A giant step for Orthodox women clergy


At Shabbat morning services at B’nai David-Judea Congregation (BDJ) on May 2, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky took an extra-long pause before beginning his drash, the weekly address to the congregation. It was more than just the usual wait for the gathering to settle into silence; it was Kanefsky taking a moment before making an important announcement to his congregation that, come August, its clergy would include a new “spiritual leadership” position. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, who has been serving BDJ for the past eight months as Kehilla intern, will become a member of the clergy of BDJ full time and will be addressed by a new title that Kanefsky and his synagogue board of trustees hope will convey her scholarship and the esteem of the community: Morateinu, “our teacher.” Thomas-Newborn will be the first woman to serve as an Orthodox clergy member in Los Angeles, and although she is not the first to do so — a handful have been named in the U.S., Canada and Israel — her hiring is considered a major step forward for women in Orthodox circles here.

“This was a decision that emanates from the deepest spirit of B’nai David-Judea,” Kanefsky said in his remarks, “from our determination to realize and to live out our most deeply held values; that we grow only richer and better when there are more voices in the holy conversation and more talented people teaching and leading. That Torah is the inheritance of all Israel, men and women, daughters and sons. And also that when we have the opportunity to shape our community into one that is more fair and more just, that opens doors rather than closes them, we take that opportunity, in the spirit of ta’asu hayashar v’hatov, ‘You shall do what is just and what is good.’ ”

The congregation stood as Thomas-Newborn crossed from the women’s side of the mechitzah (separation) to stand on the bimah, where she spoke of her excitement and her gratitude. When she returned to the women’s side, female congregants swept her up into congratulatory embraces and danced through the aisles. “I felt incredibly humbled and honored,” Thomas-Newborn said afterward. “Men and women shared their joy with me as we all greeted each other with ‘Mazel tov!’ Many women were crying, saying how grateful they were to have been present for this moment.”

In her new role, Thomas-Newborn will perform all spiritual leadership tasks permitted to women according to the Modern Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. She will give drashes (sermons, given at BDJ from the bimah), provide pastoral care, meet with congregants, give shiurim (classes), officiate at lifecycle events, and consult on family purity and kashrut. In May, she will take her ordination exam at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, where she has been training. Maharat is an acronym for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit Toranit” – female leader of Jewish law, spirit and Torah.

The background

Although women have served as rabbis in the Reform movement since the 1970s and the Conservative movement since the mid-1980s, Orthodox Judaism has traditionally resisted naming women to clergy positions. BDJ’s new hire doesn’t mean that all Orthodox synagogues will follow suit — it is likely to be considered a departure from traditional Orthodox norms, and even, by some, a violation of certain prohibitions on women holding positions of communal authority.

But Orthodox women are still blazing trails toward the goal of being recognized as rabbis. Two particularly noteworthy cases are Reb Mimi (Miriam Sara) Feigelson and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David. Feigelson, a regular at BDJ, was ordained in Israel by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in 1994; she now works as mashpi’ah ruchanit (spiritual mentor) and lecturer of rabbinic literature and Chasidic thought at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is a doctoral candidate at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Ner-David is the rabbinic director of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul on Kibbutz Hannaton in Israel, and online sources indicate that she received the equivalent of Orthodox ordination from Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky of Tel-Aviv in 2006.

“Over the course of a generation and a half, the capacity for women to study anything and everything in Jewish learning has increased so dramatically that the question is, how do women who have studied put their passion and their knowledge into service for the Jewish community?” Kanefsky told the Jewish Journal in an interview. “This is one of the answers.”

“Women already held leadership positions in the community, and had the knowledge, but lacked the degree,” said Yaffa Epstein, who is also due to be ordained by Yeshivat Maharat next month. “I thought I’d never in my lifetime see women in synagogues as clergy, let alone be part of it. It was important for me to be part of this movement; the train was leaving the station, and I wanted to be on board.” Epstein recently spent a Shabbat as scholar-in-residence at BDJ and on May 4 was appointed Director of Education — North America for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she has been a teacher for years.

The title

Even in the few communities that are hiring women as Orthodox clergy, the issue of what to call them is complicated.

Although the all-women Yeshivat Maharat’s graduates are “ordained,” they are not called “rabbis.” Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well-known progressive Modern Orthodox leader and the founder of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (where Kanefsky spent six years as associate rabbi), is currently dean of Yeshivat Maharat. She goes by “Rabba” and “Maharat,” but she’s the only one. Some Maharat graduates use the Maharat title as an honorific in conjunction with their job title. For instance, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Rori Picker Neiss’ email signature reads “Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement.” At Kehilat Orach Eliezer in Manhattan, Dina Najman, who was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is referred to as “Rosh Kehilah” (Head of Congregation).

In Israel, Jennie Rosenfeld, hired to work alongside Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, municipal chief rabbi in Efrat, is referred to as a manhiga ruchanit (spiritual adviser). At Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone (slogan on its website: “Pioneering Modern Orthodox Solutions”), graduates of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), receive the title of Morat Hora’ah, meaning that they hold a license to decide on matters of Jewish law. Also in Israel, Nishmat’s The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women trains Yoatzot Halacha (halakhic consultants) to be a resource for women on questions regarding marriage, sexuality and women’s health issues, but without the goal of ordination.

Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn joins B’nai-David Judea Congregation’s clergy, a first for an Orthodox woman in Los Angeles.

The local response

BDJ’s congregation is an eclectic group, and within it there are varying ideas of how to define the “modern” in Modern Orthodox. Most would describe themselves as “modern,” with some daring to intone “progressive,” and others self-identifying as “more traditional.” But congregants expect BDJ to present them with new ideas and perspectives that may or may not gel with other more traditional and less-flexible Orthodox synagogues in the heavily Modern Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson.

“B’nai David walks that tightrope of wanting to stay identified as Orthodox and being a space for change,” said Barbara Wettstein, a member of BDJ since the late 1990s. “Rav Yosef looks for the opportunity to be inclusive of women in all kinds of ways. Alissa ended up as the intern, and she’s the right person. The timing is right now and, thankfully, we’re jumping on the chance.”

BDJ member Rachel Grose also sees a generational shift in attitudes about women’s leadership that influences how young girls perceive their possibilities. “Older women grew up with this idea of women’s spiritual leadership not even [being] a concept. To those who are over 30 and grew up with no access, this is like a miracle. But these girls are in the world of the contenders,” said the mother of three daughters, ages 8, 13 and 15, two of whom compete in the annual Chidon HaTanach, a worldwide Bible competition for high-school students. “They take text learning and Judaism very seriously and see a role for themselves in Jewish life.”

Rena Selya Cohen, a BDJ member and mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 11, said she “didn’t expect to get as emotional as I did” when Kanefsky made the announcement. “But all I could think about was my daughters, and all of our daughters, who could see and hear that, in the BDJ community, women’s Torah is valued just as much as men’s Torah. I used to have to say to our girls that they could do anything but hold a public Jewish clergy role. But now we can look for our spiritual leaders on both sides of the mechitzah.”

Although some BDJ members literally danced through the sanctuary in joy, not everyone who identifies as Orthodox is so enthused by the change. In 2013, after Yeshivat Maharat announced the ordination of its first graduates, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America fired back with a strongly worded statement that it could “not accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title,” calling this move a “violation of our mesorah (tradition)” and that it “contradicts the norms of our community.”

