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.

Conservative Judaism reborn — in Germany


Of late, it’s been depressing to be a Conservative Jew. News of demographic and organizational challenges have fed a frenzy of articles delighting in our imminent demise. Many of the criticisms of Conservative Judaism are rooted in serious and valid concerns. Many of them are criticisms that I’ve made myself for two decades now. But the glee with which some challenging statistics and personal complaints have been proclaimed, while examples of Conservative vitality are ignored or underreported, need some correction.

Two years ago, I received a call from a professor, Rabbi Walter Homolka of the University of Potsdam — Potsdam is the capitol of the State of Brandenburg, near Berlin — informing me that his university, one of the major public centers of learning in central Europe, was interested in creating a new rabbinical school to train Conservative/Masorti rabbis to serve the growing communities of Europe. Yes, you heard me right: Both the Progressive communities and the Masorti (Conservative) communities of Europe are growing. But their future growth is limited by the lack of educated leadership who can speak to them in authentically Jewish ways yet also share their embrace of modernity as contemporary Europeans. They need rabbis who share their worldview, engagement and values.

I flew to Germany a year and a half ago, accompanied by the chair of the board of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Melissa Held Bordy, and we conducted intensive conversations with the university about the Ziegler School joining with the University of Potsdam, which would be responsible for the academic part of the education while Ziegler would supervise the religious standards and denominational training for this new generation of leaders.

It would be as though UCLA or USC had offered to fund and maintain a rabbinical school as an expression of its core mission in the heart of its own campus!

Last week, those conversations were rewarded. After a beautiful Shabbat in an egalitarian, intimate and moving service led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, a woman of vast learning and great warmth, at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue (the beautiful gold-domed building recognized as a living symbol of German Jewry), we launched the new rabbinical school: the Zacharias Frankel College. Already we have extraordinary young Europeans applying for our new program.

In an auditorium of this venerable building, hundreds of people — Jews and non-Jews from Germany and all over Europe, educators and academics from the great centers of learning, and members of the German federal and state governments — came together. We spoke of the great Jewish achievements of the past, and of the devastation of the Nazi regime, never to be forgotten. We affirmed that this open, vibrant approach to Jewish life retains the power to restore Jewish vitality across Europe and has much to teach non-Jewish Europeans, too.

Two days later, we gathered on the campus of the University of Potsdam and launched a one-of-a-kind institution, the School of Jewish Theology, which will teach Jewish religious texts and thought in the context of a modern Western university — not huddled in its own seminary or yeshiva, but out in the very apex of public learning. This school will house the two rabbinical programs: Abraham Geiger College (training Reform rabbis) and Zacharias Frankel College (training Masorti/Conservative rabbis). It will also serve hundreds of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who want to benefit from a rigorous engagement with Jewish texts and study.

This double educational miracle embodies the best of Conservative/Masorti vitality — a joyous affirmation that one can be fully Jewish and fully modern, educated in the best of Western scholarship as a way of enhancing the depths of Torah learning, mitzvah observance and robust spirit. 

In fact, there is considerable vitality that Conservative Judaism demonstrates every day, in its hundreds of congregations, day schools, camps Ramah, rabbinical schools, vibrant youth groups and introduction to Judaism programs. That very vitality, coupled with our tradition of intellectual honesty and Jewish passion, is what will save us. 

The evening of the dedication, I gave a short speech, surrounded by German parliamentarians and government ministers, university presidents, ambassadors from several European countries, bishops and imams and rabbis.

I pointed out that after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it took 70 years before Jews began to return to our ancestral home to rebuild what was to become the Second Temple. It took 70 years of mourning, grief and exile before we could begin the work of return.  

It is now approximately 70 years after the Shoah, I said, and the work begins. This time the Federal Republic of Germany, with its magnificent educational system, is the ally of the Jewish people.

The vital response to the modern age — a response that embraces the values of democracy and freedom, that relishes the openness of deep engagement with every branch of human learning, and affirms that Judaism authentically grows to integrate the best insights and new knowledge while retaining faith in sacred learning and passionate observance — this cluster of values has animated Conservative Judaism for hundreds of years, leaving a record of great scholars, great communities and great creativity.

Our task is now to mobilize those considerable strengths and to honestly face the unique challenges of our own time. Based on what I see every day at the Ziegler School — our brilliant faculty, talented lay leadership and our equally magnificent students, and based on the redemptive affirmation I witnessed in Germany, I want to share this news from the rooftops:

We’re not dead yet.


Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union.

Why Orthodoxy is growing


As almost every Jew knows by now, according to major reports on American Jewry — such as the most recent and most highly regarded Pew report — Orthodoxy is growing, while Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking. 

Before presenting my explanations, I think it important to note that I have no denominational ax to grind. I was raised Orthodox, and went to yeshivas through the end of high school. But I left Orthodoxy early in life and have always been involved in Jewish life — Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish federations and writing for Jewish publications.

In a nutshell, I wish all Jewish endeavors well.

I believe that Orthodoxy is prevailing and that the non-Orthodox denominations are diminishing for the following reasons:

First, Orthodoxy makes more religious demands on its followers (and they are demands, not suggestions). Orthodoxy demands strict religious ritual observance — at the very least, Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayers with tefillin (for men), and regular attendance at synagogue on Shabbat and all the holidays (how many non-Orthodox Jews can even identify Shemini Atzeret, as much a Torah holy day as Passover?). 

I can cite a personal example to prove this point. Non-Orthodox Jews nearly always assume that I am an Orthodox Jew when they learn that I do not broadcast on Shabbat or on any of the Torah holidays. If many Reform and Conservative Jews took all those days off from work — as the Torah demands — few Jews would make that assumption. (I do broadcast on yom tov sheni, the rabbinically added day for Jews outside of Israel.)

Like all other religions (with the prominent exception of Protestant Christianity), Judaism has not been able to survive without ritual observance. 

Second, the more Orthodox one is, the more he or she is likely to live among Orthodox Jews. One’s entire social life (outside of work) revolves around fellow Orthodox Jews. That makes it, to put it gently, very difficult to leave Orthodoxy. If you do, you are likely to lose your whole support system and probably most of your friends, as well. You may even risk alienating your family.

Third, the great majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools — usually through high school. The Orthodox child rarely has close non-Orthodox, let alone non-Jewish, friends, thereby reinforcing Orthodoxy both experientially and socially from the earliest age.

Fourth, more Orthodox Jews marry; they marry younger, and they have more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Among other reasons, many non-Orthodox Jews bought the nihilistic nonsense — and the Jewish dead end — of the zero population growth movement. And fewer and fewer of them believe that marriage and children are mandatory. On the contrary, many consider a successful career at least as fulfilling as marriage and family. It would be instructive to conduct a poll among non-Orthodox young Jewish women, asking them this question: “Would you rather have a great marriage and family or a great career?” 

I have asked this of many young Jewish women, and at least half have responded that they would choose the great career. Just this week the Huffington Post published a column titled, “6 Reasons Never to Get Married.” The author? A woman named Leah Cohen.

It is hard to get further from Judaism and imperil Jewish survival than having Jewish women value career more than, or even as much as, marriage and children.

Fifth, as if all of the above were not enough, Orthodox Jews believe God chose the Jews and is the ultimate author of the Torah. Very few non-Orthodox Jews believe God is the author of the Torah; but it is inconceivable that Judaism can long survive among Jews who do not believe that God created the world, took the Jews out of Egypt and gave the Torah.

Sixth, Israel is central to almost all Orthodox Jews. Incredibly, and tragically, it is increasingly peripheral to many other Jews. 

Seventh, the further from Orthodox Judaism one gets, the more one is likely to adopt leftism/progressivism as one’s moral code and worldview. Just as the Orthodox Jew is steeped in Judaism from the earliest years, most non-Orthodox Jews are steeped in leftism at home and in school from elementary through graduate school. How else to explain the phenomenon of young women thinking career will give their lives as much or more meaning than marriage and family? How else to explain the alienation from Israel among so many non-Orthodox Jews?

I write none of this to make the case for Orthodoxy. I find most of the reasons admirable and a few disturbing. But truth is truth. Any one of the seven reasons would suffice to explain why Orthodoxy is increasing and non-Orthodoxy isn’t. All seven make the case incontrovertible.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

The future of Conservative Judaism


Rabbi Artson delivered this address as the keynote speaker of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism “Conversation of the Century” centennial conference in Baltimore, Md. on Oct. 13, 2013.

I will lift my eyes to the mountains from where my help comes.  My help comes from the Holy One who makes heaven and earth (Ps 121: 1-2).

We Conservative/Masorti Jews have forgotten to lift up our eyes. 

We have of late become a little too defensive, as if we could refute our challenges through debating points. 

We have become a bit too brittle, eager to shift the blame to each other or to some third party beyond our control. 

We have become too petty and too small, focusing on issues of denominations,  borders, and turf, as though those were our core missions as Jews. 

It is time to once again lift up our eyes above our limitations, above the statistics, above the unnecessary divisions.

When ancient and medieval Jews did their work, they asked grand, universal questions, and they mobilized Jewish tools to create the answers that could make meaning for their generation.  With the onset of modernity, we have reversed their course.  We, instead, ask parochial Jewish questions and then mobilize universal academic tools to try to address those questions.  Small wonder that so many turn away uninterested.  Once, in Biblical times, Judaism was bigger than religion.  It was the very life of the Jewish People.  Under Roman rule, in the searing heat of oppression, Judaism shrank to become a religio, a binding, a religion.  And so it was for almost two thousand years. But we now live after the onslaught of the Shoah, after the miracle of the reestablishment of the Jewish State in our Homeland.  Perhaps it is not too much to ask: are we not living in the dawning of a new era, a third Jewish age?  A time in which perhaps once again, being a religion is too small, too confining to express the fulness of our aspirations, our capacities, our hope.  Is it possible once again for Judaism to find its rightful and natural place as the life of the Jewish People? As our window into the light? As our portal onto the world?  Now, perhaps, with our challenges so clearly articulated and brandished before us, let us muster the courage to transcend our fears, to rise in vision, and to return to our own truest ways.

“I lift up my eyes.”  Let us all lift up our eyes once again to grandeur, to possibility, to daring to dream God's dreams. 

The Challenge

Conservative Judaism is not alone in confronting this challenge.  All wisdom traditions struggle in an age in which the shifts in culture are so massive that they will not be met by merely a few institutional adjustments, as valuable as those may be.  Nor will they revive because of a changed name or the slick slogan, although those might also be helpful.  No, our challenge is to step beyond habit, to reach beyond fear, to return to a core vision that is worthy of our passion and our talents and our lives.

Our challenge is to provide wisdom, consolation, and courage, as people seek to live their lives and to fashion communities of inclusion and justice. 

Our challenge is to mobilize Torah and Jewish sources to heal those wounded by cultures of brutality and violence, by the crass commercialization of life's most sacred relationships, by the endless dehumanization of work and family and identity. 

Yet this is not merely a time of challenge, this is a time of unprecedented opportunity.  We are called, each of us individually, and all of us together, to be God's melachim, God's messengers, God's angels: to comfort the lonely, to hold the afflicted, to cherish the disdained. 

The Opportunity

I would like us to try, as a venerable and striving religious movement, to build on the remarkable energy of these past several days, this upwelling of Conservative/Masorti passion, depth, and authenticity, to meet these human challenges with Jewish tools.  That is our opportunity and that is our proper struggle.  It is for that purpose that we are here together, so permit me, on behalf of the One in whose service I labor, as do you, to return yet again, to consider four invitations that are really one. 

I will be your God and you shall be my people (Leviticus 26:12).  We are invited to a life of covenant, to be able to enter life not as “I” against the world, but as “we' together in service to the world.  We have been invited by the Oneness who sustains Creation, who brings the world into becoming and invites us to take God's side in the eternal struggle against chaos, to bring cosmos, order, where there was none before.  If you will be my people, says God, then I will be your God.  Let us recommit ourselves, beginning now, to lives of true covenant that radiate out from this room and this place, to embrace all of our people, all of humanity, all life and our entire planet. 

