President Donald Trump speaking to Jewish leaders in a conference call at the White House as staffers look on on Sept. 15. Photo from White House Press Office

In call with Jewish groups, Trump does not take questions


The debate has gone on for weeks among rabbis and Jewish leaders: If President Donald Trump does not formally renounce white supremacists, is it still worth engaging in a conversation with him?

This has been on much of the Jewish community’s mind since Aug. 23, when the leaders of three religious streams — Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative — said they would not organize the annual pre-Rosh Hashanah call with the president, which the rabbinical groups had instituted at the start of President Barack Obama’s administration. That call, principally for clergy, was aimed at helping to shape the High Holy Days.

But last week, the White House said it would hold a call with Jewish leaders — one that would be in line with the calls and meetings that Jewish leaders have had with the sitting president since the Dwight Eisenhower era. It would be initiated by the White House, not the rabbis, and lay and religious leaders would be invited.

On Sept. 15, Trump delivered his holiday greetings in a conference call with Jewish leaders that lasted barely eight minutes. He condemned those who spread anti-Semitism. He expressed his love for Israel. And he hoped for progress in the peace process.

He took no questions. By contrast, calls and meetings with past presidents have included exchanges — sometimes tough — and generally lasted at least 45 minutes.

Some of the participants expressed disappointment after having done public battle with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements over whether one should engage Trump in conversation in the wake of his equivocations over white supremacists.

“Everyone would look less stupid if he had just put it on YouTube,” one said, encapsulating the one-way direction of the conversation.

But others said it was important that they take part, out of respect for the office and as part of their duty to represent a diverse community.

Not invited to join the call were leaders of  the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. The Conservative movement did receive an invitation but Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the CEO of its Rabbinical Assembly, declined to participate.

All the participants who spoke to JTA asked not to be identified because the call was off the record, although the White House released a transcript the same day.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, a Charedi Orthodox group, had argued in a Forward op-ed Sept. 14 that the rabbis who had opted out of the call with the president were missing an opportunity to raise the painful issue of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched last month in Charlottesville, Va., which culminated in an attack by an alleged white supremacist that killed one counterprotester and injured at least 20 others.

“There is a difference between respectfully asking a president to clarify that he does not equate proponents of white supremacism with protesters against the same and, however one might feel about him, publicly and starkly insulting our nation’s duly elected national leader,” he said.

In the end, there were no surprises. Trump covered the standard range of issues in these calls and did not depart from the script.

Anti-Semitism and bias: “We forcefully condemn those who seek to incite anti-Semitism, or to spread any form of slander and hate — and I will ensure we protect Jewish communities, and all communities, that face threats to their safety,” he said.

Israel: “The United States will always support Israel not only because of the vital security partnership between our two nations, but because of the shared values between our two peoples,” he said.

Trump noted that his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was making a priority of keeping international bodies from singling out Israel for criticism.

“I can tell you on a personal basis, and I just left Israel recently, I love Israel,” he said.

Peace: “This next New Year also offers a new opportunity to seek peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, and I am very hopeful that we will see significant progress before the end of the year,” the president said. “Ambassador David Friedman, Jared [Kushner], Jason [Greenblatt] and the rest of my team are working very hard to achieve a peace agreement. I think it’s something that actually could happen.” Friedman is the ambassador to Israel, Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, and Greenblatt is the president’s top international negotiator.

Kushner, an observant Jew, opened the call by introducing the president, saying his father-in-law “takes great pride in having a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren.” Ivanka Trump, Jared’s wife, is also a top adviser to her father. Trump closed the call by saying he and his wife, Melania, are wishing all “a sweet, healthy and peaceful new year.”

The controversy surrounding the call began last month, when the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements cast their decision to cancel the call — an outcome of Trump’s equivocation after the Charlottesville violence, when he said “many sides” were to blame for the violence, and that there were “very fine people” among both the white supremacists and the counterprotesters.

“The president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia,” the joint statement said.

The day before the call, Trump again insisted that there was blame on both sides.

Those who participated in the call said that even absent a question-and-answer period, it still was better to be on the call than not.

“These are rabbis whose foremost cause should be the Jewish people and Israel,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Klein, who was on the call, noted that he participated in similar calls and meetings with Obama, even though he rarely agreed with him.

“Why stupidly insult the president, who we need for those issues?” he asked.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in an email to JTA that because he was not on the call, he had no comment on what was said.

But, he wrote, “We stand by our decision to not host a High Holy Days call with the President this year. We are disappointed that the President continues to draw a false equivalency between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville.”

Reality ‘Trumps’ preference for much of Republican Jewish Coalition


Joel Geiderman’s view of a potential Donald Trump presidency has shifted since March.

Two months ago, in an op-ed in these pages, Geiderman — the California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and co-chair of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Emergency Department — wrote, “I would Dump Trump. If it came down to the choice between Hillary Clinton (another terribly flawed candidate) and him, I would either not vote at all or support a third-party conservative candidate, if that were an option.”

But last week, in an email to the Jewish Journal, Geiderman wrote that he was “encouraged but not yet convinced” by developments since March. Geiderman said Trump has “moderated his speech,” “made peace with some of the people he offended” and acted more “presidential.”

And Clinton, he said, has “moved further to the left, from offering free college for all, single-payer health care, to attacking Wall Street and banks.” 

“To be honest, for me, the balance has been tilted,” Geiderman said, and without saying outright that he plans to vote for Trump in November, he indicated he’s in a place similar to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The Wisconsin Republican said early this month that he’s “just not ready” to endorse Trump, but has since met with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and wants the “party unified so that we are full strength in the fall.”

Is Geiderman’s movement in the past nine weeks representative of a shift among conservatives once-steadfast members of the #NeverTrump crowd? Or are most Republicans, regardless of who they supported in the primaries, already rallying behind their party’s presumptive nominee simply because, well, he’s not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?

“As this race materializes, and as we move through this process, and you really get people focused on a binary choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I think you’ll see a lot of the folks who have heretofore been critical coming around,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, said in an interview.

After Ohio Gov. John Kasich suspended his campaign on May 4 — one day after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz suspended his — the RJC released a statement congratulating Trump, but that was not so much an endorsement of him as it was a comment on the prospects of a Clinton presidency, which the RJC said would “compromise our national security, weaken our economy and further strain our relationship with our greatest ally, Israel.”

In December, Trump generated controversy when he spoke at an RJC forum in Washington, D.C., comparing the many businesspeople in the room to him, specifically in regards to negotiation skills. “Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room?” Trump said, evoking what critics said was a classical Jewish stereotype. “This room negotiates them, perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.” 

He also said, “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians. That’s fine.”

