra-Orthodox world of observance.”

Burshtein has started writing the script for her next project, which will probably be set in New York. She wouldn’t reveal more but pledged that the movie would “always be about my world.”

“Fill the Void” opens at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles on May 24, and at the Playhouse in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino on May 31. 

Mezuzahs set ablaze in haredi Orthodox Brooklyn section


Eleven mezuzahs were set afire in a residential building in Brooklyn in an incident that New York City police are treating as a hate crime.

The vandalism occurred Monday afternoon — the day Israel observed Holocaust Remembrace Day — in public housing located in the predominantly haredi Orthodox section of Williamsburg.

No suspects have been apprehended in the crime.

“The Hate Crimes Task Force has been assigned to it and is treating it as a bias crime,” Paul Browne, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman, told The New York Times. “The fact that they are all religious artifacts, we’re treating it as an anti-Semitic crime.”

Netanyahu threatens to turn to Charedi Orthodox parties for coalition


The Likud party, citing what it called “excessive demands” from Yesh Atid, threatened to launch government coalition negotiations with the Charedi Orthodox parties.

The impasse with the Yesh Atid party prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from introducing his new government on Wednesday, as he had planned.

With Netanyahu having four days left to form a government, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid reportedly has backtracked on agreements that he reached with the Likud leader throughout more than a month of coalition talks.

Jewish Home party Chairman Naftali Bennett, who has pledged to enter the government with Lapid or remain in the opposition, reportedly spent Tuesday night and early Wednesday trying to smooth things over between Bennett and Lapid.

The standoff reportedly centers on Lapid's demand that his party get the Education Ministry in addition to the Interior Ministry.

Among the coalition agreements already reached are significantly reducing the size of the Cabinet, raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 4 percent, drastic budget cuts and a haredi draft law.

If Netanyahu fails to form a government by Saturday night, Israeli President Shimon Peres can assign another politician to the task or the country could hold new elections.

London Orthodox, non-Jews face off over planning laws


Non-Jewish residents of the heavily haredi Orthodox-populated London neighborhood of Hackney have launched a campaign to prevent Orthodox Jews from changing city planning regulations.

A group named Hackney Planning Watch recently produced a flyer warning: “Your neighborhood is in danger! Want your neighbor to extend their home to cover the whole of their back garden? Want to wake up and find a school has moved in next door?”

The flyer is part of the group’s fight against the bid of a largely haredi Orthodox rival group named Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum to receive control over planning in the neighborhood, which is home to a rapidly-growing community of 20,000 Orthodox Jews and to non-Jews as well, according to the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

The two groups, Hackney Planning Watch and Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum, are vying for control over planning regulations as part of the government's “big society” policy of handing planning control to local communities.

The Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum – which is led by haredim and some non-Jews – seeks to approve major extensions to lofts and to build over gardens to house a rapidly growing population.

But the Hackney Planning Watch, which reportedly is led by secular academics and trades unionists, is seeking to block such changes. Jane Holgate, a leader of Hackney Planning Watch, said she has been accused of anti-Semitism for her opposition to the plans; a claim she rejects.

A Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum leaflet accused Hackney Planning Watch of double standards, showing a loft extension built in the street where some of its leaders live. It asked: “Is it one rule for themselves and one rule for the ethnic communities?”

Any planning forum must be approved by the local council of Hackney.

Charedi media personalities call for settlement boycott


Israeli Charedi Orthodox media personalities are calling for a boycott of West Bank settlement products in response to the Jewish Home party's position on drafting yeshiva students.

The leader of Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, is a staunch advocate of West Bank settlements and is also fighting to end the draft exemption for Charedi Israelis. Though Israel's Supreme Court outlawed the exemption last year, in practice Charedi Israelis still are not being drafted into the army.

Radio commentators on the Charedi Kol Baramah radio station said it was time for the Charedi community to liberate itself from the settler movement, with which it has a “fake” relationship.

“We need to think twice about supporting those who hate us. It’s about time we stop being suckers,” commentator Avi Bloom said, according to the Times of Israel. “When Bennett cries about mothers not being able to sleep at night, you can come and ask him by what right does he not allow Tel Aviv mothers, and now ultra-Orthodox mothers as well, to sleep at night because of the need to protect some random outpost.”

Kol Baramah commentator Yaakov Rivlin echoed the sentiment. “It’s time to end all these relations with the real estate dealers in the West Bank territories,” he said.

A senior columnist for the Hamodia newspaper, Yisrael Hershkowitz, wrote, “The settlements will pay the price for the costly arrogance” of Bennett.

Hershkowitz said companies located in Jewish settlements in the West Bank or companies owned by settlers could go out of business if boycotted by Charedim.

With time running out to form a government, Netanyahu facing tough choices


When he emerged bruised but unbeaten following the Jan. 22 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced some tough choices.

Should he aim for a narrow, right-wing governing coalition comprised of haredi Orthodox, nationalist and religious Zionist parties that would give him a narrow majority of 61 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset?

Or should he tack to the center, building a broader coalition comprised of some parties to the left of his Likud-Beiteinu faction and some to his right? Throw in a couple of small parties and Netanyahu could have a solid majority of 70 seats.

But things quickly got messy.