You shall teach these words to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 11:19).  We transmit our covenant through learning, and we always have. There is no instrument in the universe as complex and miraculous as the human mind.  Our ability to internalize the experiences of people we have never met, our capacity to think the thoughts of our sages, and to transmit those insights, to be able to think God's thoughts and to internalize and to translate them into life, this is a uniquely human gift.  Let us commit ourselves here, tonight, to reenter this kind of vibrant, open, aware living.  Such a deep and aware living is only possible through the cultivated and disciplined life of the mind, not of disinterested cognition, but of a mind engaged; learning for the sake of living; learning for the sake of transmission. In contribution to commitment I have a brief announcement to make.  I am happy to let you know that after two years of intense negotiations and extensive cooperation with the other arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement – Masorti Olami, The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue – I am proud to let you know that in November the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies will provide religious supervision for the world’s newest Conservative/Masorti rabbinical school, which will serve the entire continent of Europe.  In league with the University of Potsdam, this school will train students for the communities of the European Union in order to energize Masorti Europe and to bring greater glory to the continent where liberal Judaism was first born. The Zacharias Frankel College is yet the latest symbol of the continuing vitality, energy, and power of Conservative/Masorti Judaism unleashed.

Let my people go that they may serve me (Exodus 9:1).  Ours is a life of service, and we find our fullest expression as Jews and as human beings when we ask the question, not “what is in it for me,” but “how may I help?  What may I offer?  What may I do?” Burdens that are unbearable for the solitary soul become possible to manage when there are other shoulders that help us to lift.   Ours is a tradition of engagement and of service.  Let us pledge to think of each other before we act, to integrate each other’s needs and concerns into our own, to be able to act as one, in diversity, with pluralism, but with one heart as Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide.

Serve God in joy and come before God in gladness (Psalm 100:2).  Let us this night recommit ourselves to lives of passion and joy, not as distractions from a religious life, but indeed as God's greatest hope for us, just as we wish for our children that they should know life's delights, that they should know the beauty of love, that they should know a good laugh, sweet humor, a caring community.  Let us also know that the harvest of true spirit is joy and let us share that joy with each other and the world from this day forward.

The Path Forward

Permit me to invite you to join with me in this passionate path and a worthy way of life.  I was not born a Conservative Jew:  I came to this Movement as an adult willingly, because I loved its peoples, I loved its practice, and I loved its value.  And now, 30 years later, I love these people more; I yet love this way of learning and living Torah.  Conservative/Masorti Judaism has provided a path of life for me as it has for hundreds of thousands of other Jews across the continent and around the world.  Let us share that good news.  Enough with handwringing; enough with despair. 

Let us lift our eyes to a path that eagerly seeks a spiritual quest, mining the writings of our sages and of the world's for ways to break our hearts open so that we feel each others' joys, so that nobody mourns alone. 

Let us walk again on a path that is the halacha – our peoples' way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a magnificent flourishing Etz Hayim, a Living Tree.

Let us join together in a path that reaches out to those previously marginalized; for the many who have not felt the embrace of our community in the past because of our own shortsightedness, perhaps because of our own fears.  Let us leave that fear behind and know that the only risk is passing by the possibility of love.  And let us reach out in love, to everyone who would have our love, because in the end they are us; because we need everyone's wisdom, everyone's passion, everyone's strength and everyone's distinctiveness. 

Let us walk the path that venerates learning as a portal to the wisdom of the Holy One, poured through our ancestors, our sages, prophets, and philosophers to us, their children's children, so that we in turn may harvest new insights and new teachings that add to the glory of our tradition leaving it stronger and more vital for our children.

Let us cherish a path that translates learning into life through Mitzvot, Judaism's sacred deeds; a learning that is engaged; a learning that is not dispassionate, but rather full of passion, full of energy, full of life. 

Let us walk a path that centers its heart proudly in the land of Israel, in the reborn State of Israel, and at the same time wraps its arm around the whole wide world. 

And let us walk a path of the ineffable, dynamic God whose truest name is Hayei ha-Olamim — the very life of life, the heartbeat of the universe, the breath of our breath.

The Blessing

Holy One, You who have invited us to this banquet of soul, to the feast of brotherhood and sisterhood, to this great and raucous mishpacha/family that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism, we know that the task is great, we know that the opportunities are worthy and that a world awaits our touch, Your love, our shared wisdom. 

Help us, Holy One, to embrace our most expansive humanity. Help us to breathe in your energy to renew our Conservative/Masorti family, so that we transcend fear, we leave behind rigidity, no longer look back in the smug self-righteousness that threatens to turn us into sulfurous pillars of salt, and instead, turn us to the Light. 

May we face the future that our choices create with courage, enlisting the same vibrant fusion of old and new as did our ancestors before us, so that then, joining hands with all humankind, we can say, as has your prophet,  On that day, God will be one and God's name will be one. 

And then, for God's sake, let us lift up our eyes!


Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union. A regular columnist for the Huffington Post, he is the author of 10 books and over 250 articles, most recently God of Becoming & Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights).

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members


More than 500 rabbis and cantors urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on homosexual members when the youth group’s National Council convenes in Dallas this week.

Representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements signed the letter, which was coordinated by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and sent to the BSA leadership on Tuesday night.

“Many of us are former scouts, the parents of scouts or children who aspire to scouting, and admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the religious leaders wrote. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay scouts and leaders.”

A spokesperson for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said it did not know if any of the signatories were Orthodox.

Some 1,400 leaders from the National Council are scheduled to have their final vote Thursday on changing the long-standing ban on openly gay boys in the scouting movement.

The National Jewish Committee on Scouting has been vocal in calling on the BSA to drop the ban.

In their letter, the rabbis and cantors expressed their dismay that the current proposal would lift only the ban on gay youth and called on the BSA to end the exclusion of homosexual adults as well.

How to become a Jew


1. ENROLL IN A CONVERSION PROGRAM

There are a variety of options for how to begin the process, but all involve study with a rabbi. Some people study with an individual rabbi for a period of time, and other people enroll in group classes designed especially for converts.

People find out about conversion classes in a number of ways: through the Internet, through family and friends, or by making an appointment to meet with a synagogue rabbi who recommends a program. Some students choose a particular religious movement’s program because that is the movement to which a Jewish partner’s family belongs, or perhaps the student is attracted to a particular rabbi or synagogue of that movement.

My program, Judaism by Choice, offers a Conservative curriculum, but which also welcomes other denominations; it includes 18 three-hour classes that cover such topics as Jewish history (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, American Judaism), Jewish holidays, Shabbat, kashrut, Jewish lifecycle (birth, marriage, death), theology, prayers, philosophy and rituals.

Students must also connect to a local synagogue and attend Shabbat services weekly, meet with the synagogue rabbi, observe Shabbat fully every week — including meals from Friday night to Saturday night — keep a level of kashrut (no pork, shellfish or mixing of meat and milk), learn to read Hebrew and have experiences in the Jewish community. Students must also attend our monthly Shabbat dinners and Shabbat morning learning services at Sinai Temple or Temple Beth Am and a Havdalah social evening at private homes.

When students in my program meet the conversion requirements, I give them a letter saying that they have completed all requirements in the Judaism by Choice program and are now eligible for conversion with either the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California (interdenominational). 

2. CIRCUMCISION

Men must undergo a ritual circumcision, or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolic circumcision), which is a procedure where the mohel draws a little bit of blood from the penis.

3. CONVERSION

Once the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements, he or she meets with a beit din — a rabbinical court. The rabbis ask about why the candidate wants to convert to Judaism, what observances he or she follows and his or her knowledge of Jewish holidays and Judaica. The candidate must also willingly give up any former religion. After 30 minutes of questioning, the candidate is told whether they have passed, and those who have are asked to read aloud the “Declaration of Faith,” affirming that he or she is ready to assume the obligations of Judaism.

The candidate then immerses in the spiritual waters of the mikveh, going fully under the water three times. For the first two immersions, he or she says blessings, and on the third immersion, recites the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. After fulfilling this, the candidate is officially a Jew.

For those who want to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), conversions are regulated by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, and all converts, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are accepted. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still regulates permission to marry within the Jewish state, and non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox converts are not accepted for that ritual, although many are. 

4. WELCOMING THE NEW JEW

After the conversion, some people celebrate at their synagogue, where the congregation welcomes them to the Jewish religion. The newly converted might be called for an aliyah (saying blessings over the Torah) during the Torah service, and a special blessing might be recited for them in front of the ark during a Shabbat service. We do this at our Judaism by Choice Shabbat morning service.

Our program also includes a special ceremony at a Shabbat dinner, or a Havdalah social evening, where we officially hand the new Jew by Choice a conversion certificate and publicly acknowledge that the person is now part of the Jewish People and Jewish community. Family and friends also come to share this happy occasion.

5. FOLLOWING THE CONVERSION

We hope the new Jew by Choice will be involved in the Jewish community, in addition to involvement in a synagogue. Our program also provides supplemental programs throughout the year specially geared to Jews by Choice. These have included a pre-High Holy Days spiritual retreat, a Sukkot wine-tasting party, Chanukah and Purim parties, a second-night Passover seder and an annual trip to Israel. 

 Just as the biblical Naomi was welcoming to Ruth, so should the Jewish community be welcoming to those who embrace Judaism. Jews by Choice are knowledgeable and observant Jews, and we should all celebrate the fact that they will help the Jewish religion and Jewish people to grow and survive.


Rabbi Neal Weinberg is rabbinic director and instructor of Judaism by Choice Inc.

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Rabbi’s use of discretionary funds spurs new policies


In response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 and the Carmel forest fires in Israel in December 2010, members of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, like so many others, wanted to donate money to help the victims. So, many of them directed donations through Rabbi Isaac Jeret’s discretionary fund.

But their money never made it to organizations working on the ground in Haiti and Haifa.

Jeret, who led the 500-member Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes for seven years, allegedly not only did not send the money where he was supposed to, but instead he is believed to have taken money from his discretionary fund to make political donations to congressional campaigns across the country, according to Timothy Weiner, the synagogue’s treasurer from September 2009 through June 2012, who participated in an internal investigation of the matter.

Discretionary funds, common in most synagogues and churches, typically empower clergy to discreetly assist the needy and to support other charitable endeavors. Jeret’s case, while an aberration, could prompt other synagogues to asses their own balance between, on the one hand, trusting their rabbi and keeping the confidentiality of recipients, and, on the other, providing greater oversight and accountability for how the funds are dispersed.

The board of Ner Tamid accepted Jeret’s resignation on May 24, following an investigation initiated by the board last February that uncovered evidence indicating that Jeret had used somewhere around $10,000 from his discretionary fund to support political candidates going back several years, according to attorneys leading the investigation. The investigation is not yet complete, so a final number is not available.

Use of synagogue funds for political purposes could have potentially threatened the synagogue’s tax-exempt status, an outcome Congregation Ner Tamid has worked to head off. The IRS has not contacted the synagogue, and attorneys do not expect the federal agency to get involved.

“Given the congregation’s swift and decisive action in investigating Rabbi Jeret’s conduct, accepting his resignation once that investigation was completed, and implementing more robust corporate governance and oversight procedures to prevent any similar issues from arising in the future, the congregation has best positioned itself to address any future IRS concerns,” said attorney Nathan Hochman, a partner with Bingham McCutchen in Santa Monica, who is assisting the synagogue pro bono. Hochman headed the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008-2009.

Jeret declined to comment.

Jeret’s attorney, Nancy Kardon, said the rabbi left the synagogue on a medical leave of absence in February 2012.

“After that time, on behalf of Rabbi Jeret, we worked diligently to assist CNT in its effort to reconcile any purported misuse of the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. Rabbi Jeret has since paid back to CNT all monies for which it sought reimbursement, and, as of May 2012, formally resigned from CNT, due to his medical condition. The Rabbi offers his thanks and prayers to those who have stood by him in this trying time,” his attorney, Kardon, wrote in an e-mail to The Journal. Kardon declined to elaborate on Jeret’s medical condition, and attorneys for the synagogue also declined to elaborate.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am on the Westside, has agreed to lead the congregation on an interim basis; a search for a new rabbi will commence in the fall. Cantor Sam Radwine delayed his retirement and canceled a two-month sabbatical in Israel this summer to stay with the congregation.

Debra Schneiderman, president of the 51-year-old congregation, says Ner Tamid is well positioned to move forward.