RJC spokesman Mark McNulty rejected criticisms that Trump’s comments were anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League, which has been highly critical of some of Trump’s comments during his campaign, also did not believe his remarks to the RJC were anti-Semitic.

In February, Trump was strongly criticized by many Israel supporters when he said he would try to be “neutral” between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the presumed Republican nominee has since taken a decidedly pro-Israel tack, particularly during his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference in March, which many Jewish Republicans were pleased with.

“His speech at AIPAC was terrific,” Geiderman said. “He would probably be very good for Israel. The person I have concerns about is Mrs. Clinton.” Geiderman specifically criticized the former secretary of state’s support for President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, and “her attempt to punish Israel for extending some settlements contiguous to existing settlements.”

For some, like Florida businessman and RJC board member Marc Goldman, however, support for Trump is stronger than just party default. “There’s more reasons to vote for Trump than he’s just not a Democrat. He’s not out of the government,” said Goldman, who initially supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “Anyone who’s been in business knows … whatever the product, service or what have you that you’re providing, if you’re not providing it in a way that is satisfactory to your customers, and profitable, then the inherent discipline is: You go out of business — so you’re living in reality.”

“I think he has a chance to be very good, and I think people are ready for someone who’s going to come in and break up some of that status quo,” said Dr. Richard Roberts, a prominent Republican donor in New Jersey, who also initially backed Walker. “Trump is now reaching out to experts in a lot of different areas, and that’s a big relief to know that he’s doing that.”

In mid-March, Roberts told Jewish Insider he was “dismayed” by a conference call he was invited to with top Republican donors in advance of the Florida primary. The group — which included Hewlett Packard President and CEO Meg Whitman, Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, and hedge fund manager and RJC board member Paul Singer — was coordinating an anti-Trump effort, which Roberts characterized as a “disingenuous” attempt to “deny the groundswell of grass-roots voters their overwhelming choice.”

The RJC’s May 4 statement also focused on maintaining Republican majorities in the House and Senate, which most conservatives, #NeverTrump ones included, believe is important whether or not Trump is on the top of the ticket.

“We will support the nominee of the Republican Party,” said Ronald Krongold, a Florida real estate developer who initially supported the candidacy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Asked whether the RJC will put its focus on Senate and House races more than it did previous election cycles, he said, “I believe it will be the same as it is in any presidential year.”

Brooks declined to answer the same question, saying he doesn’t “want to telegraph to the Democrats our playbook.”

Singer, who supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has said he will not back Trump or Clinton. Politico published a piece May 16 saying “plenty” of RJC board members, in addition to Singer, will not get involved in the presidential race and will instead focus on down-ballot races.

Geiderman, when asked whether he sees a #NeverTrump divide among Jewish Republicans, as there appears to be among conservative pundits, said, “There is no actual divide.”

In late April, at an RJC’s board meeting in Las Vegas, Geiderman said RJC members “expressed different opinions” and “engaged in thoughtful conversation.”

“But that was during the primaries,” he said. “In the end, I think most will work hard to elect the Republican candidate. It’s too important to hold onto the Supreme Court and the Senate.”

Geiderman, who is scheduled to be honored by the RJC on Sept. 25 at the Beverly Wilshire, said that after he penned his anti-Trump op-ed in March, he offered to step aside as honoree if his words would present a conflict. But he was encouraged to remain the honoree. “Republicans have a big tent and value a variety of opinions. No one retaliated against me or spoke out against me,” Geiderman said. 

“There is no party orthodoxy.”

Netanyahu’s office to match Jewish Agency funding to Reform, Conservative movements


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office will match funding given by the Jewish Agency for Israel to the country’s Conservative and Reform movements, according to an agency spokesman.

The Jewish Agency provides some $1.09 million each in annual funding to Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements, in addition to $546,000 in funding to Israeli Orthodox congregations. According to Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer, the Prime Minister’s Office plans to match that funding.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said in a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly that the government “is joining with the Jewish Agency to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.”

“As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews – all Jews,” he said.

Netanyahu also mentioned in the speech a roundtable of representatives from Jewish religious movements and government ministries formed to address the movements’ concerns. The roundtable was first announced in July, though JTA has learned that it has yet to formally convene. There has, however, been regular communication between the government, the Jewish Agency and non-Orthodox streams on their concerns.

Reform and Conservative leaders praised Netanyahu’s remarks as an indication of the government’s commitment to strengthening Jewish pluralism in Israel.

“I hope and am optimistic regarding the commitment of the prime minister, and his ability to fulfill what he promised,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Conservative movement. “If Israel is the state of the Jewish people, all members of the Jewish people need to feel they’re a part of it.”

On Wednesday, haredi Orthodox politicians from the United Torah Judaism in Israel party criticized Netanyahu’s remarks and lambasted the Reform movement. Knesset member Moshe Gafni accused Reform Judaism of “stabbing the holy Torah in the back,” while Knesset member Yisrael Eichler accused Reform groups of funding anti-Israel activity and said they “incite against everything that is Jewish.”

At Politicon, diversity and polarity make for entertaining (and loud) political fare


Partisan, political theater was on full display mid-afternoon on Oct. 10 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as two of the panels at the inaugural Politicon conference overlapped.

In “Independence Hall,” a panel included Democratic strategists David Axelrod, James Carville and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while next door in “Freedom Hall,” right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter debated Cenk Uyger, a left-wing activist and commentator.

Some of the louder Democrats in the crowd chortled as Gingrich talked economics, and whooped when Axelrod defended President Obama’s economic record. Meanwhile it seemed Uyger and the standing-room only crowd next door couldn’t quite tell whether Coulter was serious when she said it would have been better had the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Iraq instead of toppling Saddam Hussein and then withdrawing.

“ISIS, when they put somebody in a cage and burned him alive, we thought they were the worst monsters on earth. You say you’d like to do that on a grand scale, because that’s what a nuclear weapon does,” Uyger said to Coulter, to large applause. 

“In response to 9/11, yes,” Colter responded, “we should not have sent ground troops. We should have dropped…in retrospect, now that we know we’re in a country that can elect Barack Obama, instead of bothering to create a democracy in Iraq, which we did, and which was working beautifully,” she said, to boos. “Are we getting back to immigration, the topic of my book, and technically the topic of this panel?”

The two-day conference, which ran Oct. 9-10, attracted about 9,000 attendees, according to event organizers, and brought together some of the nation’s most recognizable figures in politics, media and entertainment, including “The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, who performed a stand-up routine followed up by a conversation with Carville, the political commentator who helped Bill Clinton win the presidency, as well as Paul Begala, former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John Avlon, editor in chief of the Daily Beast, with Edward Snowden, who became famous for leaking classified information from the NSA, appearing via live video from Russia.