Beset by a mix of personal feuds and policy differences, the prime minister has had trouble forming a government, and on Saturday evening he had to ask Israeli President Shimon Peres for an extension on the deadline to assemble his coalition.

If Netanyahu can’t figure out the puzzle soon, someone else may get a shot at coalition building — or Israel quickly could return to the polls.

For now, chances remain slim that Netanyahu, a political survivor, will blow his chance at another term as prime minister.

The 70-seat option – a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid (19 seats), the religious Zionist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett (12 seats), the center-left Hatnua party led by Tzipi Livni (six seats) and the tiny Kadima party (two seats) – might still happen.

The price, however, is a government committed to including haredi Jews in Israel’s mandatory draft, a burning political issue in Israel and the condition of entry into the coalition set by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home.

For Netanyahu, the problem is that would leave his traditional coalition partners, the haredi parties, in the cold. For the last four years, the haredi parties have kept his government stable and yielded to him on security issues.

Since the January elections, coalition negotiations have played out like a soap opera. Israeli newspapers reported that Netanyahu didn’t much like Jewish Home’s Bennett, who used to be his chief of staff until the two parted on bad terms.

Then, days after the vote, Lapid, a political neophyte whose new Yesh Atid party emerged to become the second-largest party in parliament in its first election contest, told Channel 2 TV, “I assume I'll be prime minister after the next election.”

Netanyahu shot back by aiming for a broader coalition with the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that would shut out Bennett and dilute the influence of Lapid, who had made clear before the election that he expected to join Netanyahu’s coalition. But newly emboldened, Lapid and Bennett entered into an alliance, forging an agreement on drafting haredim and declaring that they would either both join the coalition or both stay out. Together, their 31 seats equal those of Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu faction.

When Netanyahu countered with a more lenient haredi draft proposal of his own, they stood their ground. On Feb. 20, Bennett said, “It would be no tragedy if we sit in the opposition.” Lapid echoed the sentiment last weekend in a Facebook post.

“That’s how it is in democracy,” Lapid wrote. “Nobody likes to lose, but everyone accepts the basic principle that sometimes you’re in the coalition and sometimes in the opposition.”

So Netanyahu turned back to the haredim. But even with Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven seats), Netanyahu still needs more partners to pass the 60-seat threshold. So far, Netanyahu has signed only one coalition partner — Livni's Hatnua – and she’s a pretty strange bedfellow. Livni based her campaign on vehement criticism, from the left, of Netanyahu’s peace negotiation policies. Now she’s in charge of the Netanyahu government’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Even with Livni and the haredi parties, Netanyahu still has just 55 seats — six short of the majority he needs to govern.

With the exception of the Arab parties and the staunchly left-wing Meretz party, Netanyahu has been open to all comers. He even has tried to woo Likud’s traditional rival, Labor. But the center-left Labor (15 seats) led by Shelly Yachimovich, who is committed to liberal economic policies, appears determined to lead the opposition. Yachimovich has refused all of Netanyahu’s offers.

On Saturday night, the prime minister blamed “those who have ganged up on me” for the failed negotiations. And at his Cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said that as Israel’s enemies “are coming together and uniting their efforts, we must come together and unite our forces in order to repel these dangers. I regret that this is not happening.”

Time is running out. Racing against a final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu may have to accede to a government without haredi parties and the leeway they have given him. So long as Netanyahu has not threatened haredi priorities — social welfare, funding for yeshivas and draft exemptions – they have given Netanyahu a free hand to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, the Palestinians and the world as he saw fit.

Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, by contrast, have positions on everything from peace negotiations to housing policy and the haredi draft that differ from Netanyahu’s. If he goes with them, it looks to be a rough ride.

The hawkish Bennett already has expressed strong opposition to the Hatnua coalition deal, and the parties still must haggle over who gets what ministerial position. Lapid reportedly is holding out for foreign minister, a post formerly held by Netanyahu’s No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, until Liberman was indicted on corruption charges and resigned last year. Now Liberman is asking Netanyahu to reserve the post for him should he be acquitted.

“I intend to form a strong and stable government in the days ahead,” Netanyahu said this week in a speech delivered via video to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

How he’ll get there remains far from clear.

Frum women find a place


When “Rivky,” a Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, woman with “a very large family” — she declined to say how large, fearful of tempting fate — opened a woman’s clothing shop in the basement of her Jerusalem home 40 years ago, advertising her business was easy.

“There was only one newspaper serving the ‘frum oylom,’ ” she recalled, referring to the “religious world” in Yiddish-accented English.

Today, the grandmother said, the Charedi community “is fragmented.”

“There are four daily papers and 15 100-page circulars published every week, and you get the feeling you have to advertise everywhere. You’re spending all your money on advertising even before you’ve earned anything.”

Eager to discuss the situation with others, Rivky, who like many Charedi women declined to share her real name or be photographed for reasons of religious modesty, decided to attend the third annual Kishor Conference for religious businesswomen.  

From the modest way the participants dressed, the strollers several pushed, and the types of seminars being offered, it was clear this was no ordinary business conference. 

Although the 400 attendees, who ranged from Modern Orthodox to Charedi, were treated to the kinds of networking and entrepreneurial pep talks any business conference would offer, the summer event also featured remarks — and some warnings — by a prominent rabbi and a workshop titled “Eshet Chayil [A Woman of Valor] — Not Superwoman, Keeping Our Priorities Straight.”