Asked by the Jewish Journal about the potential impact that hiring Thomas-Newborn might have on the Modern Orthodox scene outside BDJ, Kanefsky said that he “remains hopeful and optimistic that even people who may feel this is the sort of thing that isn’t right for them personally can certainly see how it’s religiously valuable and good for others.”

“This is good not just for B’nai David, but for the whole community in Pico-Robertson,” BDJ President Marnin Weinreb said. “We have wonderful shuls and rabbeim [rabbis], we all co-sponsor events and go to simchas [celebrations] at different shuls. I hope this is an opportunity for people at other shuls to get to know Alissa, to learn from and connect with her.”

Other local Modern Orthodox rabbis did not respond to requests for comment. But some dissent within the larger community may be expected, even among some of those in the field, who are creating this change. “I can’t pretend the Orthodox community is totally open; not every community wants to hire us,” says Picker Neiss, one of Maharat’s first alumni, who serves Bais Abraham (“Bais Abe”) in St. Louis. “But none of us are talking about the patriarchy or breaking down Judaism. It’s about adding the other 50 percent of voices who have Torah to add to the world. Each person has something to contribute.” The larger St. Louis Jewish community has accepted Picker Neiss in one significant way — she’s the sole “non-rabbi” in the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

The potential impact

Kanefsky and other BDJ members believe that hiring Thomas-Newborn will result in palpable impact. “What has already begun to happen and will continue to happen is that a far greater number of people will be involved in learning opportunities, upgrading and enhancing their mitzvah observance, involved in chesed [acts of charity and kindness] and tikkun olam [social action] activities,” Kanefsky said. “People respond to and resonate with Alissa, who she is as a spiritual teacher and as a woman, what she thinks about, the approach she brings to teaching and personal observance.”

As an example, Kanefsky cited a recent Shabbaton focused on mental-health issues that Thomas-Newborn spearheaded, which highlighted her family experience dealing with bipolar disorder and featured a community conversation on the subject. (See sidebar.)

“She found a way to open up conversations that have been hidden or latent,” Kanefsky said. “She made those conversations happen in a way that can only be described as spiritually magical. Her own sense of people’s inner pain and struggles are sacred issues that are the very stuff of service of God and the very stuff of what a shul community does together.”

“One of the most exciting things is that we don’t actually know what the larger impact will be yet,” Epstein said, “but it shows people who want to be community members and lay leaders that they are full members — if the clergy looks like them, they will feel more represented.”

The change has already begun, Wettstein said. “Our kids already don’t think it’s anything strange that a woman gives a drash. They’re growing up in a different world.”

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women who fought the fight before us. We are the fruits of the labors of two generations of Jewish women who have been learning and leading,” Epstein added. “Just imagine where we could go in the next 40 years.”

Two reform clergy to take their liberal spirit to Israel


Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea and Cantor Evan Kent of Temple Isaiah announced to their congregations on Jan. 11 that they will be moving to Israel next summer. Both will leave behind successful careers in Los Angeles as they jump into the rich but contentious world of liberal Judaism in Israel.

“I’ve been a huge Zionist my whole life,” said Goor, 53, who has been at the 1,000-member Temple Judea in Tarzana for 25 years. “I’ve had the opportunity to add to the narrative of the Jewish people in the U.S., and now I’m looking forward to doing that in Israel, and bringing to Israel the values that are important to us and to modern-day Zionism.”

Kent, 52, who has been at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, which also has 1,000 member units, since he became a cantor 24 years ago, says the aliyah of a Reform, gay, clerical couple could inspire others.
“Aliyah is not reserved for the Orthodox. More people with our spiritual and religious values, and our democratic and pluralistic values should make aliyah. It’s important that Israelis see that people like us treasure Israel,” Kent said.

Goor and Kent, who have been together since 1986 and were married in Canada, made moving to Israel part of their life plan when they were in their 30s. Some years ago, they purchased an apartment in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Neither has lined up jobs yet, but both are looking toward positions at universities, think tanks or adult education institutions in Jerusalem. Goor says he doesn’t think he’ll have a pulpit in Israel, as the Reform movement is ordaining more native Israelis these days.

Kent is completing a doctoral thesis on Jewish identity and music at Boston University, and he has a longstanding affiliation with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He said he would love an opportunity to teach first-year cantorial students at HUC’s campus in Jerusalem.

While Goor and Kent have strong connections in the liberal Jewish community in Jerusalem, they are both aware that they will be entering a religious milieu markedly different from the pluralistic environment of Los Angeles. The Israeli government, under the sway of the Orthodox rabbinate, does not recognize Reform clergy as officiants at life cycle events, and Israelis only recently have begun to appreciate the spiritual depth offered by liberal strains of Judaism.

“I think one of the great challenges of our aliyah is to bring to Israel the democratic and pluralistic values that are so important in our lives and that should be so important in Israel,” Goor said. “I’m really excited about that.”

Both Goor and Kent grew up in families deeply connected to Israel. Goor developed a strong connection to Israel at Reform summer camp and spent his high school years as an exchange student in Israel. Kent celebrated his bar mitzvah in Israel in 1972.

Leaving their congregations and family and friends in Los Angeles will be difficult, though they are keeping their house here and plan to visit often.

“It’s going to be sad to lose Don as senior rabbi. He’s been here for 25 years, and clearly has been the force behind everything that has made us successful,” said Temple Judea president Michael Robbins. The board voted to give Goor emeritus status when he leaves.

Goor, who became senior rabbi in 1997, oversaw a merger with the struggling Temple Soleil in West Hills in 1999, and a $27 million reconstruction of the temple’s Tarzana campus, completed last September.

Robbins credits Goor with building the Hebrew school into one of the largest in Los Angeles, creating a warm and innovative community, and fostering social justice programs.

The synagogue already has initiated a national search, and Judea’s associate rabbis, Dan Moskovitz and Karen Bender, have thrown their hats into the ring.

Temple Isaiah is also forming a search committee. Kent said that, after the announcement, an elderly congregant told him she had already put instructions in her will for what he was to sing at her funeral.

Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, sent a letter to congregants last week.

“Learning this brings out many deep feelings, including admiration for their courage in realizing their dream, disbelief that such a foundational force in our congregation could ever leave, sadness over his pending absence, pride in his incredible achievements and what he has yet to achieve,” she wrote.

Clergy push Debbie Friedman song


About two weeks before she died, Debbie Friedman stood with Rabbi Joy Levitt at the piano in Levitt’s Manhattan apartment, and she shared with her friend a melody that the legendary singer and composer would never have the chance to record.

It was a new version of “Shalom Aleichem,” the hymn traditionally sung Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath angels.

Friedman told her friend Rabbi Joy Levitt that her version of “Shalom Aleichem” would be her legacy.

Friedman, who was in New York en route to the Limmud Festival in England, had sung the very same tune the previous night to Levitt’s cousin, who was dying of breast cancer. “I think this is going to be my legacy. This is going to be bigger than Mi Sheberach,” Friedman told Levitt, referring to her melody of the prayer for healing, which is widely used as part of the liturgy in liberal synagogues.

A few days later, Levitt wrote Friedman an email saying, “You gave me such a huge gift and I’m going to make it my business that everyone knows this ‘Shalom Aleichem.’” Levitt, who is the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, never received a response.

Sick with the flu that would end her life, Friedman returned from England to her home in Southern California, where she died in a hospital on January 9, 2011. She was 59.