Modeled after the wildly popular Comic-Con, Politicon’s first run was a sort of cholent for the political mind. There was the good – former Obama speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and Jay Leno-monologue writer and Democratic political consultant, Jon Macks on speechwriting; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, broadcasting his show live and interviewing, via telephone, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. There was the bad – a woman who screamed out “bulls**t!” to one of Gingrich’s points and then bragged about it after the panel. And there was the weird – ranging from the “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” slam poetry session to the cleverly and thematically cosplay-dressed attendees who got in for free.

In “Democracy Village,” the physical proximity of booths from different organizations, despite their stark ideological contrasts, created a bit of a compromising, kumbaya feel. Local conservative radio station KRLA, for example, bumped shoulders with the LGBT Republican Log Cabin Republicans, while just a few feet away were a Teamsters Local Union booth, and one for the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

“This is really the intersection of politics and entertainment,” said Macks, who, in addition to his comedy writing, has also done debate preparation sessions with Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and has done speechwriting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others. “When politics is entertainment, when 24 million people are watching Donald Trump debate, this is a chance for everyone from your political junkies to political nerds to your issue-oriented people to everyday citizens who are just interested in finding out and having some fun.”

Did Politicon, with its variety and diversity, change minds or create some ground for compromise? Probably not, but that wasn’t really its purpose. Like any convention – whether for comic books, fashion, politics or entertainment – many, maybe even most of the attendees, were those already passionate about, and probably set in, their political and ideological beliefs. But with commentators on opposite sides of the spectrum sharing a stage, and with activists from the left and the right schmoozing and working only a few feet apart, Politicon did deliver on its slogan, “Entertain Democracy.”

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.

With shul scandal and school closing, Conservative Jews reeling in Sharon, Mass.


It’s been a rough few weeks for Conservative Jews in the Boston suburbs known as the South Area.

First, Rabbi Barry Starr, the longtime spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Sharon, resigned amid allegations that he used synagogue discretionary funds to pay about $480,000 in hush money to an extortionist to hide a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male.

Then came the news that the area’s only Conservative Jewish day school, the Kehillah Schechter Academy of nearby Norwood, will be shutting down at the end of the school year. With the next-closest non-Orthodox day school more than 45 minutes away, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for South Area Conservative Jews — notably in Sharon, the single largest source of KSA’s students.

“It’s a double whammy for me personally because I’m a member of the shul,” said Gregg Rubenstein, KSA’s board president. “But the temple will survive. It’s not an institution-threatening incident. The school, on the other hand, is disappearing.”

Like Rubenstein, many KSA parents are also members of the scandal-plagued Temple Israel.

Now some community members are trying to salvage some good news with a campaign to create a new local pluralistic day school to replace KSA.

Dubbed Ner Tamid — Hebrew for eternal flame — the school is still in its embryonic stages. It doesn’t have a site, nor is it clear if there’s a viable business model. Plus, current KSA students — who represent the target population of the new school — already are in the process of enrolling at other schools for next year.

But Elana Margolis, a school parent whose husband also works at KSA, says she’s determined to give it a try.

“Just because the school has decided to close doesn’t mean there won’t be Jewish educational options in this area,” said Margolis, who is also the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “We feel it’s important for our community to have something local. We think crisis breeds opportunity. This is time for a rebirth, a reboot.”

At Temple Israel, community members are still absorbing the shock of learning that Starr, the synagogue’s rabbi for 28 years, was having an extramarital affair with a teenage boy — and apparently had used money from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to keep his secret from getting out.

The man who allegedly was blackmailing Starr has been identified as Nicholas Zemeitus, 29. The allegations emerged from court papers amid an investigation by the Norfolk district attorney, but the facts remain unclear.

Congregants learned of the affair from an email the rabbi sent to community members several weeks ago explaining what he had done, expressing his deep regrets and announcing his resignation. Since then, the synagogue has held two congregation-wide meetings to discuss the situation: one led by the president in the immediate aftermath of the revelations and one a grief-counseling session led by a professional.

Sheldon Kriegel, a retired dentist who has been a Temple Israel member for about 15 years, said the feeling in the community is more shock and grief than anger.

“People don’t seem to be angry at all, they’re just upset. He was very loved,” Kriegel said. “There are people who said to me that if he wanted to come back, even after all this, they’d welcome him. People aren’t really blaming him for it, even though he takes responsibility for his actions.”

Starr had been a well-respected Conservative leader — a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and a one-time member of the chancellor’s rabbinic cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Since Starr’s departure, the shul has been led by the cantor, a rabbi who previously had led overflow services on the High Holidays for the synagogue and Rabbi Ed Gelb, a Temple Israel congregant who also is director of Camp Ramah in New England. Starr had announced his intention to retire and move to Florida some time ago, so the synagogue already had started thinking about its next move. But the abrupt resignation caught practically everyone by surprise.

In contrast to the rabbi scandal, KSA’s demise was not a surprise. For the last few years, the K-8 school — part of the Solomon Schechter network of Conservative Jewish day schools — was struggling financially. After the 2008 recession dealt a severe blow to many school families, KSA responded by holding down tuition costs and increasing financial assistance — moves that helped preserve the student body but at a high cost to the school’s bottom line.

When it became clear over the last three years that the model was not sustainable, tuition rose, financial assistance dried up and staff was laid off. As a consequence, students began leaving in droves. The student body fell to 110 this year from 240 three years ago, with most of the departing students transferring to local public and non-Jewish private schools.

“It led to this downward cycle they couldn’t get out of,” said Gil Preuss, the executive vice president of Boston’s Jewish federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which supported KSA. “They actually were able to maintain a very high-quality education throughout this time, but they couldn’t get on top of the finances — fundraising and tuition — to support it.”

KSA’s board made clear several weeks ago that 82 students needed to enroll by mid-May if the school were to stay open for next year; only 73 signed up.

The closure announcement came May 15. Now the school, which was founded in 1989 as the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, is making a final fundraising push just to make its payroll through the summer. Combined Jewish Philanthropies is kicking in $50,000 to help the transition, including funding for the transportation of students to other Boston-area day schools.

KSA’s closure comes at a particularly high cost for Ariel Margolis, Elana Margolis’ husband. As a science teacher and parent of two KSA students, he’s losing both his job and his kids’ school.

Since the closure announcement, Margolis has been working double time trying to launch Ner Tamid. He hopes that between ex-KSA students, unaffiliated Jews and online students who would Skype in for select classes, the new school could have the critical mass it needs to survive. He also wants to keep tuition at $12,000 per year — about half the annual fee at KSA.

“I want every kid who wants a day school education to receive it,” Ariel Margolis said. “We fully believe that this is going to happen, that this is going to emerge.”