There was also a seminar on Internet marketing, despite the admonitions of some Charedi rabbis to stay offline.  

The conference’s theme, “Homemaker, Business Builder,” reflected the attendees’ feelings of responsibility to their families, and the belief that, with the proper training and guidance, the same skills they use to smoothly run a home with six to 15 children can be used in the business world.       

The gathering was an outgrowth of the Kishor Women’s Professional Network, which was established in 2008 (under a different name) to provide a monthly forum for meeting, educating and supporting religious businesswomen or those aspiring to be one.

The conference took place at a time when a few thousand Charedim, both male and female, are pursuing advanced degrees or intensive job training, many in programs tailored to them.

Thanks to the secular subjects they study in school, Charedi young women are more prepared for a career than their male counterparts, who study only religious subjects in the higher grades.  

While Charedi women have always held jobs as teachers or worked in shops, the need to be the breadwinner while their husbands learn in kollel (Hebrew for “house of study”), the reduction in government child allowances and greater contact with mainstream society, is motivating them to reach further.

Many Charedi rabbis do not object to the community’s women establishing their own businesses if it enables their husbands to learn full time, and as long as the women work according to the precepts of Jewish law.

The rabbis understand that their insular lifestyle is under threat as a growing number of Israelis demand that Charedim, who have the most children and lowest workplace participation, earn a living and serve in the army. 

Founded by Sarah Lipman, a Charedi high-tech entrepreneur, the Kishor network was a way to provide Charedi women with the tools and support non-Charedi businesspeople usually take for granted — in a religious framework.  

Lipman noted that advertisements for mainstream business events are posted in media that are not seen by the Charedi community and that networking events are mixed (men and women) and therefore uncomfortable socially. She said that business programs and events are costly or held at hours that children are home from school.

As in previous years, the conference was sponsored by Temech, an organization that promotes religious women’s participation in the workforce. Signaling greater society’s determination to help Charedi families escape the cycle of poverty, it was co-sponsored by Bituach Leumi (Israel’s National Insurance Institute), the Jerusalem Development Authority and the MATI Jerusalem Business Development, with assistance from private companies.

The conference is especially important, some of the participants said, because women aren’t welcome at the annual Management Forum, the premier, all-male Charedi economic conference in Israel.

Among the Kishor participants were store owners, accountants, architects, high-tech entrepreneurs, a doula, graphic designers, a massage therapist and the manufacturer of a line of modest swimwear.

Exactly how many Charedi women run businesses in Israel isn’t clear, presumably because the community is so insular and also because many enterprises are run off the books.

“This hidden economy makes it difficult for the government and NGOs [nongovernment organizations] to reach this population and accelerate their economic growth with the kinds of educational and capital support extended in general,” Lipman said. 

Temech director Shaindy Babad noted that her organization, which is funded by American philanthropists, offers basic computer training courses in cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Microsoft; another program, facilitated by Temech and Bituach Leumi, offers workplace readiness and one-on-one mentoring.   

“One of our goals is to reduce social gaps through work integration of at-risk populations,” Brenda Morginstin, a Bituach Leumi official, said of the Charedi population, which, along with the Arab sector, has the lowest workplace participation in Israel.

“We want them to reach their potential, despite their shortage of work skills, large families and family attitudes,” Morginstin said.  

The successful Charedi mentors who spoke during the conference’s final event shared their experiences and know-how with a roomful of eager participants.

“If I’m sitting here, anyone can,” said Elisheva Kligsberg, who related how she came up with the idea to open a school to train event planners during the year-and-a-half she was bedridden following a car accident.

Devorah Zaks, whose company employs 20 other Charedi women, said that when her children were small, “I worked mornings and nights” in order to be with the kids when they arrived home from school. When teenagers arrived home just before dinnertime, she shifted her schedule accordingly.

“Having the flexibility to make your own hours is one of the reasons to go into business,” Babad said. 

Another reason, participants said, is the fact that many non-Charedi employers won’t hire religious women, believing they will go on paid maternity leave every other year. Still another reason: plain prejudice against Charedi Jews.  

Chana Malka Landau, a clothing designer with shops in virtually every Charedi neighborhood, described how an acrimonious relationship with her main distributor led to her decision to open her own stores. 

While the speakers talked business fundamentals, they also emphasized their community’s values.

“It’s important that the time you spend on your businesses won’t hurt your husband’s or sons’ studies,” Landau told the audience.     

“Never forget why you are working: to help your husband do his work, whether he is learning or working,” Landau agreed.

While advice like this may sound old-fashioned to nonreligious women, “It’s what I needed to hear,” said one participant.

Another participant, Marci Rapp, the creator of MarSea Modest Swimwear, said she was attending the conference “for networking and reinforcement.”

“I want to expand my business, which is, thank God, growing, and this is a good start,” Rapp said.

As Charedi draft begins, no problems


The controversy had sparked a national debate, raucous protests in the streets and the collapse of a historic government. That came in the months after the Israeli Supreme Court had nullified a law exempting Charedi Orthodox Israelis from military service and giving the government until Aug. 1 to draft a replacement law. 

More than one week after the law’s implementation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting Charedi men through the draft process, according to a military source with knowledge of the issue. 