Since then, her “Shalom Aleichem” has been shared from one person and small group to the next, in an informal effort to weave the melody into the American Jewish canon. It is becoming increasingly popular at Friday night dinners and at Havdalah services, which mark the Sabbath’s end.

In the coming days, Levitt and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, are planning to reach out to every clergy member in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements — urging them to sing Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem” on Feb. 3 and 4, which is Shabbat Shira, or the Sabbath of Song.

Buchdahl and musician Josh Nelson sang that very melody to a crowd of 700 people, who attended a memorial service for Friedman at Central Synagogue on January 27, 2011.

It was there that Vivian Lazar heard it for the first time. She brought it to HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, which she directs. Some 300 HaZamir members sang it at their annual festival concert at Lincoln Center in March. Those high school students, from 18 U.S. cities and Israel, then took it back to their communities, Lazar said.

“We are keeping Debbie’s ‘Shalom Aleichem’ in our repertoire,” Lazar said. “It’s a song the kids love, and it’s our attempt to distribute the song to a wider and newer audience.”

The spring before she died, Friedman herself taught the melody to several hundred people at Hava Nashira, the annual Reform movement song leaders’ gathering.

That summer, Friedman sang the song, which she was still tweaking, for a class she was leading at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles. Richard Siegel, the school’s director, asked Friedman what she was working on. As Friedman sang her “Shalom Aleichem,” a student recorded it on an iPhone.

Siegel has sung it every week since at his Shabbat table. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite haunting,” he said.

Most recently, Cantor Jennifer Frost sang it before 6,000 people who gatherde for the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial gathering, held in December. Attendees could also request a biennial CD, which included Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem,” and about 650 people did, said URJ spokeswoman Annette Powers.

Though it is only now reaching a critical mass of synagogues and Shabbat tables, the melody was composed in 2009, according to Merri Lovinger Arian, who taught with her at HUC–JIR’s cantorial school. That school has been renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

“She grabbed me and said she wanted me to listen to it, and she said, ‘Doesn’t it really sound like we were born with that melody, that it’s been around for a long time?’” Arian recalled. “She was right.”

In addition to the Shabbat Shira effort, Friedman’s “Shalom Aleichem” will be performed Feb. 1 at a Central Synagogue tribute to the late musician, which follows her first yahrzeit.

“All of us were left with this piece we know she was so excited about, she really wanted to get it out there,” Arian said. “Since it wasn’t recorded there is a feeling that we have a responsibility to get this, of all melodies, out. We all feel a sense of urgency about it.”

This story originally appeared in the Forward newspaper. To read more, please go to forward.com.

Clergy object to LAPD’s methods of clearing Occupy L.A.


The members of an interfaith group of clergy who ministered to Occupy Los Angeles protesters throughout the two-month occupation of the lawn around Los Angeles City Hall are objecting to what they call a distressing “level of violence and brutality” used by the 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers who cleared the encampment from City Hall Park in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.

“Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion,” the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network wrote in a letter delivered to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Dec. 1.

“The mayor and police chief are patting themselves on the back because we are in Los Angeles and no one went to the hospital,” said Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, an associate professor at American Jewish University who signed the letter. 

“People were knocked over, pushed around, pushed with batons, chased down, corralled,” Cohen said, citing reports about police violence that were related to him by other members of the interfaith group who witnessed part of the police action. “It was kind of a ‘shock and awe’ operation, designed to terrorize the people that were there — and it worked. In that way, it worked.”

In addition to objecting to the tactics used against protesters by police officers, the letter from the group of priests, imams, ministers, rabbis and other faith leaders called the city’s decision to hold the 292 nonviolent protesters arrested on Nov. 30 in jail on $5,000 bail “unacceptable.”

The Christian, Muslim and Jewish clergy established a presence at the encampment very early on. Every Wednesday morning, they met at the Interfaith Sanctuary at a structure that began its life as a sukkah. 

The group objected to the protesters’ being held on $5,000 bail, which, for many, Cohen said, represents an impossible sum of money to procure.

In addition to ministering to the occupiers through a variety of actions — including a Black Friday Interfaith Service held at the encampment the morning after Thanksgiving — some members of the Occupy L.A. Sanctuary also played a role in facilitating meetings between the mayor’s office and the leaders of Occupy L.A. in the days and weeks before the closure of the encampment.

When Villaraigosa first announced on Nov. 23 that the occupiers would be removed on Nov. 28 at 12:01 a.m., the interfaith group wrote to him,  asking for additional time — “weeks not days” — to allow the Occupy L.A. group to transition out of City Hall Park in a peaceful and democratic manner. That earlier letter, the text of which was posted on the Occupy L.A. Sanctuary blog on Nov. 25, was signed by 179 clergy members, and it got the mayor’s attention.

On the morning of Nov. 28, hours after the initial deadline to vacate was allowed to pass, a group of 14 clergy and laypeople calling themselves “the interfaith affinity group of Occupy L.A. supporting the occupation” met with Villaraigosa to make the case for calling off or delaying the removal of the encampment.

The mayor, however, did not budge. “Mayor Villaraigosa seemed very receptive to the ideas of the Occupy movement, even as he said the encampment needed to end, that that had become no longer sustainable,” said Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, who was among those at the Nov. 28 meeting.

In the end, the eviction went forward, and only the police, the Occupy protesters and a select group of reporters pre-approved by LAPD got to watch it from start to finish. A number of clergy members, Cohen said, had reached an agreement with the incident commander on the scene on Tuesday night, in advance of the LAPD raid, that should have allowed them to witness the arrests of any protesters.

That deal was broken.

“Clergy were not allowed entrance to the park during the crucial period in which they could have been helpful to occupiers who had not previously decided to be arrested,” the interfaith leaders wrote in their letter to Villaraigosa.

For his part, Cohen didn’t make it anywhere near the Occupy L.A. encampment in advance of the LAPD officers storming into the park early Nov. 30, and neither did Grater. Both were stopped in different spots by LAPD officers who had established a blocks-wide cordon around City Hall in an effort to keep the numbers of protesters in the encampment from swelling.

After being turned back, Cohen headed home and kept track of developments from there, but Grater remained at the spot where the LAPD line stopped his progress, at the corner of Main and Aliso streets. More and more people kept arriving, until the crowd numbered about 150 people, he said.

When a few large buses filled with police officers approached the intersection where the group of would-be Occupy L.A. protesters was massed, Grater said, the protesters “decided to sit down in front of the buses in the intersection and started singing. They were not going to let those buses go through.”

“The police exited the buses and were standing there,” he continued. “It was about a 20 minute face-off, and in the end, the buses backed up and found another way around. A lot of police officers walked.”

Even at those moments, when the potential for a conflict was most palpable, Grater said, the protesters held fast to Occupy L.A.’s commitment to keep their protest activities nonviolent.

“A lot of them were chanting, ‘Police need a raise, police need a raise,’ ” Grater said. “There was not much animosity.”

Although the faith leaders had failed to convince the mayor to allow Occupy L.A. more time to work things out using its democratic process, the advance notice given was sufficient to ensure that the sanctuary’s structure — a sukkah that belongs to Rabbi Jonathan Klein of CLUE-LA — could be retrieved before police dismantled the camp.

“Jonathan has it,” Grater said. “He took it down.”