The odds are not in Ner Tamid’s favor, Preuss suggested.

“It’s a tough model. A lot of schools that are smaller than 125 or 100 students struggle financially,” he said. “Small schools need to be very lean in terms of overhead and facilities. They’re in a very tough situation in competing for families and providing a high-quality education.”

With barely 100 days left before the start of the new school term, Ariel Margolis figures he has two to eight weeks to figure out whether the plan is viable. The school is already scouting out possible sites at area synagogues — Temple Israel is one location being considered. Twelve families showed up to New Tamid’s first parlor meeting on Sunday, and another meeting is planned for Thursday.

“We’re very hopeful, but we’re being very honest when we talk to perspective families, telling them not to put all your eggs in one basket,” Ariel Margolis said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

Israeli cabinet secretary plans to block Robinson’s Arch transfer


Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit intends to block a draft agreement that would transfer control of parts of the Western Wall to a right-wing Israeli nonprofit.

Mandelblit’s decision to oppose the tentative deal comes shortly after a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis sent him a letter strongly protesting the transfer of control.

Under the deal, the government would have transferred control of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center to the City of David Foundation, according to Haaretz.

The foundation currently runs the City of David tourist site outside Jerusalem’s Old City and works to settle Jews in the surrounding Arab neighborhood.

The Israeli Reform and Conservative movements have been negotiating with the government for months to expand a non-Orthodox prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, a section of the Western Wall that the deal would have included.

On Wednesday, the CEO of Israel’s Masorti Movement, Yizhar Hess, told JTA that the Reform and Conservative leaderships were not notified of the deal with the City of David Foundation before it was drafted.

Hess said that if implemented, the draft agreement would depart from a compromise on the Western Wall outlined  last year by the Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, Natan Sharansky. Sharansky’s outline proposed creating a pluralist council to manage the site.

“One of the primary issues of our negotiation, from the earliest stages of the Sharansky plan, was that religious governance and authority over the site would be granted to duly appointed religious leaders of the Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements, to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister or his designates,” the rabbis’ letter stated. “Surely you will understand that we would like to know why the Government of the State of Israel does not accept our legitimacy to form a governance body, but find the [City of David Foundation] suitable to do this and much more.”

Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets monthly at the Western Wall and that is also negotiating the Robinson’s Arch expansion, also protested the draft agreement.

Reform biennial opens to outsiders


First there was the Conservative movement’s October biennial conference, billed as “the conversation of the century” and opened up to presenters from outside the movement.

Then came the November General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America, which featured a “Global Jewish shuk: a marketplace of dialogue and debate” led by young Israelis and Americans from outside the federation world.

Now comes the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism, which will be distinguished from past years by — you guessed it — opening up to outsiders.

For the first time, the conference, to be held Dec. 11-15 in San Diego, will be open to participants who are not members of Reform congregations. Learning sessions, which in past years were run almost exclusively by Reform staff, will be led in many cases by presenters from outside the movement. The Friday night prayer service will be open to all, not just conference registrants. And the night before the service, performers from the conference — from musicians to comedians — will go out to venues in the surrounding neighborhood to share Reform Judaism’s good cheer with greater San Diego.

Reform leaders say they’re not trying to be trendy; they want to bring the conference in line with the movement’s philosophy.

“We have opened the biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform movement,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the union’s president, said in an interview in his New York office. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”

Jacobs said he wants visitors from outside the movement to “experience the incredible vitality and depth and openness of Reform Judaism in the 21st century.”

For Jacobs, the biennial will be the first he is running. The last one, held near Washington and featuring President Barack Obama as a speaker, was the movement’s largest conference ever and marked the transition from the leadership of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor.

This year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to address the conference — a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, though he’ll probably deliver the address via video rather than in person.

Other presenters include New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute; Ron Wolfson, a star of the Conservative movement and a professor at the American Jewish University; Israeli Knesset member Ruth Calderon; and Sharon Brous, a Conservative-ordained rabbi who leads the popular IKAR community in Los Angeles.

For the Reform movement, the question isn’t so much whether the four-day conference is a success but whether Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation and disengagement in its ranks.

The recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that while Reform remains the largest American Jewish denomination, with 35 percent of American Jews, it ranks lowest of the three major movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.

Reform Jews are the most likely of the denominations to leave the Jewish fold. According to Pew, 28 percent of Jews born Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox. Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Just 43 percent of Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them, and only 16 percent say religion is very important in their lives.

At 1.7 children per couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major U.S. Jewish denominations and well below the replacement rate. Fewer than half of those children are enrolled in any kind of formal Jewish educational or youth program. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.

It is in this context, Jacobs said, that he was brought on a year-and-a-half ago as president to re-examine everything the movement does. He has articulated three strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls. Some programmatic changes along those lines are under way.

Next summer, the movement will open two new summer camps. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a science and technology camp outside of Boston, will be its 14th overnight camp, and the movement’s first summer day camp, Camp Harlam, will open near Philadelphia.

Since May 2012, a pilot group of more than a dozen synagogues has been working to overhaul the movement’s approach to bar mitzvahs as part of a program called the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. The effort, the movement says, is intended “to reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout.”

On the table is everything from how to make bar mitzvah preparation more engaging to making the celebrations themselves more traditional and meaningful. Dozens more synagogues are in the process of joining the program and adopting some of the more successful efforts.

Like its counterpart in the Conservative movement, the Union for Reform Judaism also is under pressure to demonstrate to its 871 member congregations that they are getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay.

The union now has a resource desk and hosts an online forum for congregational leaders to share ideas and resources. Consultants are available to provide congregations with strategic expertise. Congregational “network teams” work with synagogue leaders to figure out ways the union can be more helpful.

An initiative called Communities of Practice brings together like-minded congregations to work on strategies for programming for young adults, engaging young families, improving early childhood offerings and figuring out how to stabilize synagogue finances.

The union itself has shrunk slightly since Jacobs took over. Thirty employees were laid off in May 2012 as part of a general restructuring; the union now has about 350 employees. (Because it is a religious organization, the union is exempt from filing the 990 IRS tax forms that disclose detailed financial information, including Jacobs’ salary.)

For Reform Judaism to thrive, Jacobs says, everything needs to be reconsidered.

“When I was hired, that was the job description: Challenge everything, question everything, and make us stronger, make us more effective, make us more filled with the core meaning of the Jewish tradition,” Jacobs said.

“It’s not enough just to keep doing the same things with more vigor. You have to say: Is it effective? That’s exactly what is needed in every part of Jewish life. This is not a business-as-usual kind of moment.”

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.