The IDF had no official comment on the new process.

In previous weeks, thousands of Charedim had gathered in the streets, holding protest signs declaring that they would rather spend their lives in prison than serve in the “Zionist army.” Another protest in Tel Aviv declared that secular Israelis, who had always served, would no longer be “suckers.”

But political stalemate won out. No law was passed, and a broad government coalition created to solve this issue broke up.

The day before the Aug. 1 deadline, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent out a news release stating that the IDF had one month to formulate guidelines on Charedi military service that would accord with the Military Service Law of 1986, which subjects Charedim to the same service requirements as all other Jewish Israelis. Charedim have been subject to the law since Aug. 1, and will remain so until the Knesset passes a new law on Charedi service. 

Under the 1986 law, 18-year-old Charedi boys — until now exempt from the military draft while studying in a yeshiva — are eligible for the draft; their summons may come even before their 18th birthday. The penalty for refusing the summons: three years in prison.

The law includes a clause on religious exemptions from military service for women who observe Shabbat and keep kosher, but they do not apply to men. Men up to the age of 26 may be drafted, Charedi or not.

Now Charedi men born in 1994 and 1995 are or soon will be undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee. The first language of many Charedim is Yiddish, not Hebrew, and their schools do not focus on math or general studies.

The military source could not give any details on the formulation of guidelines for Charedi enlistment, but said the month-long period was granted in part to allow the army time to prepare for absorbing thousands of Charedi soldiers.

According to Haaretz, there are 54,000 Charedi men of enlistment age who have not served in the IDF.

But even as the protests have died down, observers on both sides of the issue do not expect the controversy to be solved or a new law to be passed anytime soon.

“Right now there’s not a general feeling that something major is going to happen because of the political consternation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, a columnist for Mishpacha magazine, a major Charedi publication.

Rosenblum, of Jerusalem, said that when the coalition broke up, “the sense of panic diminished considerably” in the Charedi world.

Although the Military Service Law is in effect, Rosenblum was not worried that any of his seven sons, including a 17-year-old, would be putting on a uniform. Would the IDF be “subjecting them to military trial and imprisonment? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think the government has a plan. There was nobody who was talking about putting people in jail.”

During government negotiations on a new law on the matter last month, the major proposals suggested fines for draft dodging, while others eschewed the idea of personal penalties.

A leading official in Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism and equality, also does not expect new legislation — and a Charedi draft with teeth — to move forward soon, despite his best hopes.

“The government won’t draft one yeshiva student,” said Shahar Ilan, Hiddush’s vice president. “The government isn’t doing anything. “This is a huge violation of the law.”

Ilan said that though most of the Knesset wants to see a new law enacted, no one is willing take the necessary political risks.

“Netanyahu does not want to hurt the Charedi parties” in his coalition, Ilan said. “There’s a majority for a mandatory draft but it’s theoretical because the parties that support a mandatory draft are not ready to break up the government for it.”

Rosenblum said that even were such a law to pass, the IDF would not have the resources or will to absorb so many Charedi youth, whose strict observance of Jewish law puts them in special circumstances.

“There’s no way in the world that the vast majority of Charedi boys are going to go into mixed units,” he said. “There’s no way in the world that the army is going to put in place Charedi-accommodating units within 30 days.”

Cartoon depicts haredi Orthodox Jews praying to Wall Street


A cartoon depicting three stereotypically haredi Orthodox Jews praying in front of the Western Wall, which is labeled Wall Street, won an Iranian cartoon contest.

The cartoon won the first International Wall Street Downfall Cartoon Festival, which was co-sponsored by the semi-official Iranian FARS news service. The cartoons, which were submitted by Arabs in countries around the world, can be viewed on the FARS website.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement called the winning cartoon “offensive.”

“Once again, Iran takes the prize for promoting anti-Semitism,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.  “The winning cartoon takes the most sacred site in Judaism and perverts it into a shrine of greed.”

Iran held a Holocaust cartoon contest in 2006. The first prize illustration depicted Israel’s security fence as Auschwitz, according to Radio Free Europe.

Dear Matisyahu


Dear Matisyahu,

Tonight you performed at the WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, 70 miles from my Dallas home. The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion, it is right around the corner. I did not attend your concert. I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again. You have disappointed me greatly. I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in. But you have let me down. All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message that resonates with America — a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing toward secularism — and helps right it. How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base. When your song “One Day” was chosen to be the theme melody of the 2010 Winter Olympics on NBC, my heart fluttered with pride.

Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism — Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study — is numero uno and everything else is numero dos. It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose. It would have to be someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing.  With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.

When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained, I took pause, but your reassuring tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa — you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint — made me realized that you are no longer singing Z’miros in reggae. You are singing a different song. 

I drive by the Windstar World Casino often. It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights. The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking. It is not the place to offer even the most watered-down Jewish values.

Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before. A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message. What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.” 

“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop culture.

I grew up in New York, where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture. Twelve years ago, my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas, where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business. It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered, and Jews are respected. 

Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our patriarch Avraham did. The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak? You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak.

But now I am discouraged. You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.” Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence. You have become connected to the hedonism that abhors rules and undermines values. And it says that I will, too, if I go it alone as you did. 

Sometimes I lie under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness and that discipline is the precursor of kiddush ha-Shem — sanctification of the Name.