“At Congregation Ner Tamid, we share in each other’s joys and comfort one another in our sorrows. Our community, always strong and vibrant, has rallied together in the last few months and is looking forward to building upon that strength in the coming year, when we will have the honor and privilege to be led by Rabbi Joel Rembaum and Cantor Sam Radwine.”

While Jeret was on medical leave in February 2012, board members received statements from his discretionary account, and that is what tipped them off that something was awry, Weiner said. Ner Tamid then placed Jeret on administrative leave and hired an accounting firm to begin an investigation. Board member and attorney Laura Abrahamson and Hochman headed the investigation, both offering their time pro-bono.

The investigation took a comprehensive look at all spending Jeret was involved in.  The political contributions from the discretionary fund were the most significant instances of wrongdoing, according to Abrahamson.

Weiner, who was involved in the investigation, said Jeret made the political donations privately and then used the discretionary fund to reimburse himself.

Public records indicate that Jeret made campaign contributions totaling $6,500 in 2008 and 2010. Another $6,000 came from a Rabbi Leslie Jeret; Jeret’s full name is Leslie Isaac Jeret. It is not clear which, if any, of these donations were reimbursed from the discretionary fund.

Jeret has supported both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates from a broad geographic range.

Hochman said the synagogue has already taken all the actions the IRS would require if it were to investigate. In addition to accepting Jeret’s resignation, the synagogue has revamped how it oversees the discretionary fund. Lay leaders have contacted donors who made directed gifts that were not fulfilled and offered to reimburse them or donate the funds to the intended recipients, Weiner said.

While many rabbis can tell stories of discretionary fund misuse — colleagues paying for their own child’s bar mitzvah, leasing a car or simply writing checks to oneself — it is believed that cases like Jeret’s are few and far between, said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of rabbinic placement of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

“When you consider how much money goes through discretionary funds on an aggregate basis for several thousand synagogues, remarkably little of it is misused. The money is used for positive and productive purposes,” Henkin said.

The size of funds varies widely from synagogue to synagogue, ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Donations to honor the rabbi, pushkes (collection boxes) and honorariums for lifecycle events typically fill the funds.

More often than outright abuse, the funds are the subject of misunderstanding, rabbis say.

“There is a lot of confusion on the part of rabbis and congregations about discretionary funds — what is appropriate use for them and what is not appropriate. We have tried over the years to provide some clarification for congregations and rabbis,” Henkin said.

A few years ago, the CCAR updated its discretionary fund guidelines. Ellen Aprill, a professor of tax law at Loyola Law School and a past president of Temple Israel of Hollywood, helped craft the guidelines.

Aprill cautions that if rabbis use the fund for personal benefit — even mixed personal-professional benefit, such as attending a conference — the IRS could consider the entire fund personal taxable income for the rabbi. (The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly guidelines allow for conference fees).

In addition, for congregants to take a tax deduction on their donation, the money must go to charitable purposes.

Congregants also can’t earmark a donation for a specific family, because that would essentially be laundering a person-to-person gift through a tax-exempt body. A congregant can, however, suggest a recipient to the rabbi, as long as the gift is not conditional, Aprill said.

And, of course, the disbursement must comply with the synagogue’s nonprofit status.

Aprill said while the IRS could theoretically go after Ner Tamid for influencing a political campaign, it typically doesn’t pursue cases if the nonprofit is addressing the situation.

Before this incident at Ner Tamid, the rabbi’s and cantor’s contracts stipulated that they must administer their respective discretionary funds according to Rabbinic Assembly (RA) guidelines, but no one checked regularly to make sure that was happening, said Weiner, a deputy attorney general for the state of California.

The new policy requires the board’s financial secretary to review the ledgers quarterly, and the financial secretary will also be a signatory on the account with full access to records. In alternating years, an outside accountant will review the rabbi’s and cantor’s funds, and the clergy will present to the membership an annual general breakdown of the fund. Direct reimbursement from the fund to personal accounts will not be permitted, according to Weiner.

Diversity is good for Jewish college students


In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

So, how many Jews will vote for Mitt Romney?


Here is a truism we all already know: Jews are news. The fact is, no matter how tiny the American Jewish community might be — between 1.5 and 2 percent of the population — the battle for Jewish votes will be extensively reported and analyzed.

Over the last several decades, Democratic identification overall has fluctuated both up and down, from 36 percent at the high points, in 1988 and 2008 (according to Gallup poll tracking), to lows of 31 percent in 2010. Among many traditionally Democratic groups, such as white Southerners, Catholics and others, the trend has been fairly consistently downward, even as other groups, mainly Hispanics,  became more reliable supporters of the party. However, while others were changing affiliations, Jews’ political leanings remained largely the same.

There are many explanations for the unique political behavior of the Jewish voter, most focusing on the relatively liberal views of Jews on almost all social issues, while others suggesting that the “rural, overwhelmingly Christian and Southern” nature of the GOP is a turn-off for Jewish voters. The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin framed it thus: “They don’t sound like us, they don’t talk like us, and they don’t understand us.”

Whatever the reason, in almost every election cycle of recent years, Republicans have attempted to make a new case for the “this time, it is really coming” argument — namely, that a new wave of Jewish Republican voters is about to appear. However, as I outlined in 2009 in a long piece in Commentary Magazine, “The story remained what it has been over the course of the past seven national elections, with Jews voting for Democratic candidates by colossal margins.”

Will 2012 prove any different? Last August, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow made a case somewhat reminiscent of the Republican claims of 2004 and 2008: Relying on data from the Pew Research Center in 2010, Blow argued that “the number of Jews who identify as Republican or as independents who lean Republican has increased by more than half since the year [Barack Obama] was elected. At 33 percent, it now stands at the highest level since the data have been kept. In 2008, the ratio of Democratic Jews to Republican Jews was far more than three to one. Now it’s less than two to one.”

In response to criticism from some quarters, Blow nevertheless repeated his claim a few weeks later in another column, in which he argued that “Obama’s approval rating among Jews in 2010 averaged 58 percent. This percentage was the lowest of all those representing his enthusiastic supporter groups except one, the religious unaffiliated.” Blow’s claim that Obama’s loss of support among Jews should be attributed to the president’s positions on Israel was furiously debated (many of Blow’s critics were associated with the dovish J Street lobby, and relied on many polls in which Jews rank the topic of “Israel” as fairly low in their voting priorities). Nevertheless, the question remains: Do Jews — as one might conclude from the Pew numbers — now trend Republican more than they have in the past?

To help make all this a numbers-based type of discussion, we gathered data available from four sources: the American Jewish Committee (AJC) annual surveys of Jewish opinion, Gallup surveys, the study on Jewish Distinctiveness in America by Tom W. Smith (from 2005 — we needed those to get a glimpse of previous decades) and the Pew Research Center studies. The result was quite revealing: While Pew studies suggest that the GOP is gaining somewhat among Jewish voters (that’s the basis for the Blow post), the other data seem to suggest that Jews don’t really trend Republican, but rather independent — like the rest of the electorate. In other words, the Democratic Party is losing, while the Republican Party is not necessarily gaining.

Even if Jews aren’t yet moving in droves over to the GOP camp, the data might still be considered bad news for the Democratic Party. When a Republican candidate for the presidency is getting more votes from Jewish voters, it is not usually Jewish Republican voters. As one study showed, “The average non-Jewish Bush voter identifies as a weak Republican, while the mean Jewish Bush voter is an independent-leaning Republican.” Another study, this one of the 2008 election, found that “among Independents, we see even more of a pronounced split, with Obama garnering just over 36 percent, McCain close to 30 percent and undecided at 30 percent.” Clearly, the more independent the Jewish voter, the more likely he is to choose a Republican over a Democratic nominee.

To better understand this, one must consider a follow-up on the “leanings” of independent Jewish voters. Back in 2004, a study found that “after asking independents which party they ‘leaned’ toward, 64 percent of all Jewish voters identified as Democrats, 16 percent as Republicans and 20 percent as independents.” If that is still the case, then Democrats have less to worry about, as most “leaners” tend to behave in a way similar to that of party partisans. But Republicans can hope that the Pew 2010 study is a sign that Jewish independents now trend Republican.

This is exactly what the most recent AJC study also suggests. This survey posed two questions relevant to the question of Jewish party identification. The first question is the one the AJC people included in previous polls: “In politics TODAY, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent?” The second one is a new one for AJC polls: “[IF INDEPENDENT/OTHER] As of TODAY, do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party/Democratic Party?”

The second question is the one that’s making the difference. Of the 26 percent Independents responding to this poll, 15 percent, when pressured to “lean” toward one of the parties, chose to lean GOP. Taken together, GOP voters plus those leaning toward the GOP amount in this poll to 27 percent, not far from the 29 percent registered by Pew — and a reflection of a possible rightward trend. 

Having said that, not one serious pollster or political operative expects the Jewish vote to be divided in favor of the 2012 Republican candidate or to be equally distributed. The question is not about who will be winning the Jewish vote, but rather, whether the GOP can outperform its past performances with Jewish voters. Pollster Jim Gerstein answered this question last November by saying the following: “Our latest poll of American Jews simulated an election between Obama and Romney, and perhaps presents the clearest picture of where the Jewish vote may be headed. The initial vote shows Obama leading 63 to 24 [percent]. When we allocated the undecided voters by party identification — a common practice among political pollsters when trying to map out the outcome of a race — the vote was 70 to 27 [percent].”

So what does this mean for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney?

It is important to note at this point that in reality, for Jewish votes to be of any significance come Election Day, the margin between candidates has to be very small — very, very small — and in very specific areas.

Take Ohio. Jews in this state comprise 3 percent of the vote; in 2004 George W. Bush took the election by 2.1 percent of the entire Ohio electorate. This means that even in the closest of elections, you need every single Jew to vote as one bloc to make a difference. That is never going to happen, as even the most optimistic (among Republican operatives) and the most pessimistic (among Democratic operatives) put the percentage of Jewish voters in play no higher than 15 to 18 percent, which could potentially be added to the 22 to 26 percent who voted for John McCain in 2008.

In February 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published a new analysis of party identification by religion. The bottom line, as far as Jewish voters go, was pretty clear: “Even Jewish voters, who have traditionally been and remain one of the strongest Democratic constituencies, have moved noticeably in the Republican direction; Jewish voters favored the Democrats by a 52-point margin in 2008 but now prefer the Democratic Party by a significantly smaller 36-point margin.”

Yet a May 2012 AJC survey of American Jewish opinion (which actually contained nothing Earth-shattering) found support for Obama among American Jews to be slightly higher than it had been half a year earlier, but still not very high. As Ron Kampeas of the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) reported at the time: “The AJC’s new findings are similar to those of the Public Religion Research Institute in March. That poll showed Obama scoring 62 percent of the Jewish vote, as opposed to 30 percent for a GOP candidate.”

Romney, according to the AJC survey, could get as much as 33 percent of the Jewish vote. That’s nice compared to Republican performances in previous election cycles, but not the meltdown of Jewish support for Obama that some Republican operatives predicted about a year ago. Forty percent of Jewish Americans do not approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. But this is a significant improvement compared to the September 2011 survey in which 53 percent registered in the “disapprove” column. 

A June 2012 Gallup poll on the current tendencies of Jewish voters (and accompanying analysis by Jeffrey Jones) makes clear that “Obama remains the favorite of Jewish voters but appears to be running a bit weaker among them than he did in 2008, given the 10-point drop in Jewish support for him compared with a five-point drop among all voters. Nonetheless, for those who have a short memory, maybe it is worth pointing out that 10 months ago, Gallup was saying the exact opposite — that Obama’s numbers are down among Jews proportionally to the president’s decline among other groups:

“There is little sign that President Obama is suffering disproportionately in support among Jews; 54 percent approved of his job performance from Aug. 1-Sept. 15, 13 percentage points higher than his overall 41 percent approval rating during that time, and similar to the average 14-point gap seen throughout Obama’s term.”

True, comparisons can be tricky. A year ago, the question was about presidential approval, and this time it is about voting preference. Even trickier is that Gallup compares Obama of June 2012 to Obama of October 2008. What happens if one compares June 2012 to June 2008? Suddenly, Obama doesn’t look like a loser: Back in 2008, Jewish voters hesitated during the summer, and it was only in the fall that they made up their minds to support Obama in far greater numbers than previously registered. This might — or might not — happen again this coming November. Time will tell.