Letters to the Editor: Hillel serves up diverse buffet and Orthodoxy dividing the community


Hillel Buffet Serves Up a Diverse Menu

Hillel at UCLA enjoys a good relationship with the local Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen — Hillel and Chabad on Campus,” Oct. 25). The unconditional love they exhibit is indeed laudable, and it is true that Chabad’s free Friday night dinners influenced us to also offer our dinners for free. 

However, the recent cover story in the Jewish Journal comparing Hillel and Chabad on campus missed the essential differences between the organizations, their missions, and their measures of success.

Hillel provides a buffet of Jewish choices that range from the intensely religious to the Jewishly worldly. Our philosophy is: “Come to Hillel to taste all the Jewish delights.”

Do you want Torah and Talmud study? We have that. Do you want tikkun olam? We have that. Do you want Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services? We have those, too. Do you want to learn about Jewish culture? Jewish history? Heschel? Soloveitchik? Freud? Einstein? Maimonides? We have them, as well.

Do you want Holocaust education? Israel advocacy? Leadership training? Jewish art exhibits? Conferences on important Jewish issues? Or how about just hanging out at our Coffee Bean to mingle with other Jews? We offer all of that, as well as social justice projects such as “Challah for Hunger,” “Swipes-for-the-Homeless” and building medical clinics in Northern Uganda.

This is not a Judaism that downplays tradition. To the contrary, our beit midrash pulsates with the rhythms of Jewish learning, and, with our glatt kosher cafeteria and daily minyanim, Hillel at UCLA has become home to the largest Orthodox campus community west of the Mississippi.

The point is this: Hillel at UCLA offers a broad, Big Tent Judaism that no one else offers. 

For the Jewish Journal to suggest that we are being influenced and even “changed” by a Jewish group whose programs and approach are completely different is not just unfair to us, it’s also unfair to our friends at Chabad.

Yes, we respect all methods of Jewish outreach, and, at the same time, we believe that our pluralistic, Jewish buffet offers the best hope of attracting Jewish students from across the spectrum.

This substantive pluralism is what distinguishes Hillel from other Jewish organizations, and it is our holistic formula for sustaining and growing a Jewish future. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel and Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Senior Jewish Educator, UCLA Hillel


Orthodoxy Putting a Wedge Between Jews

It’s not a contest (“Why Orthodox Is Growing,” Oct. 25). Nobody “wins” when the overall number of Jews who practice and adhere to their religion is diminished. The Orthodox can easily “win the battle but lose the war” if they become so marginalized and exclusive that the rest of Jews fade away. Unless Orthodoxy exerts efforts to bridge the gap, it will find that there are a million Orthodox Jews in the United States and nobody who views them as “co-religionists” or “brothers” and that is a real small and totally insignificant minority except in Boro[ough] Park, Williamsburg and a few other minor American shtetlach.

Charles Hoffman via jewishjournal.com

Dennis Prager makes a number of thoughtful explanations for the group of Orthodox Judaism, but his connection of Orthodoxy and right-wing Conservatism is not one of them. Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum. Here in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches. By doing so, they have not undermined Orthodoxy or diminished their love for Israel. Just the opposite — their Ahavat Israel of Orthodox Jews or the left of the political spectrum has grown without any signs of the cynicism Prager associates with liberal Jews.

Elie Shapiro, North Hollywood

Dennis Prager responds: Elie Shapiro conflates liberalism in politics (“Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum”) with liberalism within Judaism (“Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches”). They have little to do with one another.
I, for example, welcome a more liberal approach to halachah. But the notion that Orthodox Judaism and leftism have much, if anything, in common is unsustainable. And since Mr. Shapiro did not cite any examples, I don’t know what left-wing positions he is referring to. Is Orthodoxy for redefining marriage as the left is? Is Orthodoxy anti-Israel, as most of the left here and in Europe is? Does Orthodoxy believe that people are basically good? Does it morally agree with abortion on demand?

There is a reason that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are conservative. The reason is Orthodox Judaism.


correction

An article on Hillels and Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen,” Oct. 25) suggests that a “fundraising partnership” exists between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation. In fact, there is no formal relationship or partnership between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation.

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).

Goy until proven Jewish


“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

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).

Abbas to U.S. Jews: Culture for peace better now than in 2000s


In a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was more hopeful now for peace than he was in the mid-2000s.

“If you ask me this question during the intifada, I didn’t have an answer,” Abbas said Monday, referring to the 2000-2005 second intifada and having posed a rhetorical question about whether the culture of violence between Israelis and Palestinians could change.

“Hatred, guns, killing, it destroyed everything. Now I can say we have something to talk about. When we talk about living side by side, many people listen.”

Abbas was attending a meeting convened in New York by the Center for Middle East Peace, a group founded by diet mogul Daniel Abraham and headed by Robert Wexler, a former U.S. congressman from Florida.

The meeting was private, but the center distributed notes to reporters afterward.

At the meeting were leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements; Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women; and leaders of Jewish pro-peace groups. Also on hand were former top U.S. officials, including Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, respectively a Clinton administration secretary of state and national security adviser.

Abbas said he remained committed to the two-state solution and urged the meeting participants to press the Israeli government to end settlement expansion in the West Bank.

“We need your support to ensure the successful conclusion of the peace negotiations so that the state of Palestine can live side by side with the State of Israel in peace and security on the ’67 borders,” he said. “I urge the Israeli government to focus on building peace and not building settlements.”

Abbas was in New York to attend the opening of this year’s U.N. General Assembly and is slated to meet Tuesday with President Obama.

The P.A. leader said achieving a final status peace deal within nine months — as envisioned by Obama — was “not impossible.”

Hewing to strictures set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas would not describe the status of the talks renewed in June under U.S. auspices, but said the United States had a critical role to play in advancing the talks.

Abbas confirmed that he met a key Israeli precondition for the talks, suspending Palestinian attempts to achieve statehood recognition while negotiations are underway, in exchange for Israel’s agreement to release 104 prisoners who have been held since before the 1993 Oslo accords.

Abbas condemned the killing over the last week of two Israeli soldiers by Palestinians, but also called for condemnation of the killings of Palestinians.

“Two weeks ago, four young people were killed by the Israeli army near Jerusalem,” he said. “No one said anything.”

It was not clear to what Abbas was referring, but on Sept. 17, Israeli forces killed one man and wounded at least one during a raid on a refugee camp near Jerusalem to arrest a fugitive.

Abbas noted to the group that six of his eight grandchildren had attended Seeds of Peace, a U.S. program that establishes relationships between youths from Israel, the Palestinian areas, other Arab nations and the United States.

“‘I will go again and again and again’,” he quoted one of his grandchildren as saying.