I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it. I still believe that if we speak, the world will listen. But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community. And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of kiddush ha-Shem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand and appreciate.


The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC, and as a rabbi at NCSY — Dallas.

Matisyahu: You disappointed me


Dear Matisyahu,

Tonight you performed at the Windstar World Casino in Oklahoma, seventy miles from my Dallas home.  The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion it is right around the corner.  I did not attend your concert.  I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again.  You have disappointed me greatly.  I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in.  But you have let me down.  All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message which resonates with America, a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing towards secularism, and helps right it.  How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base.  When your song One Day was chosen to be the theme melody of the NBC 2010 Winter Olympics my heart fluttered with pride.

Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism – Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study – is numero uno and everything else is numero dos.  It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose.  It would have to someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing.  With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and   refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.

When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained I took pause, but your reassuring Tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently Tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa – you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint – made me realized that you are no longer singing z’miros in Reggae. You are singing a different song.

I drive by the Windstar World Casino often.  It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the Heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights.  The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking.  It is not the place to offer even the most watered down Jewish values. 

Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before.  A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message.  What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.”

“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop-culture.

I grew up in New York where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture.  12 years ago my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business.  It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered and Jews are respected.

Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our Patriarch Avraham did.  The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak?  You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak. 

But now I am discouraged.  You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.”  Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence.  You have become connected to the hedonism which abhors rules and undermines values.  And it says that I will too, if I go it alone as you did.

Sometimes I lay under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness, and that discipline is the precursor of Kiddush Hashem.

I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it.  I still believe that if we speak the world will listen.  But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community.  And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of Kiddush Hashem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand, and appreciate.

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of AD Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC and a rabbi at NCSY – Dallas

Haredim fill N.Y. baseball stadium to decry error of Internet’s ways


The sellout crowd that filled Citi Field on Sunday night wore black and white, not the New York Mets’ blue and orange.

And instead of jeering the Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves, they faced a foe that was, to hear them talk about it, far more formidable: the World Wide Web.

“The Internet even with a filter is a minefield of immorality,” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, a haredi Orthodox lecturer. “This issue is the test of the generation. Your strength at this gathering will determine what Judaism will look like a few years from now.”

The rally to caution haredi Orthodox Jews about the dangers of the Internet drew a crowd of more than 40,000 men to the stadium, most of them wearing black hats. The group organizing the rally, Ichud HaKehillos LeTohar HaMachane, or Union of Communities for Purity of the Camp, barred women from attending—consummate with the haredi practice of separating the sexes.

In Yiddish and English speeches, rabbis from haredi communities in the United States, Canada and Israel decried the access that the Internet gives haredim to the world outside their community. Speakers called the Internet “impure,” a threat to modesty and compared it to chametz, or leavened bread, on Passover.

Almost no rabbi directly addressed pornography, which is prohibited by traditional Jewish law. Several speakers also lamented the Internet’s potential to distract men from learning Torah.

To a man, each of the rabbis who spoke said that Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. The speeches in Yiddish were broadcast with English subtitles on the stadium’s JumboTron.

Rabbi Yechiel Meir Katz, known as the Dzibo rav, compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the European Enlightenment posed in the past to traditional Jewish life.

“A terrible test has been sent to us that has inflicted so much terrible damage” on haredim, Katz said. The Internet poses a greater threat to haredim than secularism did, he said, because “in previous challenges we knew who the enemy was. Today, however, the challenge is disguised and not discernible to the naked eye.”

The crowd ranged in age from small children to senior citizens. One participant, Yitzchak Weinberger, said that although the speakers focused on the Internet problem rather than solutions, the event was “inspiring.”

“This is a beginning,” said Weinberger, 43. “They’re coming to raise awareness. Every situation is different, everyone requires some filter.”

While haredim must limit their internet access, “many people do need to use it,” he added.

Before the rally began, about 50 people protested the event across the street from the stadium. Later, the counter-demonstration reportedly grew to some 300 people. Many of the protesters came from Footsteps, a local organization that helps those who leave haredi Orthodox life integrate into non-haredi society. In particular, they complained that Ichud HaKehillos invested money in the rally rather than in preventing child molestation in the haredi community.

“Their priorities are messed up,” said Ari Mandel, a former haredi. “Not only do they ignore child molestation, but they intimidate victims. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry about leaking pipes.”

The rally came after a series of reports in The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times about haredi intimidation of victims of sexual abuse who have gone to the police to report their haredi tormentors.

Haredi Orthodox burn Israeli flag in Antwerp


Dozens of haredi Orthodox schoolchildren participated in a Lag b’Omer bonfire in Antwerp that featured the burning of an Israeli flag.

An eyewitness who photographed the event on May 10 said the boys attended a cheder of the Satmar community—an anti-Zionist Chasidic stream of approximately 150,000 adherents worldwide.

The picture, taken in an interior courtyard, shows a middle-aged man burning a handmade Israeli flag as some 30 boys watch.

“This is one of the first times we have seen this sort of thing in recent years,” Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Belgium’s leading Jewish publication, Joods Actueel, told JTA.