Assuming that around 75 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008 (very few knowledgeable observers still believe the 78 percent exit poll number of 2008), how high can Romney climb? If the Jewish swing votes in play are no more than 18 percent — the most ambitious estimate I’ve heard from American sources in the know — Romney’s ceiling is 43 percent. But for him to get to that number, one needs to give him the votes of every single undecided Jewish voter. Realistic? Not quite.

If Romney gets half the votes of undecided Jews, he’ll be at 34 percent. That is, if you agree with the estimated 25 percent Jewish Republican voters, and the estimated 18 percent of Jewish votes in play. If you go by the exit poll (22 percent of Jews voted McCain in 2008) and add to it the lowest estimate of votes in play (I heard 12 percent), the Romney ceiling is a much lower 34 percent, and the likely Romney achievement (if he gets half of the Jewish votes in play) will be at around 28 percent of the Jewish vote. When was the last time that any Republican nominee got 30 percent or more of the Jewish vote? Reagan in 1984. It would be no mean feat if Romney were able to get more votes than McCain, George W. Bush (twice), Dole, George H. W. Bush and repeat the 1984 Reagan vote.

Writer Sara Miller contributed to this report.

Conservatives’ challenge to Orthodoxy’s near monopoly on kosher gets more serious


The Conservative movement’s ethical kosher initiative may not have been intended as a wedge into the Orthodox monopoly over kosher supervision. But the planned rollout this summer of the Conservative-backed seal of ethical kosher production, the Magen Tzedek, coincides with an increase in the number of Conservative rabbis acting as kosher supervisors.

“I see an uptick,” said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the kashrut subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the legal body of the Conservative movement.

At a time of growing activism in the Conservative movement around the issue of kashrut, the Conservative rabbinate seems to be moving into the kashrut business like never before.

Conservative rabbis for years have been giving kosher supervision to their own synagogue kitchens, as well as to local caterers and retail establishments patronized by their congregations. But they largely left commercial kosher supervision to the Orthodox.

That’s beginning to change, say Conservative rabbis active in the field. It’s partly due to the energy generated by the Magen Tzedek initiative, which will rate kosher food manufacturers according to prescribed standards of ethical behavior regarding workers, animals, the environment and financial dealings. It’s also a natural extension of Conservative interest in promoting kashrut, rabbis in the movement say.

“Our rabbis are as knowledgable about kashrut as their Orthodox colleagues, and care about it as much as they do,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s main rabbinical group. “But our emphasis is on raising Jewish adherence to kashrut observance rather than professional ritual kashrut supervision. Magen Tzedek is our unique contribution to building awareness around the impact that kashrut is intended to have upon our full development as Jews.”

The Magen Tzedek is being tested at three kosher plants to see how well the auditing process works. Once testing concludes after Passover, those three manufacturers will go through the actual Magen Tzedek evaluation procedure, and the first kosher foods carrying the new seal should be on supermarket shelves before Rosh Hashanah, according to commission co-chair Rabbi Michael Siegel.

The identity of the companies involved in the trial is being kept under wraps, but at least one is a “major food producer,” according to Rabbi Morris Allen, Magen Tzedek’s program director.

Conservative Judaism, like Orthodoxy, accepts the Torah’s commandments as obligatory, including kashrut. While the same general laws of kashrut apply, there are some distinctions—notably the standards governing wine, cheese and certain fish.

In recent years, Conservative kashrut certification has grown.

In 2008, Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit founded Kosher Michigan, which certifies nearly 30 products and establishments. In addition to the bakeries and ice-cream parlors typically supervised by Conservative rabbis, Miller oversees a company that makes dried wheat used as an ingredient in other kosher products, and in March he opened the glatt kosher dining plan at Michigan State University.

“I got into this reluctantly, but once I did, it became a passion and a mission to show that kosher-observant individuals need not rely on Orthodox hashgachah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification. “I wasn’t waving the banner five or 10 years ago, but once I became part of the kosher certification world, I realized the injustice of the Orthodox monopoly.”

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, a group of Conservative rabbis launched MSP Kosher last July. Headed by Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, the agency does not charge for its service, which Olitzky says is aimed at providing more kosher food for Jews who do not necessarily adhere to the stricter standards required by Orthodox supervision, such as glatt kosher meat.

“Plenty of people in the Jewish community who keep kosher will eat dairy out,” he says. “I’m not interested in going into hashgachah as a business. I don’t think it should be a business.”

In the past two decades, Conservative rabbis have spearheaded lawsuits challenging a number of states’ kosher laws on the grounds that they constitute government interference in religious matters. In every case, the courts agreed that the existing laws indeed privileged Orthodox definitions of kashrut and overturned them. New kosher laws in those states only require that establishments advertising themselves as kosher disclose their kosher standards, not that they subscribe to Orthodox certification.

“It’s a fair, nonsectarian way to acknowledge there are different approaches to kashrut,” said Rabbi Shalom Lewis, who was behind a recent case brought on his behalf in Atlanta by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Orthodox reaction to these legal challenges has varied from shrugs to protestation. In New York and New Jersey, Orthodox rabbis in charge of enforcing the new laws say they do a disservice to kosher consumers who, the rabbis say, are interested only in Orthodox certification.

In Georgia, Rabbi Reuven Stein, director of supervision of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, said he was “disappointed” by Lewis’ lawsuit, calling it unnecessary and unhelpful.

“Conservative rabbis do give hechsherim, and we’ve never had an issue with it,” he said, using the Hebrew word for kosher certification.

Conservative leaders long have said that Magen Tzedek is not a replacement for Orthodox kosher certification, and only will be given to manufactured products already carrying a recognized kosher label, or to raw products such as fruits and vegetables that don’t need certification.

Even so, the Magen Tzedek leadership characterizes its relationship with the Orthodox Union, whose label will appear on two of the three first products carrying the new ethical seal, as friendlier than the OU describes it.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s Kosher Division, stands by the position he articulated soon after the May 2008 immigration raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. The Iowa plant’s demise pushed the Magen Tzedek project to the front burner of Conservative movement priorities.

“We believe that all these important issues—the environment, workers’ rights and so on—are most effectively handled by government agencies that have the expertise and the mandate to monitor them,” Gernack told JTA.

He said the OU was “dismayed” at Allen’s appearance on a recent episode of the TV show “American Greed” devoted to former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, who is now serving a 27-year prison sentence for financial fraud.

“The sentence is a travesty,” Genack said.

That doesn’t mean the OU will hinder Magen Tzedek or any other additional certification a kosher food manufacturer might seek.

“If there is a company that wants to use Magen Tzedek, we will not object to it appearing on the label. We also would not object to them putting halal on their label,” Genack said, referring to Muslim dietary laws. “These are marketing decisions the company makes on its own.”

Don’t believe gloomy forecasts on Conservative Judaism


Conservative Judaism is dying, I hear—or at least according to the media. Not so.

Please don’t tell me that because North America’s United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has had its problems, that means Conservative/Masorti Judaism is declining around the Jewish world.

Yes, the number of USCJ affiliates has diminished from its peak of 800 a half-century ago to its current 650. Why? Dozens of congregations have remained self-identified as Conservative, yet have disaffiliated from the USCJ for internal organizational reasons.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the recently appointed USCJ executive vice president, is addressing the decline in membership, as well as looking to seed new congregations in areas with rising Jewish populations.

In assessing the USCJ’s temporary institutional challenges, let us recall that in the 1960s, a declining Orthodox Union was re-envisioned successfully, while the diminishing Union of American Hebrew Congregations effected a similar about-face in the Reform movement in the 1970s.

In the words of American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, “As our 355 years on American soil testify, we [Jews] have repeatedly confounded those who predicted gloom and doom, and after periods of adversity, have often emerged stronger than ever before.”

But to get the full picture of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, a wider lens is needed beyond the limited confines of the USCJ, especially to look at the denomination globally. A glimpse into the internationalization of the movement will be evident during the Rabbinical Assembly convention March 27-31 in Las Vegas.

Forty years ago, the USCJ serving North America was the only organization worldwide with which Conservative Jews could affiliate. In contrast, in 2011, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has become a growing and ever younger global movement. There are nearly 60 Masorti kehillot in Israel, plus another 140 throughout Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Africa and Asia. In the past eight months alone, eight new European communities have affiliated, as have six additional Israeli kehillot.

The active involvement of large numbers of young people augurs well for Conservative/Masorti Judaism’s future. More than 25,000 youth are members of USY (North America) or NOAM (Noar Masorti in Israel, Latin America and Europe). Tens of thousands of students are enrolled in Conservative/Masorti full-day Jewish schools in the United States and Latin America. Nearly 18,000 campers are part of Ramah summer camps in North America or in Ramah NOAM camps. Hundreds of synagogue supplemental schools educate vast numbers of youngsters, as do full- and half-day synagogue-based preschools.

In terms of the rabbinate, in 1960, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City was the only institution training Conservative rabbis for pulpits in the United States and Canada. Over the past half-century, the Rabbinical Assembly has grown by the admission of multilingual rabbis educated not only at JTS but also at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, the Seminario Rabbinico Latinamericano in Buenos Aires, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and a rabbinical seminary in Budapest.

The RA has grown from fewer than 800 male rabbis to more than 1,600 men and women. Its regions now extend to Israel, Latin America, Canada and Europe.

Fifty years ago, only an infinitesimal percentage of Conservative Jewish baby boomers had visited Israel, either as children or as young adults. By 2004, a JTS Ratner Center survey of 1,000 Conservative young adults found that more than 60 percent had been to Israel at least once by age 22.

Such lofty numbers have been increased by the subsequent impact of Birthright Israel. Ratner data also indicate that in contrast to many of their non-affiliated peers, more than 90 percent of Conservative young adults see Israel as “important” or “very important.”

In the early 1960s, few Conservative young men or women enrolled in Jewish studies courses during their college years. Today, substantial numbers of Conservative-affiliated collegians study Hebrew language, the Holocaust, modern Israel, modern Jewish history, Israeli literature and other Judaica subjects.

The quality of current-day Conservative student life on campus far surpasses all previous levels of campus engagement.

In 2011, on Shabbat mornings, America’s campus Conservative minyanim provide a previously unavailable option that is both egalitarian and traditional. Similar thriving has blossomed among MAROM (Mercaz Ruhani Masorti) networks involving thousands of Masorti collegians in Israel, Europe and Latin America.

Supporters of Jewish life should be reassured as to the future vitality of the Conservative/Masorti movement in the United States, Canada, Israel and all parts of the Jewish Diaspora. There are nearly 1 million affiliated adherents globally, with hundreds of thousands of others on the verge of joining more than 900 Conservative/Masorti communities.

With hundreds of congregations and schools, and thousands of rabbis, cantors and educators, Conservative/Masorti Judaism’s glass is more than half full.

(Rabbi Alan Silverstein is the board chair of the Masorti Israel Foundation and spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in West Caldwell, N.J. He also is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues.)

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’


Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

Briefs: Interfaith call to action from Reform organization, Conservatives reflect on future


Interfaith Call to Action

The prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” Why the word “justice” and not “charity?” Because justice addresses the root of a problem, Rabbi Suzanne Singer said, paraphrasing Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism and the man who started the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, the Religious Action Center.

“Congregations tend to be good at doing a mitzvah day — feed the hungry, clothing the poor — and that’s very important, but we also need to spend time addressing the root of the problem, so there are fewer hungry people, fewer poor people,” said Rabbi Singer, the chair of Interfaith Call to Justice: LA 2007. The Nov. 11-12 conference will be a two-day interfaith social justice training and community strategy planning conference.

Singer organized her first advocacy conference in 2005 at Temple Sinai of Oakland, and the upcoming southern conference follows the same model. An interfaith effort with some 60 sponsors, “the point of the conference is to help congregants get involved in [local] legislative and public policy advocacy,” she said. While her first conference focused on the problems — housing costs, hunger, poverty, etc. — this one will focus on how to solve those problems, by teaching participants effective advocacy, community organizing, and working with existing organizations in those fields.

But why interfaith?