Israel’s mikvahs open to non-Orthodox conversions, official clarifies


Clarifying existing policy, the office of Israel’s deputy religious services minister said Israel’s state-sponsored mikvahs are open for use for Conservative and Reform conversions.

Wednesday’s announcement, said a spokesperson for Eli Ben Dahan, does not change existing policy. The spokesperson said that some mikvahs, or ritual baths, had blocked Conservative and Reform Jews from entering,  but that because the mikvahs are public spaces, any Jew is allowed to use them for any purpose.

“It’s a public space, so it’s open to any Jew regardless of the movement,” she said. “This is an issue of equality.”

The spokesperson emphasized that the  announcement did not amount to recognition of non-Orthodox conversion. Ben Dahan is a member of the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party, which is opposed to state recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The chairman of Jewish Home, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, unveiled reforms of Israel’s religious services earlier this week aimed at streamlining the state’s religious institutions.  The reforms shrink the number of Israeli regional religious councils, allow couples to be married by any Orthodox rabbi in the state and change the criteria by which religious council heads are chosen, including adding more women to the process.

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.

Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe


An Advocate for Divine Honesty

David Hartman was sui generis; he was a unique individual who was very excited about ideas and at the same time pragmatic. Who believed that believing is best expressed in behavior. To believe is to behave.

This is very clear in his latest book, “The God Who Hates Lies.” It was his opportunity to express the great hope that he had for a renaissance of Jewish life in the State of Israel, and his frustrations at the people who were returning to an ideological, self-centered kind of life that was very disillusioning to him.

His great teacher was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he told me as he was working on this book, “I have to break with Soloveitchik.” In his treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Soloveitchik said this was the glory of a divine absurdity; the act of being about to do something that is against logic itself. 

Hartman chastised Soloveitchik for this. He said that this is not what we need; we need divine truthfulness and honesty.

He literally gathered hundreds of rabbis, gathered them together and enabled them to speak together without any of their insularity — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist were able to speak, to present, without hostility and without denigration.

He had a remarkable, charismatic approach to the teaching of Judaism. When he was on, it was sheer idealism and enthusiasm. From my point of view, it’s a monumental loss in the Jewish community. He was able to see within Orthodoxy a liberation. 

— Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Valley Beth Shalom, as told to Susan Freudenheim


‘The crown has fallen from our head’ — Lamentations 5:16

There was a man and he is no more.

A thinker, a teacher and a lover of humanity. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Hartman.

He was larger than life: a dynamic force; a public figure with an international following. But when you became his student, he attached himself to you; he became your rebbe. I was privileged to be one of his students for almost 35 years. He was my rebbe. He was my mentor. He shaped my thinking, and he touched my soul.

My mother passed away just over a month ago. Losing David Hartman feels like I’ve lost my intellectual and spiritual father. 

What made David Hartman so special was that he was a yeshiva bocher who gained enlightenment but never stopped being a yeshiva bocher. And so he was at the same time both critical and loyal. He encouraged us to boldly challenge the tradition but never stop loving it. He gave us the greatest gift that a teacher can bequeath: the freedom to inquire, to ask, to probe and to speculate. He accompanied us on the journey — he wrestled with us — all the while reminding us that our personal growth was bound up in a collective responsibility. He so loved the Jewish people. And he loved humanity.

When I first met R’ Duvid, as I fondly called him, he asserted that the most serious religious question that the Jewish people had to confront was how to rule over a minority as Jews. It was the critical question back in 1978, and it continues to be the most vexing moral issue that we face. 

That’s why I became David Hartman’s student, and that’s why he will always be my rebbe. 

— Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel


The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

Torah commands: “You shall follow after the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) So the Talmud asks: “God is a consuming fire! How is it possible to follow after God?” It answers: Follow the ways of God. My teacher David Hartman offered a different answer: Become the fire! Reflect God’s passion, God’s rage, God’s vision into the world. He was a blazing fire, and learning with Hartman was always an adventure. He thundered. He raged. He wept. Torah meant that much to him.

Hartman’s passion rose from his belief in the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people. There was Sinai, the revelation of the Written Torah, expressed in the language of Mitzvah. There was Yavneh, the revelation of the Oral Torah, expressed in the language of Midrash. And now there is Israel, the revelation of a Living Torah, expressed in the textures and rhythms of Jewish life reborn in its land. Our return to sovereignty in Israel redefines the collective Jewish project. It reshapes our relationship to God. Israel redefines what it means to be a Jew. The holiness of this moment was his Torah. And his fire was our blessing, bringing new life to the soul of the Jewish people. 

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein


A Mensch

Rabbi David Hartman told it like it is. He didn’t mince words. He argued with Maimonides, as if he were living and shouting back.

When he spoke of his love for Israel and the challenges it faces, his words were strong and backed up through action — by educating the Israeli community and military. He didn’t hesitate to share his ambivalences with Orthodox Jewry as we know it; he welcomed women into the Bet Midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute over 25 years ago. I’m so grateful to have studied with him every other year for those 25.  

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple


Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi David Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. Excerpted from “Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z’l.” The full text can be read on the Morethodoxy blog.


A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before making a monumental contribution to Jewish life and Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute,  an innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both rabbinic and lay. In all its programs, and especially within teacher-training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition, and its many texts [speak] to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone, David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career, he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the pre-eminent 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history: Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until … until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80, and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice, accepting some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of non-Jews and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious worldview. Unlike the Charedi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith. And unlike Conservative Judaism, he did not make history paramount and push the halachic worldview to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements, yet deeply regret his untimely passing, for there was much that he left unsaid, once he was free to speak out.

Read the full text of this reflection.

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering  Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics, American Jewish University


Remembering David Hartman

As I enter the courtyard of the Hartman Institute, I am always moved first by the warmth and beauty of its welcoming presence and then by the excitement and challenge of its covenantal drama.   

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman was a master of haknassat orchim — welcoming and gathering countless Jewish — and non-Jewish — guests into his pluralistic beit midrash.

He was also a master of intellectual haknassat orchim.  With passion and drama and humor, he knew how to bring learners to the table so that they would “feel intellectually empowered to participate in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition.”  

On the one hand, he championed the modern virtues of creativity, interpretive freedom and self-assertion, proclaiming: “A discussion concerning Jewish tradition is open-ended.”

On the other hand, in his beit midrash, you felt claimed by the voices and concerns of significant others, who engaged your own limited perspectives and challenged you to deepen your dignity and expand your covenantal responsibility.  

— Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Community High School

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.

Broad Jewish support for Obama’s gun proposals


President Obama's new gun control proposals drew broad Jewish communal support.

The uniformity of the Jewish response to the proposals unveiled Wednesday stood in contrast to Republican opposition to many of the suggested measures, including a ban on assault weapons and tighter background checks on gun purchasers.