Jewish activists and clergy to join Occupy L.A. with sukkah outside City Hall


Since the beginning of this month, a group of Angelenos has gathered near downtown’s City Hall as part of Occupy Los Angeles, its version of the much-publicized Occupy Wall Street — a protest movement calling for reforms to the U.S. political and economic systems.

On Oct. 16 at 1 p.m., local Jewish clergy and activists will join Occupy Los Angeles to hold a demonstration in a sukkah outside City Hall at the site of the demonstrations, where people have been camping out and protesting for several weeks. Rabbi Jonathan Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) — along with representatives of Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice — is among those planning to participate.

This is a “collaborative, consensus-based effort,” Klein wrote in an e-mail. “It is not just CLUE-LA or PJA/JFSJ that is making this happen … this is less about organizations and overwhelmingly about a common vision for justice in the world.”

They are inviting anyone interested to join in.

“We are calling on the Jewish community to go out to the streets, to join with Occupy L.A. at City Hall, during the festival of Sukkot on Chol Hamoed (Oct. 16) for a day of demonstration, learning, praying, singing, dancing and conversation in which we begin to clarify the way from here to a more just society,” is the message on a Facebook event page created by the Jewish activists.

Klein and four others, including Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, associate professor of rabbinic literature at American Jewish University, created the Facebook page, titled, “Not Just a Sukkah: A JUST Sukkah.”

Clergy lobby against foreign food aid cuts


Jewish clergy and educators lobbied Congress to maintain food aid to foreign countries.

The American Jewish World Service brought about 20 clergy, rabbinical students and educators to Congress on Monday to lobby against proposed budget cuts to the emergency food aid.

Participants in the delegation had joined AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegations to developing world nations.

The AJWS release did not say which Congress members had been lobbied. Congress is seeking to cut programs as a means of trimming the deficit.

Clergy, Bibi urge Pollard release


More than 500 clergy signed a letter to President Obama urging clemency for Jonathan Pollard.

The letter was delivered a day before Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu reportedly sent a letter to Obama issuing a formal clemency request. Netanyahu was scheduled to read his letter Tuesday evening to a Knesset plenum discussion. 

“After more than two and a half decades in prison, Mr. Pollard’s health is declining,” reads the letter sent Monday from rabbis representing all streams, as well as a number of leading Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy. “He has repeatedly expressed remorse for his actions, and by all accounts has served as a model inmate. Commuting his sentence to time served would be a wholly appropriate exercise of your power of clemency—as well as a matter of basic fairness and American justice. It would also represent a clear sense of compassion and reconciliation—a sign of hope much needed in today’s world of tension and turmoil.”

The letter is the latest in a surge of pleas to free Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst who spied for Israel and who has been in prison since 1985.

A raft of Democratic Congress members urged Obama to release Pollard late last year, and a number of officials who were involved in investigating the matter also have signed on to the effort.

Among the signatories of the letter sent this week was Rabbi Donald Levy of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs, Colo., a former Navy cryptologist who participated in the damage assessment after Pollard’s arrest.

“There was nothing that we came across to indicate that Pollard gave information to any country but Israel,” said Levy said in a separate statement. “Further, the information he probably disclosed consisted primarily of daily operational intelligence summaries, information that is extremely perishable. It did not appear to me at the time that the information he gave Israel should have resulted in a life sentence.”

Also signing the letter were leaders of lay Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B’nai B’rith International and the Zionist Organization of America.

VIDEO: Tel Aviv rally protests religious persecution in China


Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy lead rally protesting Chinese persecution of Falun Gong and China’s involvement in Sudan

When the rabbi talks politics from the pulpit


In 2006, Rabbi Nancy Myers of Westminster’s Temple Beth David used her Rosh Hashanah sermon to address the horrors of the Abu Ghraib scandals.

She was about to make a point about acting morally as Jews when a congregant walked down the sanctuary’s aisle with his hands crossed in a time-out signal. Myers, new at the time to the Reform synagogue, thought the interruption was because someone had had a heart attack, so she stopped talking.

Instead, the man shouted out, “You have no right to get up there and say those things from the pulpit; you have no right to talk politics!” The rabbi heard some murmurings of approval from the congregation and considered for a moment simply walking out herself, thinking her views were in conflict with her new congregation.

But then another congregant stood and said, “I was finding it interesting what the rabbi was saying, and I want her to finish.” This was followed by some applause. So Myers continued where she’d left off, and the angry congregant was escorted outside.

As it turns out, he did not leave for good. “He was angry for about a year, and now he loves coming here,” Myers said recently. “He’s one of my strongest supporters.”

Although Myers said the incident taught her “about being more sensitive to my audience and about the diversity of my membership,” she continues to believe rabbis should comment on current events. “I believe it’s an important part of the rabbi’s job to raise a whole host of different issues,” Myers said.


In recent weeks, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama came under fire for incendiary remarks made by his now-former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, new interest has arisen in how controversial statements made by clergy can play out. Obama, in his speech in response to the outcry, talked about healing racial divides, but he also admitted that he had been aware of remarks harshly critical of America and of whites made by this man who had been his longtime spiritual guide. “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely,” said Obama, who went on to suggest: “Just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

So what happens when rabbis make controversial remarks offensive to their constituents? Do people leave, or do they, like Obama initially did, stay on out of loyalty even when they disagree with the comments? How do such situations play out in the Jewish community?

There are, to be sure, many religious positions in Judaism that offend some people, and the reactions depend on the individual.

For example, Liz, a social worker who preferred not to give her last name, attended High Holy Day services with a friend a couple of years ago and was shocked by the rabbi’s sermon. “He was talking about all the terrible things going on in the world — Iraq, global warming, disease — and then he said, ‘You know, a lot of interfaith marriages are happening,'” she said, paraphrasing the Orthodox rabbi, whom she declined to name.

“Did he just connect the Iraqi war and global warming to intermarriage?” she wondered at the time. As the child of an interfaith couple, Liz said, “it was very offensive to me that he would take catastrophic things and connect it to a personal choice.” She has not returned to that rabbi’s — or any other — synagogue since.

When it comes to world politics, too, Jews have many opinions — and many aren’t afraid to voice them. Yet rabbis who take stands on political issues often face objections from congregants who disagree. Indeed, one of the first rabbis in America to make a political statement that offended congregants almost paid with his life.

In 1861, the Reform Rabbi David Einhorn vociferously denounced slavery to his congregation, Har Sinai Congregation of Baltimore, which was a pro-slavery state. A mob threatened to tar and feather him, and he had to flee north.

Yet his call for social justice was historic, according to Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “He established freedom of the pulpit. Rabbis have the right to preach what they feel is appropriate to their congregation,” Diamond said. “But they have to deal with the consequences.”

Most rabbis aren’t so literally chased by mobs, but there is a modern-day equivalent in the outraged congregation, or in public responses to a rabbi who takes a strong political stance.

That’s what happened after Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea congregation in Pico-Robertson, delivered a sermon about the need to consider a divided Jerusalem. He published his remarks as an op-ed in this newspaper, which was followed by a Los Angeles Times article covering the outrage caused by the scandal. In the aftermath, Kanefsky held closed-door meetings with some upset congregants.

Although Kanefsky declined to talk about the specific incident, he said that in general a rabbi has to maintain a precarious balancing act.

“The balance between saying what, as a member of the clergy, you think needs to be said and respecting the diverging opinion of the congregation, is an extraordinary balance to maintain,” he said, adding, “I’ll be clear it’s something that I think, and not some God-given proof.”