“Each one of our faiths mandates that we must take care of strangers, widows, orphans,” Singer said. “We really need to join forces and come together. We can set our differences aside and work for common goals.”

Organizers request that participants sign up online by Friday, at http://www.call-to-justice.org.

On The Future of Judaism

Being Jewish in the next generation is largely a matter of choice, Rabbi Arnold M. Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) said last Friday night at Temple Sinai. The seventh JTS chancellor was the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Scholar-in-Residence, and in the course of the weekend delivered three lectures on the future of American Judaism, including “Modernity, Mitzvah and the Future of American Judaism,” “The Meanings of Mitzvah” and “Rethinking Conservative Judaism.”

“Moses Mendelssohn already recognized that volunteerism, choice, autonomy, individual responsibility — while wonderful, wonderful things — complicate the job of [building] Jewish community,” Eisen said. Unlike Rashi and Rambam, Mendelssohn was the first Jewish thinker “who had to worry that the Jews who read his book might decide not to be Jewish because they didn’t like what he said in his book,” he said.

In other words, Jews today must confront the fact that — unlike in the past — being Jewish is largely voluntary. “Therefore, since we must persuade every Jew to step into a Jewish time and space … you can’t anymore presume that they should be here, or you have the right to demand they be here, because they’ll just run the other way if you do that — and you have to fill these spaces with contents that are so full of joy and excitement that they need to be here,” Eisen said. “This is not an easy thing.”

The way to do it is by building community — particularly Jewish camps and day schools that imbue the values of the community. “We are in the business of building communities. If we do not do this, nothing else will be successful in 2007 in the United States of America.”

Eisen spoke about denominationalism and the future of Conservative Judaism in greater depth on Sunday, but on Friday night he said the current trend toward post-denominationalism, or groups who may be Conservative in practice but don’t identify as such, are not a problem for the movement. “Conservative Jews don’t see it as a loss if they participate in a group that’s not labeled Conservative, but just Jewish,” Eisen said. He himself is a product of this trend, since years ago he belonged to the non-denominational Minyan Ma’at in New York, which later produced many of the faculty at JTS.

“What is best for the Jewish [community] is best. We’re not here to build up a particular movement; we’re here to build up the Jewish people,” Eisen said.

Nevertheless, he did say that where denominations fit in is that one can’t be a Jew in general, but eventually must make decisions such as where to send kids to school, what type of prayers one wants, what is one’s outlook on the world. “You’ll have to answer questions like this,” he said. “You’ll very likely band together with people who see things like you do.”

“I think that we have to get our minds around a different notion of what denominations are. They’re not ends in themselves. They’re not ultimate. They’re adjectives. There are things that are far more important,” he said. “It is not truly important whether there are Conservative Jews 100 years from now; it is important whether Torah exists, that God is talked about and believed in and acted upon. That is ultimately important….”

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals


Long before he emerged as a leading scholar of American Jewry, and decades before he would be looked to as the potential savior of the Conservative movement, Arnold Eisen was gunning for a journalism internship at the Washington Post.

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Eisen was in the running for editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian — the position brought with it an automatic summer job at the Post.

Eisen lost the election in what he says was then the greatest disappointment of his life.

That election diverted Eisen’s career path from journalism to academia and initiated a journey that culminated Wednesday when he was inaugurated as the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.

But even as he settles into his new post as head of the movement’s chief academic institution, it is the values of the profession he did not pursue more than those of the academy that are figuring prominently in his plans.

In describing his vision for the coming year, Eisen speaks of dialogue rather than direction. He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of “canned lectures.” And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists — and Jews — love most: talking.

“To be a Conservative Jew is in large part to want to be part of a certain conversation in word and in deed,” Eisen said recently in a wide-ranging discussion in his JTS office.

As workers made final preparations for the inauguration seminary in the courtyard below, Eisen described Conservative Judaism not as an ironclad ethos or series of principles, but as “a constellation of attitudes and behaviors and commitments that are coherent and that distinguish this movement from others.”

Eisen takes the JTS helm at a time when the Conservative movement is being seen by many as floundering, its numbers in decline and its ideological clarity muddled.

His predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, in his parting message said the movement suffered from a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Once the largest synagogue denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has fallen into second place behind the Reform, and it has become routine to speak of the movement’s lack of direction and coherence.

All those challenges were awaiting Eisen when he arrived at his new office on Broadway and 122nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what concerns the incoming chancellor most is not the supposed apathy within the movement — a notion he says is “nothing less than absurd” — or even the decline in its numbers.

“Numbers don’t keep me up at night; Israel keeps me up at night,” Eisen said. “I’m worried about the security of Israel, and I’m worried about the apparent decline in attachment on the part of American Jews to Israel. This literally, from time to time, keeps me up at night.”

In the coming year, Eisen plans to focus his efforts on building stronger ties between American Jews and the State of Israel. It is part of a commitment by JTS to the Jewish people, one of three constituencies — along with the Conservative movement and the broader North American society — that Eisen wants the seminary to serve.

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

It is the third constituency, the Conservative movement, where expectations for Eisen’s tenure are the greatest. In addition to declining numbers, the movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision to ordain gay clergy polarized the rabbinic leadership and sparked fears that the denomination in the center of the ideological spectrum could not hold.

Eisen has said that the movement’s historic commitment to religious pluralism — the notion that competing views of halacha (Jewish law) can peacefully coexist — is not enough to hold Conservative Judaism together.

Instead, he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah — a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

It is a task, Eisen says, that is urgent for a movement that has struggled to straddle the gap between fidelity to traditional Jewish law and principled adaptation to modernity.

“To bring Jews closer to mitzvah, one has to enrich the conception they’re walking around with,” Eisen said. “And that’s part of the task.”

Eisen’s emphasis on the concept of mitzvah could end up further muddying the theological line between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been firm in insisting that his movement is best understood as mitzvah-oriented, not halachic-oriented — a distinction aimed at explaining that even as the Reform movement increases its embrace of ancient practices and rituals, it rejects the traditional Orthodox and Conservative notion of Jews being bound by an overarching system of religious law.

Eisen shows no indication of wanting to follow Yoffie’s lead in affirmatively severing the direct relationship between mitzvah and halacha. Yet he clearly sees the Conservative predicament in sociological terms, as a conflict between the traditional sense of commandedness and the modern ideology of the “sovereign self,” the notion that each person is lord and ruler of their own lives and practice.

In other words, Eisen’s opening of a discussion on mitzvah could be understood as an attempt to address the challenge of how to inculcate a sense of obligation among followers without their feeling from the start that they are being told what they must do.

Since being tapped for the chancellorship, Eisen has traveled the country on a “listening tour,” and what he found has made him optimistic. Conservative Jews want greater JTS involvement in their lives, he said. They want a clear message about what their movement stands for. They want improved quality and greater cooperation across the various arms of the movement. And on the eve of his inauguration, Eisen says he is poised to give it all to them.

Why the Conservative movement endorsed gays


Last week, the Conservative movement paved the way for ordination of gay rabbis and the performance of commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. But the decisions that came out of the two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee — the advisory body for the movement — were much more nuanced than headlines suggested.

After the 25-member committee heard five responsa (halachic papers ruling on the subject), the group voted to ratified three, allowing Conservative seminaries and rabbis various options from which to choose:

  • Rabbi Joel Roth presented an opinion upholding the movement’s earlier position barring gay clergy and commitment ceremonies. It received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Elliot Dorff presented an opinion that would allow commitment ceremonies and gay clergy while retaining the biblical prohibition on anal sex. It also received 13 votes.
  • Rabbi Leonard Levy’s opinion called for reparative therapy for gays. It received six votes — the minimum for adoption.
  • Two other responsa, both of which called for the full ordination of gays with no prohibitions on sexual activity, were voted into “takanot” — like constitutional amendments — and needed a majority of 13 votes to be adopted. They did not receive the votes.

Shortly after the decisions, Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism and author of the most liberal opinion ratified, spoke to The Journal.

Jewish Journal: What does the ratification of your responsa this mean for you?

Rabbi Elliot Dorff: It takes a major burden off my shoulders. I’ve been involved in this since 1991, when the law committee first met on this. And then again when we started in January 2004, for the last three years. I’m really glad that we came to a conclusion and the conclusion was favorable.

JJ: Why go so far as to allow for gay commitment ceremonies and ordination but come out against anal sex?

ED: The strategy that we used was to uphold the prohibition in the Torah, at least how that prohibition has been understood by the rabbis, while revoking the prohibitions that the rabbis of old have added.

It’s a compromise position. The verse itself [Leviticus 18:22] is not clear. There are a number of biblical scholars that have different understanding to what that means. The mishnah and the Talmud prohibited anal sex. Then they added to it; the rabbis also prohibited male-male forms of sex, oral sex or mutual masturbation or hugging and kissing.

In our case, the Torah is like the constitution, and the rabbinic rulings are a secondary authority. It’s more justifiable to change what the rabbis added than to change the Torah itself. It’s somewhat akin to Congress changing previous legislation than Congress changing a constitutional amendment.

JJ: What will the prohibition mean, in practical terms? Will you become the bedroom police?

ED: Neither for heterosexuals or for homosexuals; it’s simply not my business what either do in bed. It’s just as much against Jewish law for heterosexuals to have sex during nidda, the menstrual period, as for homosexual couples to have anal sex…. When we do weddings, very rarely do Conservative rabbis talk to couples about abstaining from sex during the menstruation period. It’s simply counterproductive if the rabbis don’t think the couple will uphold it. In the same instance we would not talk about it to heterosexual couples, we wouldn’t talk about it with homosexual couples unless they ask. If you know someone’s not going to obey a particular law, better that they do it not knowing it’s a violation than do it intentionally. Rabbis should not say things that are not going to be heard.

Jewish law sets up ideals, and in every aspect of our lives we do not fulfill those ideals. So three times a day we ask God for forgiveness. Even if a gay couple were to engage in anal sex, that doesn’t mean that they are any worse than the rest of us.

They are sinning, but no different than the rest of us. The point is that — none of us is perfect. None of us fulfills every letter of the law.

JJ: Some people have hailed this decision as paving the way for gay rights in the Conservative movement. But others find it hypocritical to call gay intercourse a sin.

ED: It’s a violation of Jewish law. That’s what it is. The word “sin” carries all kinds of Christian connotations. It carries with it Calvinistic and Puritan understandings, especially the connotations of the word sin as in Jonathan Edwards quote, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” — that you’re going to be banned to hell. This is not the case. This is not at all the understanding of violating God’s will. I hesitate to call it a sin. It’s a violation. We all make violations. We have to be very careful about mounting a high horse and making a campaign against sinners and look at ourselves first.

JJ: At the same time, while your teshuvah was approved, so was Rabbi Levy’s, which seemed to espouse homosexual reeducation, taking the earlier position backward. What was the place for this responsa in the law committee?

ED: I voted against his teshuvah. Our teshuvah includes a summary of the best research available for sexual orientation and origins of sexual orientation and children of homosexuals. Our teshuvah has 30 to 40 different studies in regards to statements, and the overwhelming majority of people agree that homosexuality is not changeable, and by the time you’re 6 or 7 your sexual orientation is a part of you and cannot be changed. That’s the research that we quote and that’s the overwhelming research of the psychological community. Our teshuvah is based on the best research available. Rabbi Levy found one [person] who says [sexual orientation] can be changed.

It’s a minority opinion. It got six votes — barely enough. Ours got 13 votes.

JJ: There were two minority opinions that went farther than yours in giving full acceptance to gays. Why weren’t they endorsed?

ED: The two responsa — that we should simply change the law altogether, that gay sex would not be any more prohibited than straight sex in a marital relationship – each got seven votes, which would normally make them valid options as well. But there’s another procedure in the law committee that says if a majority of committee votes that it is really a takana [an amendment] then it needs thirteen votes to pass, an absolute majority. They were voted takanot, so they were not considered validated opinions.

The writers will submit [their responsa] as a concurring opinions to ours, which means they’re not official positions, but they will be published. People will be able to read them, and they can follow them. Rabbis will take more seriously those teshuvot that will be validated by the committee. But rabbis on their own authority can make their own decisions.

JJ: The 25 members of the law committee vote on all the responsa. One rabbi voted twice — for opposing opinions, upholding the ban and permitting it. What does that mean?