According to Freilich, the flag-burning ceremony provoked “a lot of anger” within Antwerp’s haredi Orthodox community. Followers of the Chasidic schools of Lubavitch and Belz spoke out against the burning, Freilich said, but the Satmar leadership in Antwerp remains unrepentant.

The last organized instance of flag burning by Belgian Jews was in the 1980s during a few demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy.

The Satmar movement opposes Zionism because it believes the establishment of a Jewish state should only come after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.

“Regardless of the complexities of attitudes to Israel in the ultra-Orthodox world,” Freilich said, “many feel that the political act of burning a flag is wholly inappropriate during a Jewish holiday like Lag b’Omer, which is meant to unite, not divide.”

Rabbi Funnye battles to open the gates of Judaism [VIDEO]


Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. is a kippah-wearing black rabbi who leads a multiethnic congregation in Chicago.

But if you happen to run into him, don’t let your curiosity come across the wrong way.

Speaking last week in Los Angeles to an interdenominational group of rabbis who perform conversions, Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) described one of many unsettling encounters he’s had in his 30-plus years as a Jew.

While visiting Florida about 10 years ago, Funnye attended morning prayers, donning his prayer shawl and tefillin. At the end of prayers, a man approached him.

“Are you Jewish?”

Funnye, with good-natured sarcasm, responded:

“Jewish? Nooooo. I was just walking by, and I saw this stuff just sitting there outside, and I wanted to see how it worked.”

Funnye, 56, has dedicated his life to chiseling away at the conventional, but increasingly inaccurate, conception of who is a Jew. Whether by reaching out to Chicago’s rabbis to allow him to serve on the board of rabbis or traveling to Nigeria to help the Ibo tribes explore their Jewish reawakening, Funnye is laying the groundwork for a time when the wider Jewish community can without questioning accommodate Jews of all ethnicities.

“I have to have one pair of glasses for all Jews and not see that because Jews are of a different ethnicity, that makes a difference in my approach to them,” Funnye said. “I am working for the day that Jews are simply Jews.”

That message resonated with the 35 rabbis gathered at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino for a daylong seminar of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, sponsored jointly with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The Sandra Caplan Bet Din is a cooperative effort by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis to make the conversion process unified, warm and spiritually and psychologically meaningful.

Since it opened in 2002, the bet din has converted 122 people.

Funnye embodies in one person’s journey all that these rabbis are working toward and struggling with: the need to break down false barriers in how “Jew” is defined; the challenge to wholeheartedly integrate those who convert; and the questions of self-definition that inevitably come up for born Jews, who are so often less knowledgeable and spiritually committed than apparent “foreigners” who choose to be Jewish.

“How we relate to the Jew-by-choice, the unchurched, the seekers, tells me more about myself than anything else,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, who followed Funnye’s keynote with a response. “When I look into the eyes of a Jew-by-choice, I see myself reflected.”

In the past several decades, the topic of conversion has pitted liberal rabbis against their Orthodox counterparts, who don’t recognize non-Orthodox conversions as legitimate. The issue is especially heated in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate holds legal status in civil affairs, such as marriage, divorce and burial.


Chicago TV profiled Funnye’s congregation

But the rabbis at the seminar also expressed frustration at their own liberal members who refer to peers as “converts,” even years after they’ve become Jewish.

Funnye himself converted three times. The first two times were with communities of black Jews — also called Israelites or Black Hebrews.

Funnye’s spiritual search began when his African Methodist Episcopalian minister advised him to think about going into the service of God. Christian tenets — and especially the demands on its leaders — didn’t sit well with him. He explored Islam and evangelical Christianity while a student at Howard University, then a few years later, while working at Arthur Anderson consulting, he ran into a group of African Americans who wore kippahs. He began studying with them and attending their Chicago synagogue and converted to Judaism with that congregation in 1972, immersing in a pool.

It was a few years later that he attended a synagogue in Harlem, where he saw a fuller expression of Judaism and ritual, and the leader there encouraged him to become a religious leader for black Jews. In 1979 he re-immersed in a lake, since conversion requires immersion in a natural body of water or a mikvah, ritual bath. In 1985, after studying for four years, he was ordained by the New York-based Israelite Board of Rabbis. During that time, he also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies in Chicago.

And it was that year that he also decided he wanted a full, halachic conversion, one that would meet most mainstream Jewish legal standards. He put together a bet din of two Orthodox rabbis and two Conservative rabbis, including his mentor, Rabbi Morris Fishman. Funnye, his wife, Mary, and their four children — who were already in Conservative day school at the time — immersed in a mikvah.

Throughout his journey in the Jewish community, Funnye has recognized the need to make his community part of the fabric of the larger Jewish community.

Funnye is the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which serves a multiethnic population. Founded in 1918 and now with 220 members, the synagogue moved from Chicago’s South Side to Marquette Park six years ago. Marquette Park is infamous as a center of activity for the American Nazi Party and site of a Martin Luther King Jr. march that ended after just a few blocks because bricks and bottles were being thrown.

Funnye has been at Beth Shalom since 1984, when he started as assistant rabbi. In 1991, he succeeded Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben, who had led the congregation from 1947. While respecting Reuben’s traditions and teachings, Funnye sought to give Judaism fuller expression in the services and rituals and to make the conversion process more oriented toward halachah, Jewish law.