Supportive statements came from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella for public policy groups, as well as Reform, Conservative and Orthodox umbrella groups.

Obama said he plans to issue 23 executive orders while his vice president, Joe Biden, attempts to shepherd parallel legislation through Congress in the wake of the massacre last month of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn.

A number of the proposals, including hiring security officials for schools, are not controversial. But most fall on the fault line of the gun control debate that has for decades exercised the American public.

“We recognize that this is a complex issue,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA's president, said in a statement. “The memory of Newtown is still fresh, and so is Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood and other massacres that remind us that something must be done — and that there isn’t a single solution to preventing mass violence.  We appreciate the administration’s understanding that there are multiple causes which must be addressed. It is crucial that passions not ebb nor our country return to complacency.”

In its statement, the Orthodox Union said that it understood from conversations with White House officials that the security officials hired for schools would be available to parochial establishments as well.

“The Orthodox Union has been informed by the White House that the funding proposal may be used to place the new officers in Jewish and other nonpublic schools to provide security, counseling, and safety education,” it said in a statement.

Other organizations welcoming the initiative included Jewish Women International, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, B'nai B'rith International, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice as well as leading Jewish lawmakers, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

$5 million budget hole is latest woe for Conservative synagogue group


The congregational arm of the Conservative movement ran a cumulative budget deficit of more than $5 million over the past two years, JTA has learned, renewing longstanding concerns for the future of one of the movement's key institutional pillars.

According to a financial audit obtained by JTA, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism reported back-to-back losses of $3 million in 2012 and $2.7 million the previous year. Over the same period, the organization, which is celebrating its centennial this year and counts hundreds of congregations as members, has seen a more than 10 percent drop in its overall assets, from $45.2 million $40.1 million.

Ubited Synagogue's chief executive officer, Rabbi Steven Wernick, told JTA that the negative cash flows were due mostly to a handful of one-off events. Not counting those expenses, the operational deficit in 2012 is only about a third as large, at $1.1 million.

“We hope to reduce it to $600,000 next year and balance the budget the year after that,” Wernick said.

Still, the numbers are bad news for an organization that unveiled a much-heralded strategic plan two years ago that aimed to reverse years of flagging membership and declining revenues.

United Synagogue leaders are “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic,” said a senior executive at one of the movement's largest synagogues who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Operating that far in the red is a big red flag,” the executive said. “I think it's important for them to get their financial standing in order. I think they wouldn't advise their synagogues that way.”

Once the largest Jewish religious stream in the United States, the Conservative movement has suffered through years of decline brought on in part by an aging and shrinking membership, some bruising philosophical battles and most recently a string of financial losses. The movement's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, went through two rounds of layoffs in the past four years to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap.

United Synagogue has seen a 14 percent drop in its membership rolls over the past decade. In 2008, three Canadian synagogues quit United Synagogue to form their own partnership, claiming the burden of paying fees to the umbrella group outweighed the benefits.

According to Wernick, the recent financial troubles stem from three one-time expenditures: the settlement of a longstanding lawsuit related to ownership of the movement's Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem that cost $887,000; structural reorganization resulting in a large number of severance packages; and the cost of implementing a new strategic plan.

Wernick said the organization hoped to balance its books through a mix of savings from structural reorganization carried out in 2011 and 2012, a new fundraising arm and the generation of new revenue by raising membership fees by $1 per household — the first such hike in five years. Under the terms of the strategic plan released last year, synagogue dues were to have been reduced.

At the United Synagogue board meeting last month in Las Vegas, discussion of the audit was limited to just a few minutes near the end, leading some to charge that Wernick was deliberately seeking to avoid scrutiny of the budget. Wernick denied claims of any intentional wrongdoing, saying the limited time was due to unexpected delays.

“In our last meeting we ran out of time, but the process was a normal, healthy process,” he said.

Wernick has endured something of a rocky tenure in the three years since he took the helm of United Synagogue. On the eve of his appointment, United Synagogue came under intense criticism from some of the movement's most successful rabbis, united in a coalition that called itself HaYom. Shortly thereafter, the Forward reported on an unsent letter from several synagogue presidents accusing the organization of being “insular, unresponsive, and of diminishing value to its member congregations.”

More broadly, many in the movement are coming to believe the time for large, centralized organizations in Jewish religious life in America has passed.

“The reason why USCJ continues to struggle is because synagogues can have their needs met without it,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Hashalom in Berkeley, Calif. “The question facing Conservative Judaism as an American movement is not the same as the USCJ's financial health. And so as Conservative Judaism continues to evolve in North America, a new movement might emerge to connect our synagogues to another.”

Wernick strongly defended his organization's place within Conservative Judaism. He cited a list of programs and activities — including Sulam, a leadership development program, and the subsidies given to member synagogues in times of crisis, like the recent efforts to aid victims of superstorm Sandy — as proof of its relevance.

“We believe we're implementing [our strategic plan] with great success and that the future is only going to be brighter,” he said. “Are some congregational leaders not in love with what we do? Sure, but there are many more coming to us to ask for our support.”

The United Synagogue executive board is set to hold a briefing on the audit's findings in a conference call on Thursday and put it to a vote one week later. Wernick said the full content of the audit will be placed online after the vote as part of the organization's commitment to transparency.

“We're still in the start-up phase and it's not easy, but we're moving out of it and we're growing,” Wernick said. “And you don't get that in an audit.”

Rabbi Irwin Groner, ex-Rabbinical Assembly president, dies at 81


Rabbi Irwin Groner, a former president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, has died.

Groner, who led Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit for more than four decades, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in that city. He was 81 and suffered from Parkinson's disease.

He guided the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, from 1990 to 1992, calling it “the highlight of my professional career,” according to an obituary in the Detroit Jewish News.

Groner was named the senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek in 1967 — a year after Rabbi Morris Adler was shot and killed by a young congregant. He had been the assistant rabbi since 1959.

The Conservative congregation named Groner rabbi for life in 1978 and emeritus rabbi in 2003.

“He was a true giant in the rabbinical world,” said Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of Shaarey Zedek told the Detroit Jewish News. “He was an inspiring teacher, a magnificent preacher and a man who truly understood the depth of the human condition.

“Rabbi Groner approached every situation with a smile, a sense of humor and an acute sense of caring and concern.”

Groner began his career in Little Rock, Ark., at Agudath Achim Congregation when anti-Semitism magnified by the civil rights movement threatened the synagogue and its rabbi. During efforts to desegregate the city's schools, Groner refused to cancel services due to bomb threats.

He served as a member of the board of governors for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal and the Board of Governors of the United Synagogue. In 1984, Gov. James Blanchard appointed Groner the first clergyman to serve on Michigan's Judicial Tenure Commission, which settles grievances in the legal community. He also was active with area interfaith programs.