ED: That is an option. At least one person thought that both teshuvot presented reasonable interpretations of Jewish law. That’s the nature of law. It’s not a zero-sum game.

JJ: The UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies has already announced it will begin ordination of gay rabbis. What do you think will happen at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the other seminaries in Budapest and South America? Will they choose to ordain gay rabbis?

ED: Given the fact that both teshuvot got 13 votes, individual seminaries will have to decide if they will adapt one teshuvah or another. We [at the UJ] met with the board and administration in advance of the meeting and decided if they endorsed [my teshuvah] we’d follow that opinion.

It means that there’s room in our Conservative community for those who think that Gays and Lesbians should not be ordained and those who think they should be. Some congregations will choose to interview them, and some will not.

We’re much better off now than we were in 1985, when the first women rabbi was ordained in the Conservative movement, and there are some congregations that still will not accept a woman rabbi. It’s not a happy fact of life. Gays and lesbians understand that our society still has a lot of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that’s true in the Jewish community as well. Some congregations will choose not to interview people who are gay and lesbian. That seems to me like a very bad thing to do.

JJ: Ziegler became its own school in 1994. Do you think that your teshuvah’s being approved is a symbol of West Coast’s more liberal Jewish values’ influence on the East Coast?

ED: I hesitate to say that because this is not just a West Coast phenomenon.

JJ: People have said that ordaining gays would split the Conservative movement apart. Four rabbis resigned in protest from the law committee. How do you think this multioption answer will affect the Conservative movement as a whole?

ED: The Conservative movement went through the ordination of women a generation ago. We lost far more people on the left in 1968, when the Reconstructionist movement was founded, because we were not moving fast enough to equalize the place of Jewish women. We lost a few people in 1983 [when they voted to ordain women rabbis], and women are 50 percent of the Jewish population. Now we’re talking about gays and lesbians, which are 3 percent to 7 percent of the population. These decisions will not affect most Conservative Jews.

I hope it will attract a number of people to the Conservative movement who have been repelled by our stand on this issue until now, who have gone to more liberal movements.

JJ: Now that the Conservative movement will be ordaining gays, how do you see the Conservative movement differing from the Reform movement, which has become more traditional than it was in the past?

ED: The Reform movement still endorses individual autonomy. Like the Orthodox, we see halacha as being binding. But unlike the Orthodox movement, we understand it as changing and evolving, a legal living system. The fact that we view halacha as binding and the Reform does not translate into practical issues. Ninety-five percent of our services will be in Hebrew. Conservative synagogues will have kosher kitchens. The vast majority of Reform synagogues do not. The majority of Reform children do not go to day schools. Half the Conservative movement’s children go to day school or Hebrew school. It doesn’t seem to me the differences between the two movements are at all immaterial. They’re very material. And I think that’s a good thing. One of the best assets of American Judaism is it has multiple ways to enter Jewish life.

JJ: Anything else you want to add?

ED: What has happened this week is not a sign of a splintered movement, it’s the mark of a movement that cherishes pluralism. Aristotle said that it is unwise to pretend that things are clearer than they are. And I think that is indeed what happened here. We did not pretend the entire movement is behind one opinion or another. We said quite loudly that we have three opinions on the issue. I think the real strength of the Conservative movement is to state that clearly and to live with each other quite nicely. Thank you.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms


Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit bethshalomwhit@adelphia.net

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe


I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
 
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
 
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
 
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
 
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
 
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
 
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
 
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
 
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
 
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
 
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
 
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
 
It’s that time of year.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Conservatives Focus on Intermarrieds


Stephen Lachter didn’t know what to expect when a friend dragged him to a men’s club meeting at his Conservative synagogue five years ago.

“My father was in a men’s club, and to me, it was guys sitting around playing pinochle and volunteer ushering,” he admitted.

Instead, Lachter was surprised to see “interesting people having serious discussions,” and he “fell into a session on kiruv,” or outreach, to intermarried families. “I said to myself, this is something shuls need to be talking about.”

Today, Lachter is a kiruv consultant, a lay leader trained to reach out to intermarried families in his Washington congregation. He’s part of a nationwide program run by the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is aimed at making Conservative synagogues more welcoming to their non-Jewish members.

The initiative comes at a time when the Conservative movement is concerned about declining numbers. The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has consistently been ahead of the Conservative movement in reaching out to the intermarried.

That groundwork is bearing fruit. Last December at its biennial convention, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own kiruv initiative, advocating a more open attitude toward members’ non-Jewish spouses, while still holding conversion as the preferred goal.

The document, which has been distributed to Conservative congregations around the country, doesn’t go as far as the Men’s Club kiruv initiative, but it’s a big step in the right direction, said Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

“Four years ago, we set our goal to put kiruv on the Conservative movement agenda within five years. We did it in three and a half,” he said.

In the past three years, the Men’s Club organization has held seven training seminars for lay leaders and now has close to 40 kiruv consultants working in Conservative congregations around the country. The consultants set up kiruv committees at their synagogues and organize discussion groups with intermarried couples, their parents and grandparents.

At Kiruv consultant Lachter’s congregation, “people have come out of the woodwork,” he said. “How do you talk to your child who is interdating? We don’t have that language. How do grandparents deal with their grandchildren, teaching them what Judaism is without treading on toes?”

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs also has organized rabbinic seminars for interested Conservative rabbis on the assumption that kiruv consultants have to work closely with their rabbis to be effective. More than 120 rabbis have taken part in such seminars, including about 30 at a gathering held recently at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom.

In its April 2006 edition, the federation’s Kiruv Initiative states its position as “in favor of conversion if possible,” while recognizing that many non-Jewish spouses “lead Jewish lives and raise Jewish families” even if they don’t convert themselves.

“The [federation] favors meeting these people where they are and assisting them in making Jewish choices,” the document concludes.

That’s a subtle distinction from the United Synagogue position. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue’s executive vice president, spoke diplomatically about the federation approach.

“Anything one can do to encourage people to identify more clearly as Jews is good,” he said. “It’s not the approach we’re using, but it’s hard to be against an attempt to reach out to people.”

Rabbinic and lay training seminars are planned for Cincinnati and Anaheim in November, with more to follow next spring. This winter, the federation will begin an online evaluation of cultural change in the congregations taking part in the program.

At the Berkeley gathering, some of the rabbis, including Netivot Shalom’s Rabbi Stuart Kelman, were part of the Tiferet Project, a four-year effort that culminated with last year’s publication of “A Place in the Tent,” a booklet that urges the Conservative movement to adopt a more welcoming attitude toward intermarried families.

“For me, it’s not even a question,” Kelman said of the kiruv consultant idea. “One of the reasons there’s no bimah in my congregation is I’m trying to create a congregation that is accessible. I don’t think the rabbis can do it themselves; the best way to create cultural change is to empower lay people.”

Many of the rabbis have practical concerns: Their members are intermarrying, and they don’t want to lose them.

Rabbi Chai Levy of Marin County’s Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon noted that the most recent statistics in the county show that 90 percent of children ages 2-5 in families that identify as Jewish have a non-Jewish parent.

“The future of my congregation is, obviously, intermarried couples,” she said. “I have to think seriously about these people.”

 

Them and Us


“Jews are just stupid. I’m telling you Rob, they’re just stupid.”

“Can I quote you on that, rabbi?”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis hesitated a second, then said, “Sure, you can quote me.”

Of course, he wasn’t talking generally. Some of the rabbi’s best friends are Jews. He is passionate in his love of Judaism, second to none.

That’s why it sends him into a rage to see how the Jews — from the leaders of his Conservative movement to the man and woman in the street — deal with converts and the whole issue of conversion.

And he’s right.

At 81, frail of body but sharp-tongued and wise, Rabbi Schulweis has made it his mission to preach the gospel of conversion to the Jews. That is we, as individuals and as a people, must seek and embrace converts. Doing so will not only improve Jewish life but improve our own lives as Jews.

Here’s the second half of his quote:

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Schulweis said. “I want them to see the blood transfusion into the veins of the people. Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time. For the life of me, I don’t understand why there should not be a proactive effort to accept converts.

“It’s a mitzvah to embrace these people.”

On June 1, Schulweis’ synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, held a Shavuot service welcoming converts within the community. The holiday has special meaning for converts. On it, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a non-Jewish woman whose love for God and Torah led her to convert to Judaism.

To coincide with the VBS event, the synagogue created and distributed “Your People, My People: Journeys,” a 36-page booklet compiling the personal stories of 27 converts. I didn’t get to the service, but I did get the book.

What’s inside are the kind of heartfelt, moving stories of personal transformation that Oprah would kill for.

Cheryl Gillies had little religious upbringing and was out searching for a meaningful tradition when she read about the VBS outreach program. She walked in and found a tradition that matched her inner yearnings. “Judaism,” she writes, “places emphasis on the deeds and actions one performs in this world, and the accountability hit home.”

Chris Hardin fell in love with Jennifer Rea, who was studying for conversion at the time they met. He attended some classes with her and grew to feel he belonged. “Judaism,” he concluded, “is the best kept secret in the world.”

Elisabeth Kesten was raised a devout Protestant in Germany, the step-granddaughter of a concentration camp officer. As she read more about Judaism, she resisted the feelings that drew her toward it.

At 13, she decided to learn Hebrew; at 14, she was confirmed in the Protestant church. “Being Jewish didn’t seem like an option to me,” she writes, “but God wasn’t giving me the choice.”

She stopped going to church and joined the small Jewish community in Nuremburg. She informed her parents she was converting.

“A protestant evangelical minister told me I would go to hell for rejecting Jesus. I asked him if all Jews murdered by the Germans would go to hell. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then I’ll be with them, and that would be fine with me.’ Only when I am Jewish,” Kesten writes, “am I truly happy.”

And yet … Jewish organizations and synagogues refuse to make conversion more of a priority.

There are several reasons Jews treat conversion like kryptonite, all of them bad. In Roman times, according to the historian Salo Baron, Jews who proselytized were beheaded. Under the Emperor Constantine, converts were burned alive. Eventually, their punishments became our aversion.

Today, with no such threats hanging over our heads, why do we still desist?

My guess is twofold: blatant ignorance and subtle racism.

In order to reach out to others, we must first know what we are talking about, and most of us don’t. Why be Jewish? What does it mean? What does it offer, and what does it require?

If only we could answer these questions for ourselves (go ahead, try it), much less discuss them with non-Jews.

Jewish leaders who oppose widespread conversion efforts often use this very reason: There is so much education to be done among our own, why go outside?

But Rabbi Schulweis has found that engaging his congregants in conversion efforts actually increases their own understanding.

“One cannot have outreach without inreach,” he said. “And you can’t have inreach without outreach. Jews can only learn when they can teach. The only way they learn is to do something with their learning. They have to discover what is so important about Judaism. Our outreach program complements our inreach program.”

The other barrier to such programs is nastier. Many Jews cling to their identity as a status marker — it makes them feel different and special. To admit the multitudes is, in their minds, to dilute the brand, to fling open the gates of the country club. This is a message too many Jews never fail to convey to spiritual seekers from other faiths.

“They are scared of us,” said Schulweis of those seeking to learn more. “They are scared of the synagogue, because they have been told to be a Jew is a racial matter. They’re told it’s a matter of birth, and you can’t come in, because you will not be trusted and not be embraced.”

Few groups are bucking this trend. A Web site — www.convert.org — exists to make it somewhat easier, and VBS is leading the way among synagogues.

At his shul, said Rabbi Schulweis, prospective converts “are overwhelmed by the greeting. They know the rabbis of VBS love these people.”

As for the critics who say VBS is wasting too much time and money on outreach: “When they became us,” said Rabbi Schulweis, ” they are no longer them.”

For information on how to receive a copy of “Your People, My People” e-mail Jane Jacobs at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue: < href="mailto:jjacobs1@vbs.org">jjacobs1@vbs.org

 

Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move


The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

Spoof Rockers Pen ‘UnOrthodox’ Tunes


Two minutes into a What I Like About Jew concert, singer Rob Tannenbaum hears chairs scraping and feet trudging toward the exit.

“We tell people, ‘Look around, because not all of you are going to be here until the end,'” says the band’s co-founder, Sean Altman.