When to be political is a judgment call, agreed Rabbi Leibel Korf of Chabad of Los Feliz. “If it’s necessary to take a stand and make a point about something, I will not hesitate to take a stand,” Korf said. But not all the time. “If you’re a rabbi trying to do outreach and bring people closer to Yiddishkayt, it’s not my responsibility to bring up every single issue or the more unacceptable issues as constant preaching.”

But he added, “I say the truth. I believe in my uncompromised opinion rather than what people want to hear,” he said. “When we are suffering in Israel, and I truly believe we have a right to be there — and if people will be offended by it — I’m not going to change my topic.”

A spiritual boost in Simi


Three-dozen rabbis and cantors are sitting in silent meditation in a sun-filled room at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus at American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

They open their eyes and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg guides them in a mindfulness exercise.

“Feel how much space there is in your body, how much aliveness,” she urges.

Later the clergy share deeply personal feelings about challenges they confront on the job.

One rabbi describes how vulnerable she feels when she wants to introduce a new melody to her worship service. Sometimes, the rabbi admits, she avoids doing so out of fear the congregation will protest.

Another rabbi says that when he comforts a grieving congregant he sometimes cries. He wonders if, as a professional, he should mask his emotion.

The others in the room nod sympathetically.

“If your heart is stirred, your heart is stirred,” Weinberg says.

These clergy members — many of them top rabbis and cantors in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal world — are spending five days at a contemplative practice retreat organized by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Since January 2000, the New York-based institute has run retreats for hundreds of rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, bringing them together in cross-denominational cohorts that meet for four five-day sessions over an 18-month period.

This particular group is part of more than 200 alumni of earlier retreats. They again have taken five days away from their pulpits to meditate, do yoga, share their feelings about their work and study Chasidic texts on spirituality.

They come not to learn how to be better at their jobs — although that’s certainly part of it — but to recharge their spiritual batteries, renew their souls.

“What we’re trying to do, on one level, is renew rabbis, cantors and educators whose jobs just drain them,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the institute’s director and one of the founders of the spiritual retreat program. “It gives them rest and companionship. They’re really quite lonely.”

In the process, Cowan says, retreat participants report back that they are better at their jobs.

“Rabbis need to be genuinely present in people’s lives at times of pain and joy, not coming in with a formula,” she says. “What blocks them from doing that is overwork and emotional burnout.”

Jews expect a lot from their clergy. They must be towers of spiritual and moral strength, compelling speakers, skilled administrators and creative innovators. They must be learned in Torah, kind to children, willing to leap tall boards of directors in a single bound.

Above all, they must have no personal needs.

“To a certain extent, congregations are still looking for that superhuman rabbi,” says Rabbi Levi Moreofsky, the director of rabbinic programming at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future in New York. “There’s still the assumption that the rabbi knows everything, can do everything.”

That all-powerful image increasingly is coming under attack as rabbis, cantors, seminaries and other Jewish organizations begin to realize that clergy, too, need a place to renew their spirits. But it’s difficult to get past the stereotype.

“Burnout, job fatigue — clergy are totally subject to all of that,” says Rabbi Marc Margolius, who coordinates the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s alumni retreats. “But it doesn’t seem to register as a professional need.”

In recent years, however, rabbinical seminaries and some Jewish organizations have started to address the issue. They mainly run leadership-training courses for rabbis and, to a lesser extent, cantors. The courses are aimed at improving job skills, although some attention is given to meditation, one-on-one mentoring or discussion groups where clergy can air their grievances within the fold, far from the prying eyes of their congregations.

“It’s a relatively recent development,” says Rabbi Hayim Herring, the executive director of STAR/Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. “For a long time, congregations took it for granted. What needs does a rabbi have? He’s there for our needs.”

As part of its PEER program, STAR brings up to 20 younger rabbis a year to leadership development retreats that have a strong focus on self-care. Rabbis are notorious for neglecting their own health, Herring says, and those who attend these retreats must “publicly commit” to an ongoing program of exercise, yoga or the like.

Several have “changed their lives” because of the program, he says. One who pledged to run three times a week later called Herring to say he’d actually lowered his cholesterol.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has been running Rabbinic Training Institutes for 23 years. Each year the seminary brings 60 rabbis to a remote location for a week of professional and personal growth.

Rabbi Marc Rolf, who runs the program, says evenings are devoted to discussions of personal and spiritual needs in small groups, with conversation catalyzed either by text study or more experiential methods. Last year Rabbi Alan Lew, the author of “One God Clapping,” led the group in meditation and a discussion on anger.

“Rabbis suffer from compassion fatigue,” Rolf says. “They use the same faculties in their professional lives as in their personal life. This gives them a time to unplug from their congregational lives, to recharge their spiritual batteries and reconnect with colleagues.”

Two years ago, the Center for the Jewish Future took over a Yarchei Kallah program developed in Boston by Rabbi Jacob Schachter. Forty Orthodox rabbis under the age of 40 are invited to join a cohort that meets twice a year for two years and then once a year thereafter for two-day retreats focused on teaching, learning and bonding.

“The rabbinate is very lonely,” Moreofsky says. “They come together to share Torah and what they’re going through — what they enjoy in their work, what they see as a challenge.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago says he “very much” enjoyed “the safe space and collegiality” he experienced at the kallah.

“The Orthodox world is waking up to this,” Lopatin says, adding that he and his younger colleagues are more willing to show their human side than their elders were.

How one Boston synagogue met the challenge of the cantor’s sexual abuse


As an attorney representing several victims of sexually predatory Catholic priests, Mark Itzkowitz has witnessed the church’s pedophilia scandal from an almost too-close-for-comfort vantage point.

“Some of the details are absolutely horrifying,” said Itzkowitz, 49, who lives in the Boston area. “I’ve seen things that have made my blood run cold.”

Not long ago, Itzkowitz’s life took a surreal turn when he found himself confronting clergy sexual abuse from a different perspective: The problem had come home to roost in his own synagogue.

Robert Shapiro, the esteemed, longtime cantor of Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Randolph, Mass., was accused of repeatedly molesting a mentally challenged congregant, a woman in her late 20s and early 30s when the incidents allegedly occurred between 2001 and 2003.

When the news broke in early February 2003, Beth Am was within days of again renewing the then-70-year-old Shapiro’s contract.

“The people in the synagogue would have followed him to the ends of the earth,” Itzkowitz said. “He had been there longer than the rabbi — more than 20 years.”

Once the shock of the disclosure wore off, Beth Am leaders regrouped and tried to figure out how to manage the situation. That involved not only ensuring that criminal, civil and moral justice would prevail but also preventing the congregation from disintegrating.

In-house guidelines were nonexistent. And attempts to find advice from officials at the Conservative movement’s headquarters were unsuccessful, according to both Itzkowitz, the synagogue board’s attorney, and its rabbi, Loel Weiss.

While Jewish morality is founded on the Torah and other sacred texts, “synagogues aren’t Coca-Cola or IBM churning out specific policies and procedures on right and wrong,” Weiss said. “There is a certain expectation that in a religious institution, people will act properly. But what could have been written on a piece of paper? My mind doesn’t think in those terms.”

Weiss said the little practical information he found that helped guide him through “this hell,” as he put it, was contained in a book about a suburban New Jersey congregation whose rabbi had become involved in a major crime.