At Funnye’s congregation, Shabbat is an all-day event. Congregants come Friday night and then return Saturday for morning prayers, mostly in Hebrew, a reading of the entire Torah portion and an interactive sermon. A gospel-style choir brings congregants to their feet, and after a Kiddush lunch, about 70 percent of attendees stay for afternoon services and informal Torah study, followed by Havdalah.

Most of his congregants keep kosher, avoiding shellfish and pork, and buying kosher meat. Most of his members can’t afford the high tuition of the day school but attend the congregation’s Hebrew school.

Two of Funnye’s sisters have also converted to Judaism, and his late mother regularly made sure her minister invited her son-the-rabbi to speak at church. Even his in-laws, religious evangelicals, are open to what they see as a way to draw closer to God. His two married children have both married Jews-by-choice. He and his wife have one granddaughter and six grandsons.

“I’ve told my children, ‘If you don’t marry someone who is Jewish, it is my prayer that they become Jewish. It doesn’t matter to me what they look like. What matters to me is that they are Jewish, and their children are going to be Jewish, and that you instill in them and imbue in them the principals and values I have tried to instill and imbue in you,'” Funnye said, adding, “baruch Hashem (thank God) they’ve been listening to their old man.”

He has many congregants who, like his family, have three generations or more at Beth Shalom. He also sees many spiritual seekers, among them white Jews. He is in the process of converting an extended Mexican family of anusim, Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity 500 years ago. The family was attracted to the synagogue because the worship space hidden in their family’s Mexico City basement was also called Beth Shalom.

He teaches many seeking conversion and brings them before a bet din of Conservative rabbis — one of the changes he made in an effort to up the quality of Jewish observance in his congregation. Potential converts must study for at least a year and attend services regularly.

“I often like to tell new people that when you start studying Judaism, every time you get a new book, every time you learn something new, it should feel like dipping a spoon into a bucket of fresh well water. If you ever had well water, it stimulates the whole being — this is what Judaism does when we learn. It stimulates the being,” Funnye said. “It’s never stopped doing that for me. The more I learn, the richer it tastes; the better it tastes.”

Angeleno pushes effort on recognizing conversions


When Lorin Fife converted to Judaism some 30 years ago, his experience with the Orthodox rabbis who presided over his year of study and conversion ceremony was one of warmth and acceptance.

Rabbi Shmuel Katz, who spent decades as the head of Los Angeles’ Orthodox bet din (rabbinic judicial panel), completed the ritual with a simple message. “Basically, my charge was to be the best Jew I could be,” Fife said.

Fife has done that.

The retired general counsel to SunAmerica, Fife currently chairs the Israel-Tel Aviv Partnership for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and co-chairs The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Pillar.

He and his wife, Linda, who serves as co-chair of LimmudLA, lived in Israel for three years, and the elder of their two sons, Yoni, 29, was born there. Yoni went back to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces at the height of the Second Intifada.

And it was Fife who last week proposed that the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), where he sits on the board of governors, pass a resolution urging the Israeli government to bring the conversion process back to one that is as accepting and moderate as his own.

Representing The Los Angeles Federation at the JAFI meeting, Fife was moved to action by a recent escalation in Israel’s ongoing conversion crisis. The implications are societal, as well as personal, for Fife, a past president of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

Last May, Israeli rabbis retroactively annulled an Orthodox conversion where the convert did not observe all the mitzvot according to Orthodox interpretation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis have since annulled all conversions by Israel’s National Conversion Court — led by moderate Orthodox rabbis — going back to 1999, affecting thousands of people.

The move was condemned by moderate Orthodox rabbis and most of the Jewish world, warning it could wreak havoc on families who had been living under the assumption that they were Jewish, especially thousands of Russian immigrants.

Fife sought to channel the resulting outrage into a call for those who believe in a more expansive gate to Jewish peoplehood to speak up against religious coercion.

“It has become apparent that secular Israelis basically have no connection to Judaism at all, and it’s become more and more apparent to the great mass of Israelis that it is important to be able to recognize the pluralistic approach that exists in the Diaspora,” Fife said in a phone interview after the meeting in Jerusalem.

He put forward a motion at JAFI’s annual assembly calling on the Israeli government to recognize conversions from any stream of Judaism and to establish a conversion authority separate from the chief rabbinate.

While his motion received a near-unanimous approval at the plenary on “The Conversion Crisis,” by the time it reached the resolutions plenary later that evening, it had already been revised and the dissent had organized.

Some of the dissenters opposed the motion on the grounds that the status quo is acceptable and should not be tampered with. Others, including JAFI Chair Richard Pearlstone, felt the wording needed to be more nuanced, so as not to derail ongoing efforts to establish an independent conversion authority.

Yaakov Ne’eman, a former government minister who has been overseeing that effort since the 1990s, threatened to resign if Fife’s resolution were passed.

Fife’s resolution was ultimately defeated, and more moderate twin resolutions were passed.

The resolutions call on the Israeli government to establish courts of “Jewish law which will base themselves on appropriate, moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The resolutions also call for the establishment of an independent conversion authority. The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, meeting just after the JAFI conference, passed a similar resolution.

The Jewish Agency, which was the government in prestate Palestine and now runs auxiliary agencies mostly in the social realm, still holds some sway over the Israeli government, but its resolutions are nonbinding.