Never mind that the Boston Globe called the musical comedy duo “racy and funny and smart and affectionate … for a generation of fully assimilated Jews who grew up on punk rock and ‘South Park.'” The chair-scrapers apparently do not appreciate the band’s hillariously crass, politically incorrect, subversively funny and X-rated musical chutzpah, which makes Adam Sandler look like a choirboy. Consider “Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer,” who is forced to buy Santa’s toys wholesale; the circumcision ditty, “A Little Off the Top”; and “Hot Jewish Chicks,” who put “the whore in hora.”

“They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let’s Eat,” adds dandruff and acne to the list of Passover plagues.

The artists, who have performed together for seven years, will play for the first time in Los Angeles on April 20 and 21 at Tangier Lounge in Los Feliz. The revue will include a performance by Jewish comic Morgan Murphy (a writer on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show”) and songs from the band’s new CD, “UnOrthodox.”

What I Like About Jew is more irreverent than unorthodox, which is typical of artists immersed in what critics call the bourgeoning “hipster Heeb” movement. Like Jewcy T-shirts and the “Jewsploitation” flick, “The Hebrew Hammer,” their work sets out to replace images of the neurotic nebbish with an new persona: the cocky, hard-ass Jew.

“We’re having fun rejecting, embracing and acknowledging the stereotypes,” Altman, who is in his 40s, says from his Harlem brownstone.

“Our music appeals to Jews who connect to their roots by watching edgy comics like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart,” Tannenbaum, also 40-something, says from his Manhattan office. “People have criticized hipster Heebs for being glib and superficial and not getting Jews into synagogue, but we don’t have a cattle prod, which is what we’d need to get these Jews into temple. What we can do is share with them some of our own experiences about post-assimilationist Jewish identity.”

Actually, the musicians have lured Jews into shul, when they’ve played the occasional synagogue gig. Rabbi Lia Bass scheduled them for a concert at her Conservative, Arlington, Va., shul in 2005 — in part to draw a younger demographic to her congregation.

“The band has its pulse on the unaffiliated Jewish community,” she explains. But she was sure to warn congregants “that the show was raunchy and that they should come at their own risk.”

Rabbi Chava Koster wasn’t sure she’d be able to sit through her first What I Like About Jew concert at a club several years ago.

“But it proved to be an eye-opening take on American Jewry,” recalls the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Reform B’nai Israel-The Village Temple. When the act later played at her synagogue, “people first squirmed, then you heard furtive laughter, and then roaring at the jokes about Christmas envy and factory bar mitzvahs.”

“Today I Am a Man” mocks the bandmates’ own bar mitzvahs, both of whom were so secular, “mine almost had a pork bar,” Tannenbaum says.

Tannenbaum met Altman at Brown University, where the two were (and still are) a study in contrasts. Altman, a professional musician and former front man of the band, Rockapella, is 6-foot-5, jovial and happily married to an opera singer he met on the Jewish online dating service, JDate. Tannenbaum is shorter, with a wicked wit, a day job as music editor of Blender magazine and a grudge against the 18 women who consecutively rejected him on JDate.

What I Like About Jew began in 1998, when Tannenbaum showed Altman a song he had written after performing in a punk-metal band in order to write about the experience for Details magazine. It was a December dilemma diatribe, satirically sung like a Nat King Cole ballad, which cheekily cites a certain anti-Semitic slur.

The impressed Altman immediately invited Tannenbaum to perform the song with him at a downtown Christmas concert, where the club’s manager dourly approached them during intermission. Some patrons had been offended by their use of the K-word, the manager said. Undaunted, the musicians enunciated the epithet even more clearly during their next set.

“I thought, ‘African American rappers aren’t afraid to use the N-word; gays aren’t afraid to say, “fag,” but Jews are still terrified of the term, “kike,”‘” Tannenbaum recalls. “It’s part of that old Jewish fear that if you stand out, someone’s going to take you to Auschwitz. But we wanted to deflate the power of the slur by not making it taboo anymore.”

The performers decided to stand out during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal by writing “Hanukah With Monica,” which describes “Eight whole days of goin’ nuts/on the presidential putz.” The clever ditty received national radio airplay in 1999 and put the band on the Manhattan club circuit.

The musicians went on to play sold-out crowds and receive mostly rave reviews everywhere, from the Village Voice to the Washington Post. (“If I were a rich man, I’d plunk down the cash to see this show,” The New York Times quipped).

Their repertoire now includes “J-Date,” where “everyone’s funny and everyone’s smart/and 20 pounds heavier than they say they are.” “Let’s Eat” mocks the musicians’ own ignorance about Judaism: “We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt; the year was 1492. Hitler had just invaded Poland. Madonna had just become a Jew.”

Then there’s “Jews for Jesus,” which came about when the songwriters mused that while they’re unobservant, they haven’t sunk so low as to become Christian. The Ramones-inspired tirade attacks the sect with punk rock vitriol: “Jews for Jesus, I wanna chop you into pieces … I hope you get lots of diseases. You’re born again, that’s nice. Stay dead — that’s my advice.”

But while the performers are bad boys, “We’re bad Jewish boys, which means we’re not really so bad,” Tannenbaum insists. True, there are those chair-scrapers and the reviewer who couldn’t decide if the Rat Pack-style “Chicks” was racist or misogynistic.

Altman insists the song is affectionate in both ways: “We present the characters as buffoons, like Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family,’ so you can’t really take them seriously.”

What I Like About Jew will play the Tangier Lounge, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. For tickets, contact (323) 666-8666 or www.virtuous.com. The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores.

The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores or can be purchased online at www.whatilikeaboutjew.com.

 

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Choosing Pluralism


We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

Orthodox But Not Monolithic


The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.

But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union’s 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called “The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity.”

The four-day conference highlighted the diversity — and at times the tension — in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.

The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha — Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities — but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.

While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night’s “Fireside Chat” featuring two perceived “factions” of Orthodoxy. Representing the more “modern” faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D’asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.

For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.

The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B’nai David Judea.

“How Flexible is Orthodoxy?” featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, “How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?

A woman’s role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman’s-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.

Another perspective on women’s issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews’ broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as “necessary” for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.

On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women’s issues.

On the matter of Israel’s centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox – who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a “Zionist entity” — now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.

But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel (“The Orthodox Women’s Influence on Her Community”) that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.

“Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?” Luchins asked. “We’ve done it for the tradeoff,” he posited.

The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community’s conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.

“We’re so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we’ve lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community,” Luchins said. “We’ve lost on that issue, big.”

Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think the movement is going to have to break into two.”

But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.

“How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?” Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.

The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.

“We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together,” he said.

 

Conservative Jews Gather at Crossroads


How should Conservative Judaism cope with dwindling membership, growing intermarriage rates and society’s increasing religious and political polarity, while remaining true to its base in halachah (Jewish law)?

Those are some of the vexing questions the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) will tackle when it convenes Sunday in Boston for its four-day biennial.

There are more: Who will replace Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, longtime chancellor of the movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, when he retires next summer? (See article on page 19 for more on his retirement.)

It’s no accident that the opening plenary talk by Rabbi Harold Kushner is called, “What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative Jew?” That’s a question that will be on everyone’s mind at the Dec. 4-8 conference, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm.

“What the movement is struggling to do is set a public position for the 21st century,” he said.

The challenge comes as Conservative Judaism, which once set the agenda for American Jewry, has lost its numeric edge, dropping from 43 percent of affiliated Jews in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000, according to the two latest National Jewish Population Surveys. Conservative Jews are older as a group than the Reform or Orthodox, yet they hold most of the key positions in Jewish communal leadership, contributing to the aging of that leadership.

Meyers insists the Conservative movement “is strong” and said enrollment in day schools and camps is up, even as the movement’s outreach to young adult Jews is languishing.

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of membership in Conservative synagogues and soften the movement’s image of being cold and unwelcoming to the intermarried, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, will unveil a far-reaching initiative on keruv (outreach), directed primarily at interfaith families in Conservative congregations.

In the works for the past year, the initiative, described by Conservative leaders as much more forthcoming than the movement’s current approach to keruv, is being kept under tight wraps — though every movement leader, half a dozen congregations and selected outsiders already have seen it.

Epstein, the driving force behind the initiative, notes that in 1986 he headed the faction that pushed for promoting in-marriage rather than actively welcoming the intermarried. Now he’s spearheading an outreach approach that Charles Simon, head of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, calls “a major reversal” of the movement’s current attitude.

Insisting it’s “an evolution, not a reversal,” Epstein said he didn’t believe two decades ago that the Conservative movement “had the resources to both promote in-marriage and keruv.” But with intermarriage a reality, he said he has “come to the conclusion that whether we can or can’t do both, we must.”

The initiative calls upon congregations to actively encourage conversion, particularly of non-Jews already in Conservative families.

“The process we’ve traditionally had, which makes it difficult to convert, was probably valuable at a particular time,” Epstein said. “While I’m not looking to recruit people off the street, for those who have already chosen to be part of a relationship with a Jew, we ought to be passionate and compassionate toward them.”

Epstein believes keruv is the biggest challenge facing Conservative Jewry.

“Our success here will determine not only the destiny of the movement but the destiny of American Jewish life,” he maintains.

The Conservatives are broadening their embrace of the intermarried just two weeks after Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposed at that movement’s biennial that Reform congregations ask non-Jewish spouses to consider conversion.

Are the two approaches converging? Not really, Meyers said.

“Maybe at the edges Conservative is becoming more Reform,” he acknowledges, “but the two movements are distinctive. The Reform movement’s position is that each person and rabbi is autonomous and does their own thing, while we believe in halachah and mitzvot. We have a clear idea of how people should behave.”

“The Reform movement reaches out” and makes intermarried members feel comfortable, said Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of congregational planning and leadership development for the United Synagogue.

“We’re saying, reach out and gather in for the sake of sanctity, of kedushah,” or holiness, he added. “We’re not looking for a comfort zone.”

Edelman has been test-marketing the keruv initiative to groups within and outside the Conservative movement, and said it has gone through at least a dozen iterations as input from the test groups is incorporated.

Rabbi Mordechai Miller of Brith Sholom Knesseth Israel Synagogue in St. Louis, one of the congregations Edelman visited, said the new approach gives voice to what he has felt for a long time. Describing his congregation’s approach to outreach as middle of the road, Miller said he “hesitates to predict” the initiative’s practical effect on congregations, “although any position that is put in an intelligent and clear way is helpful.”

The initiative offers “a suggestion of approaches” rather than dictating policy, Epstein said.

“It’s called al-haderech,” or on the path, “rather than ‘this is it.'”

That’s how it should be, Simon said — an outreach approach that incorporates the views of many people and institutions, rather than one imposed from the top down.

“Everyone in the movement agrees it’s important [to deal with outreach to the intermarried], we just haven’t yet come to agreement on how it should be done, which is fine,” he said.

Epstein expects that the new openness will impact the movement’s Camp Ramah and Solomon Schechter day schools, both of which place restrictions on children of non-Jewish mothers. The day schools, for example, require such students to convert within a year of admission.

In addition to the keruv initiative, at the biennial the movement for the first time will hand out keruv awards, recognizing six congregations for their outreach efforts.

Discussion of Schorsch’s replacement, a hot topic among movement leaders and rabbis, will take place more circumspectly in corridors and private meetings, rather than plenary sessions.

The seminary’s search committee is still evaluating candidates. Despite an ever-changing short list that surfaces on the gossip circuit, committee members remain tight-lipped. Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., the former dean of JTS, and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, are two current favorites.

“Traditionally the chancellor has served as a unifying voice, the ‘rabbi’ of the movement,” Meyers said, but the next person to fill that position could take it even further.

The USCJ also will consider resolutions supporting immigration reform, religious freedom in the workplace and food programs for the poor, opposing family violence and congratulating the United Nations for its improved treatment of Israel.

There also is a resolution on reproductive choice, a carefully worded document that opposes any civil laws that would prevent an abortion that religious authorities have determined is halachically warranted — that is, where the mother’s life and health are at risk.

 

Letters


Reversing Trend

Amy Klein’s article, “In Search of a Leader,” (Oct. 7), paints a gloomy picture for the future of Conservative Judaism, which it dubs the “Conservative Crisis.” While it is true that current statistics paint a dismal picture, the trend can be reversed.