“It confirmed my instincts that we needed to give people in the congregation a chance to share their sadness,” Weiss said. “Remember that even before the allegations had been confirmed, people were basically sitting shiva for a longtime cantor who was in many cases a friend of theirs.”

The task faced by Beth Am was daunting: While the case was being investigated internally — and by the police — the rights of the alleged perpetrator and the victim and her family had to be preserved. Meanwhile, the congregation had to be protected. So Shapiro was suspended with pay pending completion of the police investigation.

That probe ultimately revealed that the victim had been assaulted at the synagogue, at Shapiro’s home, in his pool, in a car and elsewhere. Shapiro was allowed to be alone with the woman because he was a trusted friend of her family, who eventually sued Shapiro, as well as Beth Am, Weiss and the former congregation president.

The latter three defendants were dismissed from the suit after the judge determined they could not have known that Shapiro posed a risk, according to news accounts.
Regarding damage control at Beth Am, Itzkowitz said he resolved to do the opposite of what the Catholic Church had done when its priests became embroiled in controversy.

Rather than circling the wagons, stonewalling and failing to acknowledge the community’s anguish, Beth Am officials would be forthcoming, compassionate and responsive, he said.

Since Shapiro had privately tutored many bar and bat mitzvah students, several parents were concerned that their children might also have been victimized. Synagogue representatives were able to assuage their fears, however, noting that there was no evidence of other incidents involving the cantor — at Beth Am or elsewhere.

“This was not a case where somebody passed the buck to us,” Weiss said.

Shapiro originally was charged with seven counts of rape, but as part of a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty in September 2005 to 14 counts of indecent assault and battery on a mentally retarded person. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and 10 years probation.

Last year, a civil court jury ordered Shapiro to pay $5.2 million to the victim and $750,000 to her parents — an award that will total $8.4 million, including interest, according to the lawyer representing the victim and her family.

“If there is such a thing as a victory in this case,” Itzkowitz said, it is that Beth Am remained intact.

The 400-family synagogue lost no congregants during the ordeal, except the victim and her family.

“And until they come back,” Itzkowitz added, “we haven’t really won.”

An attorney representing the family did not respond to a JTA request for comment, and an attorney representing Shapiro said his client would not comment.

In the wake of the incident, the synagogue has instituted a policy aimed at preventing another one. Beth Am clergy are now prohibited from being alone in the synagogue with any individual, child or adult.

“It’s good in theory,” Weiss said, “but it doesn’t work from a practical standpoint.”

That is one of the many lessons — practical, moral and spiritual — that have been learned in the wake of the Shapiro case.

Weiss and Itzkowitz came away with a renewed sense of affection and admiration for the Beth Am community, which they said responded with courage, restraint and cohesiveness.

But because of his vocation, Itzkowitz encountered the ordeal from a unique perspective. As an attorney, he had already seen his share of lives ruined and houses of worship shattered by sexually predatory clergymen.

And as a result, he offered this sobering advice to any congregation: “Don’t think it can’t happen to you.”

Is molestation being swept underneath the Eruv?


Within Jewish circles, much of the focus on sexual predators has centered on the Orthodox community, particularly its more ultra-religious precincts, where some contend that clergy sex abuse is more hidden — and possibly more widespread — than elsewhere.

Whether or not those contentions are true, the problem in that community was spotlighted by two recent episodes in the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community.
The first involved a fierce debate over public remarks criticizing his community by a haredi rabbi. The second involved the arrest of a haredi rabbi and teacher, who was charged with sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a minor.

On Thanksgiving, at the annual national convention of Agudath Israel of America, a haredi advocacy organization, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, a featured speaker, ignited a controversy with his discussion of the haredi response to clergy sex abuse.

Salomon, a dean of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., one of the world’s largest yeshivas, said, according to an Agudath Israel spokesman, that haredim are indeed guilty of “sweeping things under the carpet.” What he meant was open to interpretation.

Salomon declined comment, but according to the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, Salomon meant that rather than ignoring or covering up sexual misconduct, as detractors maintain, haredi officials deal with it discreetly to protect the dignity of the families of perpetrators and victims. The response to Salomon’s remarks was swift and often heated, with several Web site and blog contributors arguing that the rabbi’s comments should be taken literally — that is, haredi officials often look the other way when clergy sex abuse takes place in their midst.

Shafran, who accused the online detractors of making glib and sweeping generalizations without corroborating evidence, termed the comments “abhorrent.”

Other communities were criticized as well on one Web site.

“Denial, secrecy and sweeping under the carpet are not unique to charedi, Orthodox or Jewish institutions,” wrote Nachum Klafter, a self-described “frum psychiatrist,” in a Nov. 26 posting on the Web site, haloscan.com. “They are typical reactions of well-intentioned, scandalized human beings to the horrible shock of childhood sexual abuse.”

Eleven days after those remarks were posted, a haredi rabbi, Yehuda Kolko, was arrested and charged in connection with the alleged molestation of a 9-year-old boy and a 31-year-old man, both former students of his during different eras at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva-Mesivta Torah Temimah. Kolko, 60, had long served the yeshiva as a teacher and an assistant principal.

Kolko, meanwhile, is named in at least four civil suits filed over the past eight months by his alleged victims, including the 9-year-old boy. The most recent litigation, which seeks $10 million in damages from Torah Temimah, was filed in New York state court the day before Kolko was arrested. It alleges not only that Kolko molested the 9-year-old during the 2003-04 school year, but that the school administration covered up the rabbi’s pedophilia for 25 years.

The suit charges that Rabbi Lipa Margulies, identified as the leader of Torah Temimah, knew of many “credible allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia against Kolko,” yet continued to employ him as an elementary school teacher “and give him unfettered access to young children.”

Avi Moskowitz, the attorney representing Torah Temimah, said: “The yeshiva adamantly denies the allegations in the complaints and is sure that when the cases are over, the yeshiva will be vindicated.”

Another one of the lawsuits brought against Torah Temimah was filed in May by David Framowitz, now 49 and living in Israel. In that $10 million federal litigation, Framowitz, who was joined by a co-plaintiff also seeking $10 million, alleged that he was victimized by Kolko while he was a seventh- and eighth-grader at Torah Temimah.
Although the lawsuit, which named Kolko as a co-defendant, referred to Framowitz only as “John Doe No. 1,” he has since dropped his anonymity and gone public with his story.

“That’s the only way that people would believe that there’s actually a problem, if they knew that there’s a real person out there who was molested,” Framowitz said in a recent telephone interview. “There are many other victims out there, and I want people to know that this really exists.”

Framowitz grew up in part in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, where rabbinic sex abuse, he said, is rarely reported. And when it is reported, he added, rabbinic courts seldom have the expertise or the inclination to deal with it effectively.

After his own reports of abuse were met with disbelief and inaction, Framowitz said he chose to “deeply bury” his painful memories of the alleged incidents.

“I never really got over it,” he said, “but I was able to get on with my life.”

An accountant by trade, Framowitz made aliyah several years ago, and now lives in the West Bank community of Karnei Shomron with his wife and four adult children. They have one grandson.

Framowitz said he decided to speak out publicly about his experience after he learned through the Internet in the fall of 2005 that Kolko was still teaching young boys. He said he is relieved that Kolko has been arrested and charged, although in connection with reported incidents unrelated to his alleged victimization.