Still, Fife is encouraged that the resolution, even in its toned-down form, made it into the daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, and that the discussion had people paying attention.

“My hope is that by continuing to pursue this issue with sensitivity and dignity and thoughtfulness, we can transform this from something ugly into something beautiful and a good thing for the Jewish people,” Fife said.

Diverse trio running for mayor in troubled Jerusalem


It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A rabbi, a Russian oligarch and a high-tech millionaire are running for mayor of Jerusalem. Except there’s no punch line, just each of them offering up himself as salvation for the hallowed capital’s many troubles.

Many Jerusalemites view this year’s municipal elections, scheduled for Nov. 11, as a historic turning point for a city that is Israel’s poorest, still vulnerable to terrorist attacks and wracked by economic, political and religious divisions. At stake, many say, is Jerusalem’s very character and future viability.

Among the foremost concerns for Jewish Israelis is the hemorrhaging of Jerusalem’s Jewish population, particularly its middle class. These Israelis are being driven out of the city by high housing costs and scarce employment opportunities.

For secular residents, the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population is further cause for concern that the Orthodox will dominate the personality and priorities of the city.

In the predominately Arab eastern half, where most residents long have refused to vote in municipal elections in protest of Israel’s sovereignty over the city, basic social services have been neglected for years by local government. Many families live in cramped quarters because building permits are difficult to acquire, classroom shortages are so bad that at some schools different grades take turns using the same room and road repair and garbage collection are routinely ignored.

Some observers argue that the neglect of eastern Jerusalem ensures that the capital may again be divided by an international border. Within the city’s Arab community, many warn that the gap in services leads to resentment that can be seen in the growing political and religious radicalization of Arab youth. Several times this year, relatively young Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem perpetrated terrorist attacks against Jews in Jerusalem, sometimes with deadly results.

Elias Khoury, a lawyer who represents Arab residents of Jerusalem on issues of property, building and residency rights, said the boycott of municipal elections by Jerusalem Arabs only hurts the community.

“Today the situation in East Jerusalem is ‘tohu va’vohu,'” he said, using the biblical term for chaos. “If we don’t participate in elections, we need an alternative to managing our lives.”

The youngest of the three mayoral candidates is Nir Barkat, 49, a City Council member who made his fortune developing pioneering anti-virus software in the 1990s. A secular Jerusalemite, Barkat advocates reviving the city and its economy by focusing on tourism and making Jerusalem a world-class center for medicine and life sciences.

The Orthodox candidate is Rabbi Meir Porush, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and longtime fixture on Israel’s Orthodox political scene who officially joined the race at the last minute.

The current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, who is ultra-Orthodox, had agreed to step aside for another Orthodox candidate, but it took the Orthodox political establishment until the 11th hour to settle on a final candidate. Several names were floated, but Porush became the man of choice only after Aryeh Deri, disgraced ex-Shas Party chairman and Knesset member who spent time in prison for taking bribes, was disqualified from running because his crimes constituted acts of moral turpitude.

Porush, who advocates holding the federal government accountable on unfulfilled pledges to invest millions of dollars in Jerusalem, hopes to win the mayoralty by galvanizing the city’s powerful, Orthodox voting bloc. Orthodox residents make up 30 percent of the city’s Jewish population but comprised the majority of voters in the city’s last municipal election, helping usher in Lupoliansky, the city’s first Orthodox mayor, in 2003.

Porush cites Jerusalem’s Arab-Jewish demography as the city’s greatest challenge. He said the first thing he would do as mayor would be to declare “an emergency situation” to boost the city’s Jewish population, which stands at about 66 percent.

Rounding out the field is Arcady Gaydamak, Israel’s flashiest political enigma, a billionaire who says he speaks for the people. Gaydamak’s past includes an international arrest warrant for allegedly illicit arms dealing in Angola and paying out of his own pocket to house Israelis fleeing the rocket fire in the north during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Zuhir Hamdan, who briefly ran as Jerusalem’s first Arab mayoral candidate, recently joined Gaydamak’s campaign in the hope of becoming his adviser on Arab affairs if Gaydamak is elected.

On a recent campaign foray to Jerusalem’s open-air Mahane Yehudah market, Barkat shook hands and smiled for the cameras. His plans include tapping international philanthropists and private-sector funds for support of Jerusalem.

Addressing the poverty issue, he noted that the average annual Jewish income in Jerusalem is $16,000, compared with $24,000 in the Tel Aviv area and $4,000 among Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem.

All of the candidates are trying to woo voters on the issue of affordable housing. Foreign demand for property in Jerusalem has contributed to skyrocketing housing prices and a dearth of new middle-class housing. Most of the city’s current building projects are luxury housing for Diaspora Jewish buyers, with prices per meter ranging from $7,000 to $10,000.

The high cost of living in Jerusalem has driven many residents to the suburbs.

Two new parties comprised of young Jerusalemites have made the issue their focus in the race for City Council seats. Aimed at trying to stem the tide of young people fleeing the city, one party is made up predominately of university students and other 20-somethings and is called Hit’orerut, Hebrew for “wake up.” Earlier this month, it merged with the other like-minded party, Yerushalmim, Hebrew for “Jerusalemites.”

“We need a change, and we understood it had to come from within,” said Ofir Berkovitz, 25, head of Hit’orerut.