During four decades of active participation at Conservative synagogues, camps and schools, I’ve come to know and respect numerous clergy. Our rabbis and cantors are, by and large, observant men and women who abide by the tenets of our faith. They maintain kashrut, don phylacteries, perform mitzvot and allow halachah to be their guiding light. They are exemplary role models.

What is it that keeps them from speaking out? Why are they reluctant to tell their flock to trash the treif, turn off the TV on Shabbat and say their brachot throughout the day?

Two concerns drive their behavior. First, they fear losing members. The other problem is that our rabbis fear that if they push too hard, their boards may form search committees at contract time rather than engage in contract renewal.

The Conservative movement must regain its position as the moral compass for its followers. Its clergy must take assertive roles when advising members on religious matters. Additionally, its religious schools must be expanded to include in-depth study of Jewish texts, fluency in Hebrew and serious observance of our customs and rituals.

For this to happen, the Jewish Theological Seminary and its affiliates must direct synagogue boards to empower their clergy to take the initiative. Rabbis and cantors must be given assurances that their boards are solidly behind them.

An assertive rabbinate will be respected and revered. Once the Jewish community sees that the Conservative movement is proactive and consistent in its approach toward religious matters, membership rosters will once again grow.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles

Guilt Judo

The real “guilt” should be felt by The Jewish Journal staff, who once again have distorted and insulted the Jewish tradition by the “guilt” cover story (“Guilt Judo,” Oct. 7).

Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness, a day of divine love, a day of purification and resolution. The day that Rabbi Akiva was martyred and ascended to heaven with the words of the Shema” on his lips.

Yes, people struggle with this day, but the more one knows the true significance, the freer one is to experience the essence and meaning.

Joshua Spiegelman
Sylmar

Numbers Puzzle

As one who follows L.A. Jewish population statistics, I was quite puzzled by a statistic in Amy Klein’s article (“How We Worship,” Sept. 30) about some pretty uncommon (but, hip) AnJewlinos. The piece includes a totally unattributed 27 percent increase in the L.A. Jewish population since 1997, from 519,000 to 660,000.

Then Julie Brown’s article titled, “Jewish Population on the Rise in South Bay,” (Sept. 30), uses a Jewish Federation/South Bay estimate of 40,000 that is actually 12 percent lower than the Jewish South Bay population of 45,000 found by the 1997 L.A. Jewish population survey.

If we’re supposed to reflect upon ourselves on these Days of Awe, let’s resolve to do it accurately.

Pini Herman
Demographer
Los Angeles

Darfur Genocide

While I greatly appreciate The Journal’s inclusion of a story about the Darfur genocide (“The Darfur Genocide Is Still On,” Sept. 23), it was a mistake to publish your Washington correspondent’s submittal without first checking his facts.

The article stated that American Jewish activism against the genocide is “fading” and “eroding”; while that might be true in Washington, D.C., from whence the article’s author hails, nothing could be further from the truth in Los Angeles, the home base of The Jewish Journal.

Contrary to the assertions of the article’s writer, James Besser, support for Jewish World Watch, an organization founded one year ago for the specific purpose of organizing the L.A.-based synagogue community against the genocide in Darfur, has grown exponentially since its inception — there are now more than 25 Reform, Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in Los Angeles mobilizing and energizing against this genocide.

As examples to demonstrate this activism, this summer, Jewish World Watch exposed more than 2,000 children in Jewish camps in the L.A. area to an extensive curriculum about the genocide, and Jewish World Watch engaged more than 20 schools in advocacy projects. The students in these schools have raised tens of thousands of dollars to provide drinking water to the refugees in Darfur, and have sent hundreds of letters to the United Nations and to President Bush.

In fact, Jewish World Watch, in addition to its genocide-related education and advocacy agenda, has sent thousands of communiqués to protest the genocide, has reached thousands of people with its advocacy and educational programs and has raised the funds to build two complete medical clinics in refugee camps in Darfur.

Indeed, it was disturbing that The Journal and/or its writer entirely ignored these significant and persistent organizing efforts in Los Angeles.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik
Chair
Jewish World Watch

Ed. Note:

Jim Besser’s report focused specifically on the reluctance of national Jewish organizations to make activism for Darfur a priority.

The Journal’s extensive reporting on local efforts to aid Darfur can be found at www.jewishjournal.com. Also, please read Rabbi Lee Bycel’s Op-Ed inside this issue. More importantly, go to www.savedarfur.org and get involved.

Perplexed

I read your article, “What to Ask a Jew,” (Oct. 7), with interest. When I finished, I was perplexed. Of course, what you wrote probably applies to many Jews, but what is your point and, more importantly, what are you suggesting as a solution? A problem needing a solution assumes that the people affected agree that there is a problem in the first place.

Are many people attending services bored because the service is boring or are they there to ease their conscience once a year, or to satisfy their mother, father or spouse, or to set an example for their children? They would probably wish to be somewhere or anywhere else.

Are these people bored because they are not there to pray but to put in an appearance? Maybe for these people it’s more of a social event.

I would suggest that the main hypothesis could be that these people just don’t go to synagogue to pray. It’s no more complicated than that. How do you make or encourage people to become more religious?

Bill Bender
Granada Hills

Resisting Nazism

Tad Daley (“A Picture of Hate,” Sept. 30), associated with presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, questions if he or any reader would have resisted the call of Nazism, as a German in Nazi Germany.

The present pope not only quit the Hitler Youth, he recently insisted that Palestinians cease their anti-Semitism in their political dispute with Israel.

Perhaps Mr. Daley, you can insist that Mr. Kucinich make the same response to the Palestinians as a precondition for your continued support of him.

Charles S. Berdiansky
Los Angeles

 

Rabbis, Imams Find Common Ground


 

I recently returned from an extraordinary meeting that took place last month in Brussels. One hundred imams and rabbis from 20 different countries came together for four days of discussion about religion, peace, justice and dignity. Meeting in plenary sessions and breakout groups, over meals and during evening cultural programs, this conference was a public attestation of the possible.

It wasn’t easy for any of us. There was plenty of politicking and internal politicking within the religious communities as well. In one of the many remarkable public statements, the Orthodox rabbinic contingent agreed to participate together publicly with the fully honored representation of Conservative and Reform rabbis.

I had the privilege of leading a breakout session in which we were mandated to brainstorm about “sharing and transmitting without proselytizing.” We began with the standard sharing go-around, in which we were asked to share why we came to this conference. I was riveted by two stories.

One was told by an African imam dressed in white ceremonial robes, complete with a matching embroidered cap. I learned later that he held a high religious post in Tanzania.

Once, while visiting a Congolese friend living in South Africa, he became quite ill and felt that he was having symptoms of heart disease. The friend suggested that he see a doctor friend of his — a Jewish doctor. The imam wouldn’t consider it, because he was certain that a Jewish doctor would use his professional skills to kill him, a Muslim. As he put it, “Perhaps he wouldn’t kill me outright, but he would prescribe something that would poison me undetected.” He therefore decided to wait until he could see his personal physician when he returned home to Tanzania. But his symptoms persisted, so one day, he went to his friend’s house and knocked on the door. But the friend was not home. Who should answer the door but the Jewish doctor.

The doctor questioned the sick man, and discovered that the medication the imam had been taking for migraine headaches could cause a very serious heart ailment, and that was most certainly the imam’s problem. The physician explained quite clearly that if he continued to take the medicine it would kill him. The imam had to choose between very bad headaches or a heart attack. The choice, said the imam, was an easy one. And the doctor also prescribed a different medication that helped to relieve the migraine symptoms.

When asked if that experience had anything to do with him coming to the conference, the imam’s answer was that it had everything to do with it. It was his responsibility to come and to “clear the air,” as he put it.

The other story was told by a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi. I had known of him previously through his writings that justified violence in the conflict with Palestinians as a form of milchemet mitzvah, or a divinely sanctioned mitzvah war.

He was living at the time in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Although surrounded by approximately 1 million Arabs and hearing the call to prayer every day, he had absolutely no relationship with Muslims. The only contact he had was with Arab taxi drivers.

One afternoon, he was riding in an Arab taxi when it was time for minchah, or afternoon prayer. He asked his driver to stop for him where he could do a brief ritual washing and then engage in that short prayer before continuing the drive. The rabbi noticed that his driver also got out of the car and washed himself. The rabbi stood for his prayers facing north toward Jerusalem; his driver stood near him, but faced south toward Mecca. They both stood there, one next to the other, each engaging in the same act. Both offered thanks to the God of the world for their very existence.

As the rabbi put it, they were “both praying to the same God, one facing south, the other north.” At that moment, he said that he came to the deep, transcendent understanding of the unity of God — for Jews, for Muslims, for all humanity.

“We all pray to the same God,” he said. “One prays in one manner; another in a different manner. One prays in one direction; the other prays in a different direction. But we are all united on this tiny world, so I realized that it was time we got to know one another.”

Most of us don’t have the luxury of such transformative experiences. Most of us simply go through life following the religious and nationalist scripts we absorb intuitively from our tribal environments. This is extremely dangerous.

One of our scripted Jewish positions is the self-righteous question: Where are the Muslims? Why don’t they engage in dialogue? Why don’t they condemn acts of violence?

The simple truth is that they do. The Brussels meeting of 100 imams and rabbis attests to Muslim concern and activism. And Brussels was not their first place of involvement for virtually all of them.

But such public acts often seem to remain somehow under our radar. We don’t pick them up. At USC, where I teach, I’ve been told by the dean of religious life that it is much more difficult to bring Jews to programs and dialogue with Muslims than vice versa.

One of the more interesting new programs I learned about in Brussels is a project partnered by two graduate students, one Muslim and one Jewish, that connects hundreds of Jewish and Muslim teenagers throughout the world via digital photography on the Internet. They have much more difficulty finding Jewish teens than Muslim teens to engage in the program.

We will fail to break out of our current deadlock and malaise without breaking out of our assigned scripts and without becoming more self-reflective about who we are, where we stand in the world and where we are heading.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where he is currently building the new Institute for the Study and Enhancement of Muslim-Jewish Interrelations. The Web site for the international photography project is

Conservative Death Prophecy Draws Fire


A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement’s leadership.

The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades, Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.

Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement’s opposition to intermarriage, its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and same-sex marriages and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.

The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains "too restrictive" and Reform "too acculturated," but a more likely outcome will be "the demise of the Conservative movement," Menitoff wrote.

"If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence," he wrote. "If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet."

Conservative leaders called the argument "delusional" and the product of "immature" analysis.

"His description of the future is rather silly," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The essay "is an immature look" at the currents shaping American Jewry, "or maybe it’s wishful thinking."

Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff’s essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges. In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement’s leadership of lacking vision.

Menitoff’s predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, in Palm Springs in January.

Within a few decades, "you’ll basically have Orthodox and Reform," he said. "This is in no way an attack, it’s just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out. I hope I’m wrong. I’m just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective."

Some signs lend weight to Menitoff’s theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation’s 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.

That represented a major decline from the 43 percent that the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 survey. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose from 2 percent to 3 percent.

Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of "extreme assimilation" — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the survey — his Conservative counterparts believed they were being attacked.

"The Talmud says prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to children and fools," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement’s two main seminaries. "No one can predict the future."

Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.

Conservative leaders also maintain that their movement’s communal organizations are thriving.

Of the approximately 120,000 students in Jewish day schools, more than 50,000 are in the Conservative movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Day Schools, while 8,000 youngsters attend the movement’s Camp Ramah system each summer. Another 20,000 youngsters participate in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization, and many adults are "engaged in lifelong Jewish study," Schorsch said.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the nondenominational Baltimore Hebrew University and a Conservative scholar, also rejected Menitoff’s argument.

If "there are clear lines of demarcation" between all of the movements and they maintain theological differences, "I don’t think they will merge," she said. More likely, she added, is that traditionalists in the Conservative movement might merge with the modern Orthodox movement.

However, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agreed with Menitoff. In 2001, Shafran wrote in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement was a "failure."

"It does seem the Jewish community is heading for a crystallization between those who affirm the full truth of the Jewish religious tradition and those who, to one degree or another, don’t accept that," Shafran said.

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