“It’s a relief knowing that the story is finally out there,” Framowitz said, “and that maybe Kolko will be prevented from being around other kids.”

JTA tried unsuccessfully to reach Kolko, who along with Framowitz, was the focus of a May 15 New York magazine story that said “rabbi-on-child molestation,” according to several sources, “is a widespread problem in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and one that has been long covered up.”

Attorney Jeffrey Herman, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuits stemming from Kolko’s alleged misconduct, was quoted in the New York magazine piece saying that the clergy abuse situation in the haredi community “reminds me of where the Catholic Church was 15 or 20 years ago. What I see are some members of the community turning a blind eye to what’s going on in their backyards.”

Sifting the Evidence

Hard numbers are not available to determine if clergy sex abuse is more widespread in haredi communities than in other Jewish locales. However, several insiders said there is anecdotal evidence that abuse often goes unreported there. The reason, they said, is that many individuals in those communities, which are noted for their insularity, resistance to modernity and reverence for religious leaders, are loath to confront rabbis for fear of being publicly shunned.

Awareness Center and other blogs draw praise and scorn


There is no unabridged database of rabbinic sexual abusers. But there is the Awareness Center.

It’s not a physical place, but a Baltimore post office box, cellphone number and Web site — ‘ target=’_blank’>unorthodoxjew.com, the ‘ target=’_blank’>Jewishwhistleblower.blogspot.com and Chile’s Jews part of the larger community in Santiago

Clergy sexual misconduct: What’s being done to rein in abuse?


Even as the Catholic Church has been rocked by a massive pedophilia scandal in recent years, the Jewish community also has been buffeted by high-profile cases of sexual impropriety involving rabbis and other authority figures.

How extensive is the problem of clergy sex abuse in the Jewish community? It depends on which criteria are used as a yardstick. One possible gauge is the volume of abuse complaints adjudicated by the ethics panels of the major religious denominations.
Judging by the tiny caseload, the problem appears to be negligible — unless, of course, wrongdoing by rabbis and other clergymen is underreported, as some observers maintain.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive vice president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, counted three or four investigations into rabbinic sexual misconduct since the 300-member organization adopted a new code of ethics in 1999. Hirsh would identify neither the transgressions nor the transgressors. The code is again being revised.

“We’re not allowed to discuss any details,” he explained, although in one instance, he added, the association’s ethics committee merely admonished the accused rabbi to “be careful next time.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s 1,600-member Rabbinical Assembly (RA), said in the 17 years he has held his current post, only three rabbis have been asked to leave the RA or left on their own due to “inappropriate behavior” of a sexual nature. Last year, one rabbi was expelled. In addition, the RA insisted that “several” other rabbis found to have engaged in “seductive behavior” should undergo therapy.

Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a primarily Modern Orthodoxy organization, said the RCA has ruled on so few sexual misconduct complaints over the past 10 years that the number is not statistically significant.

The Union for Reform Judaism, which has 900 member congregations, sees no “particular need” to keep records on the numbers or dispositions of sexual misconduct cases, according to its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

“I don’t happen to believe there’s any evidence of an epidemic of rabbinic sexual abuse,” Yoffie said. “If you are asking, am I aware of there being some significant numbers of people, my answer is no. We have to keep it in perspective.”

Yet the Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based Jewish clearinghouse of clergy sex abuse information, lists on its Web site scores of Jewish clergy who are alleged to be sexual predators. Some of them have been convicted of crimes, but some have not even been charged.

Although authoritative statistics quantifying the problem appear to be nonexistent, some experts estimate that “between 18 and 39 percent of Jewish clergy are involved in sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and/or sexual misconduct — the same percentage as non-Jewish clergy,” according to the 2002 book, “Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust,” written by psychotherapist Charlotte Rolnick Schwab.

“All denominations are involved,” Schwab wrote.
In her book, she said quantitative data were drawn in part from a conversation with the Rev. Marie Fortune, director of the FaithTrust Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that fights sexual and domestic violence.

Schwab in her book added: “The large number of cases alone … in my files bears out this estimate.”

Contacted later, Fortune said: “To my knowledge, there are no definitive statistics in any of our faith groups that quantify the problem, and what we have instead are anecdotes and, in some places, numbers of complaints brought in that particular jurisdiction.”

Fortune said her “best guess, based on anecdote and experience,” is that 10-15 percent of all clergy have been involved in some form of sexual impropriety.

Offenders include, for example, Orthodox youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a former regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abusing teenage girls while he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva. That scandal set off a storm in the Orthodox world, stemming from allegations that rabbinic leaders and others had long been negligent in supervising Lanner.

More recently, David Kaye, a prominent 56-year-old Conservative rabbi from Maryland, was ensnared in a nationally televised pedophile sting operation. Kaye, the former vice president for programs of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, was sentenced Dec. 1 to 6 1/2 years in prison for trying to solicit sex last year from someone posing on the Internet as a 13-year-old boy, a case that was featured on the network television show, “Dateline NBC.”

Virtually all denominations, except segments of ultra-Orthodoxy, now have formal codes on the books that outline unacceptable clergy behavior and mandate precisely how complaints of sexual impropriety are to be investigated and adjudicated by in-house ethics panels.

The system, according to critics, suffers from an institutional fear of lawsuits and excessive secrecy — both byproducts of an ethical quandary faced by decisionmakers. They must balance an individual’s right to privacy against the obligation to protect the public from a potential sexual predator.

One symbol of that ethical push-pull is the Awareness Center, a private, 5-year-old Jewish organization devoted to protecting the public from abusers. It has been both criticized and praised for its policy of identifying rabbis and other sexual predators on its Web site, even if they have not been tried in court.

Perhaps the most serious impediment to controlling clergy abuse is what Chicago psychologist and psychoanalyst Vivian Skolnick calls “the plague of silence” — the continuing reluctance of victims to report transgressions.

“People are afraid of being ostracized if they come forward,” said David Framowitz, 49, who has alleged in a recently filed federal lawsuit that he was abused decades ago by a Brooklyn rabbi.

Like most of the observers, anti-abuse activist and author Drorah Setel, a rabbi at a Reform congregation in Niagara Falls, N.Y., lauded the denominational rule makers for taking steps to undo decades of inaction and denial — but she faulted their specific policies, nonetheless.

“They are really well-intentioned, but they just don’t understand the process and the issues involved in sex abuse cases,” said Setel, who has written extensively on the topic of clergy sexual misconduct.

Defining Family


A few months ago, in these pages, I described a brief visit to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of my daughter, Dafna, 42, and

her fiancé, Scott, 36 ("Father of the Bride," July 11). It was a first marriage for both and celebrated without benefit of clergy — Scott being Christian and Dafna, Jewish.

This drew some criticism from readers who felt that I was amiss in not discouraging my daughter from marrying a non-Jew. One, in fact, reminded me that some Jews sit shiva when such a marriage takes place and regard the offending child as dead. It seemed to me that is a bit strong. There was also a time when adulterers were stoned, but we seem to have progressed beyond that. (More to the point perhaps, how does one tell a 42-year-old daughter whom she should marry?)

Anyway, the stage has been set for even more protests since Dafna has now produced a son and you can add to the list of my sins of omission the fact that the young man did not have a brit milah, although he was circumcised by a doctor in the hospital. This was the subject of much discussion prior to his birth but the argument ended when Dafna pointed out that if we pressed the issue, Scott’s family might suggest a christening. Further installments in this true-life family drama may be expected at his bar mitzvah and marriage ages.

(One reader was especially incensed at my mentioning my second daughter, 23, who intends to marry a young man who is having a Conservative conversion to Judaism. This, she wrote, means that both of my daughters will have intermarried, the implication being that the Conservative movement is treif. I thought to myself that, even in Orthodoxy, the word treif has an elastic meaning; one rabbi’s heksher is another rabbi’s abomination — and don’t even ask about conflicting attitudes toward Zionism.)

This issue of how one deals with or even defines intermarriage is a major item on the Jewish agenda, so let me complicate matters even further. I have two sons. One is married to a certifiably Jewish woman (two Jewish parents, no conversions) who reads Torah in their Conservative synagogue. Their child attends a Jewish day school.

My second son is married to a woman whose father is Jewish and whose mother is non-Jewish. My son and daughter-in-law regard themselves and their two children as Jews and are raising the children accordingly.

In all this, who is in and who is out? I would suggest, over the objections of my "fan club" that the matter is one of self-definition, that in the end what is important is how one regards one’s affiliations and not what others claim are the laws as they define them. I know that this opens the communal doors to Jews for Jesus and their kind, but the rest of us are free to ignore their versions of Judaism and proceed on our way. Far too much Jewish energy and resources are wasted in dealing with these marginal elements and too few are invested in holding on to those who would remain with us given a bit of encouragement.

Numbers count. Our share of the national population has dropped from 2.5 percent to 2 percent in the past 30 years. These figures vary slightly depending on who is defined as being Jewish, but the trend is clear. So, too, are the increases being registered by other religious and ethnic minorities that give them added political and economic power, some of which is removed from us by virtue of our declining numbers.

But my critics have a point. Not only numbers, but quality, counts. We differ, to be sure, on the question of what constitutes quality Judaism. I am less concerned than they with ritual, but I accept their argument that without some sort of structure, some framework that includes generally accepted behaviors and beliefs, we are flirting with anarchy. I don’t know what the minimal standards should be but I cannot agree that ancestry should be the deciding factor. If it is, then we are best defined as a race and that, as any student of modern history will testify, means tragedy, not only for Jews but for anyone defined racially. Ask your friendly black American neighbor for verification.

You will note that I have refrained from mentioning the newcomer’s name. When my oldest son was born, in Jerusalem, I published notices in the newspapers with his name and the date of the brit milah. In a society virtually devoid of private telephones, that’s how friends and family learned about the event. Well, I caught hell from everyone for having made his name public before the eighth day. Apparently it had something to do with the dangers posed by the evil eye. Today he is a nuclear physicist engaged in cancer research, so it doesn’t seem to have harmed him. But if you think I am taking that chance again with a 7-day-old grandson, forget it. Far be it from me to defy the traditions hallowed by our elders.


Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.

An Appeal to the Clergy of All Faiths


Colleagues in faith, we must act together now. We owe it to our respective faiths and our common calling. We cannot feign blindness or muteness while all about us the toxins of racial and religious hate and the anarchy of anthrax continue to poison our environment. Lethal libels against entire people and religions in the name of God threaten not only our generation but our children's generation. Mounting verbal vilification is as perilous as the casualties of the wars.

What does our religious conscience demand of us? We are not generals. We are not politicians nor diplomats. But we are spiritual leaders of world religions, and we have a mandate to use our moral powers to stanch the hemorrhaging of our civilization. What wisdom have we inherited from our respective religions, and what can we do?

Our spiritual ancestry is rooted in the prophet. In each of our traditions, the prophet is venerated for the courageous word hurled against power. For us, the word is not straw. With the word, the world was created. With the prophetic word, the steely armor of the predators has been pierced. At this moment in history, the word is sacred, and silence is blasphemous. Silence condones.

Now is the time for the prophetic voice to be heard in every mosque, synagogue and church. To muzzle the voice against terrorism, homicidal suicide and the defamation of God's name imprinted on every human being is to commit acts of fatal muteness. Surely, injustice exists, but as Pope John Paul II recently declared, “Injustice cannot be used to excuse acts of terrorism.” Man is a rationalizing animal who manages to camouflage slander, racism, and anti-Semitism beneath the robes of piety.

Today, more than ever, it is the third commandment admonishing us not to abuse the name of God that is blatantly violated. When today religions are held hostage to militant political parties, it is our duty to rip aside the false mask that conceals militant malevolence. God's name must not be desecrated.

The prophet does more than confront and chastise. The prophet has a crucial task to perform, even while the warring goes on. The prophetic God is to prepare the heart, for “the preparation of the heart is made by man.”(Proverbs 16:6)

Sooner or later, the violence will cease, whether out of mutual exhaustion or external imposition. In any event, people will have to live together; wounds must be healed, and relations normalized. We priests, rabbis, imams must follow the prophet's cry in the wilderness. “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” We must together today cultivate a spiritual ambience that will encourage the building of trust among ourselves and our congregants. The task of the clergy of all faiths is to struggle against the paranoia that has seized us and whose mantra is “suspect thy neighbor as thyself.” Confidence-building is critical in these parlous times.

What can we do? We who believe in the power of the word and the sanctity of the dialogue must bring our people together. We can exchange pulpits, arrange for our congregants to meet with each other in their private homes, and thereby discover the face of humanity behind the veil of theology. In meeting, a pre-theological reality is revealed. We do not have the same language or the same dogma, but we have the same tears and the same fears. The caskets may be draped with different symbols, but the broken hearts of the widow and the forlornness of the orphan are the same. That sameness the prophet proclaimed when he asked, “Have we not all one God, one Father? Has not one God created us all? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with our brother?” (Malachi 2:10)

We spiritual leaders must not be intimidated by those who dismiss dialogue as mere rhetoric or by those who attack us, the ingatherers of people of other faiths, as naive or as traitors to their extremist causes.

Together we can counter the insidious cynicism that insists that war is inevitable and hatred immutable. We can restore the promise of the prophet Isaiah who in a critical time held out the hope that in the future, “Israel will be a third with Egypt and Syria,” and who in God's name pronounces an embracing benediction: “Blessed be Egypt My people and Syria the work of My hand and Israel My possession.” (Isaiah 19:24, 25)

We can preach against the grain of our polarizing society and raise up from obscurity the wisdom and compassion in our respective sacred texts. Let the Surah 2:257 in the Quran be publicized: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” “To everyone have we given a law and a way, and if Allah would have pleased to, he would have made all mankind one people. But he has done otherwise.” (Surah 5:48) Let us bless our pluralism and His will.

What can we do? We can organize “trialogues” of Christian, Jewish and Muslim spiritual leaders throughout the country, not to debate the borders of territories but the wholeness of humanity beyond borders. We can educate the congregations to avoid the trap of monistic thinking. Not all Muslims are the same; not all Christians are the same; not all Jews are the same. Our faiths are not monolithic. There are, for example, those like the most prominent Muslim leader in Indonesia, the world's most populated Muslim country, Nurcholish Madjid, who celebrates unity in diversity and who writes of the “many doors to God.”

We clergy of all faiths are endowed with the power to transform the spiritual atmosphere of our environment so that peace can have a chance. In the language of the prophet, God calls to those who believe: “You are My witnesses, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 43:10) The rabbinic sages interpret this divine imperative conditionally. “If you are My witnesses, I am God. But if you are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God.” We must not betray the call.

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