Groner was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago, his native city. He graduated from the University of Chicago.

Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders join gun control call


Top figures from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements joined an interfaith call for greater gun controls in the wake of last week's school massacre in Connecticut.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who directs the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, appeared at a press conference Friday outside the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. along with mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders.

Also appearing at the press conference was Nathan Diament, who directs the Orthodox Union's Washington office.

“We must come together as people of faith, representing the range of religious traditions throughout our country, in a collective call to action to end this crisis,” Saperstein said in a release ahead of the press conference. “The time to end senseless gun violence is now, and as religious leaders, the responsibility to provide moral leadership is ours.”

At the press conferemce, Saperstein said: “Our worship of guns is a form of idolatry.”

President Obama this week appointed a commission to be helmed by his vice president, Joe Biden, to address controls on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, as well as broader questions of culture and mental health treatment.

Adam Lanza last week killed his mother and then, armed with weapons registered in her name, continued to Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and murdered 20 first-graders and six adults before killing himself.

Conservative day school cancels Boy Scout troops over exclusion of gay leaders


A Conservative Jewish day school will not renew its Boy Scouts charter because of the organization's policy excluding gay and lesbian adults as leaders.

The Golda Och Academy in West Orange, N.J., said in a letter to parents last week that the Scouts' policy presents a “problematic image for many families.

“To exclude same-sex families from membership and adult volunteerism is in direct contradiction of school policies, which place high value on inclusion,” reads the Oct. 17 letter signed by head of school Joyce Raynor, the New Jersey Jewish News reported.

The Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed its ban on gays and lesbians over the summer.

There has several same-sex families at Golda Och, according to Raynor.

The day school's scout and pack are now in search of another location in which to meet. Thirty of the school's families have children in Boy Scout Troop 118, which started in 1995, and Cub Scout Pack 118 for younger boys.

Since 2001, the Reform movement has recommended that member congregations withdraw sponsorship of packs or troops over the issue, according to the Jewish News.

The space between the individual and the government


Is it the individual citizen who is more important in a free society, or is it the government? It’s easy to see this as the philosophical choice during this election season: One side seems to favor the liberty of the individual, while the other favors the primacy of the government.

But apparently it’s not so simple. 

In a provocative essay in the Weekly Standard titled “The Real Debate,” conservative writer Yuval Levin challenges the individual-versus-government cliché by explaining that “what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government.”

He adds: “The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years — the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves — is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.”

The problem, according to Levin, is that these mediating institutions have become a source of bitter ideological conflict. As he sees it, the bigger government becomes, the more it threatens the health of these institutions that live in the middle space.

“Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion,” he writes, and have sought to empower the government to put in place “public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest.”   

Conservatives have resisted such a gross rationalization of society, Levin writes, and “insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions — from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. 

“The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital — at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas.”

But real freedom, Levin says, is “only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state.”

As it turns out, I got a taste of that “intermediate space” last Sunday night in my neighborhood. 

The occasion was a community wedding at the Modern Orthodox YULA Girls High School.

Two months ago, members of the YULA community heard that one of their former students wanted to get married but couldn’t afford a wedding.

So, the head of school, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who always dreamed of using the school’s grounds for a simcha, and the dean of students, Brigitte Wintner, decided the school would “donate” the wedding. (I’m smelling a screenplay.)

Everyone in the community chipped in. Services like catering, flowers, rentals, bar, photographer, musicians, etc. all were either donated or offered at enormous discounts. YULA students, past and present, ran around setting everything up on the big day.

In the courtyard where my oldest daughter spent four years hanging out with her friends, there were now cocktail tables, a bar and waiters passing out appetizers.

In the parking lot where I would park when I had meetings with the head of school, there were multiple rows of folding chairs, a small chuppah and more rabbis than I could count.

On the far side of the lot was a tent covering enough tables to accommodate 250 guests.

Neighbors popped their heads out to discover there was an actual wedding happening on their street.

As I witnessed the ceremony, and saw more than a few grateful tears on the faces of family members, it struck me that maybe this is what Levin meant by the “space” between the individual and the government.

Yes, both the individual and the government are vitally important, but perhaps even more vital is the sacred space between the two.

In the Jewish world, this space is dominated by one word: community.

No matter how compassionate a government is, it could never create this community for us.

This community is created by the teaching of Jewish values and the living of those values in everyday life. One of those values is a sense of obligation toward other members of the community. This is not a theoretical or global value, it’s deeply local. 

It’s a value you see on the streets, in thrift shops, when people volunteer to clean the sidewalks, in warehouses that feed the needy on Shabbat, and, yes, even in weddings in schoolyards. 

It’s a value that is dependent not on government, but on character.

No matter who wins on Nov. 6, that truth will endure. 


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

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

Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself


Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Romney/Ryan and the lullaby of lying


It shouldn’t have taken Todd Akin’s ” target=”_hplink”>method of conception.” 

If the news media hadn’t grown blasé about the Republican war on women, plenty of pre-Akin Americans would have already known that GOP majorities in Congress and state legislatures have repeatedly voted to narrow the definition of “legitimate rape” to “” target=”_hplink”>personhood” to fertilized eggs, which would criminalize birth control pills, IUDs and in vitro fertility procedures.  If cynicism weren’t the default mode of political reporting, we’d now be seeing Mitt Romney’s feet held to the fire of his party’s ” target=”_hplink”>Reince Preibus’ attempt to dissociate the candidate from his platform would be worth more than a chuckle and a yawn from the press corps.

“The Big Lie” is a propaganda technique that kids hear about in school.  If you learn what Nazis and Communists did, if you read Orwell’s “1984,” you’re supposed to be inoculated against pervasive, outrageous falsehoods.  That’s why Jefferson and Franklin counted on public education and public libraries.  It’s also why the First Amendment protects the fourth estate; it shields muckrakers, investigative journalists, critics and gadflies from censorship.

But today the biggest threat to democracy isn’t government intimidation of the press.  It’s boredom – a consequence of the domination of political communication by paid media, the subordination of news to entertainment, the imperative to monetize audience attention, the fear that information and amusement are locked in a zero sum game. 

Mitt Romney and deep pockets like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson have flooded the airwaves with ads claiming that Barack Obama has eliminated the ” target=”_hplink”>Medicare recipients to fund a ” target=”_hplink”>lazy blacks, there’s no news left in the narrative.  Networks fear that audiences will get bored, so they move on.  And yes, there may be some truth to their understanding of their customers.  We’re hooked on novelty, suckers for speed, addled by ADD.  But billionaires don’t get bored.  They keep paying to pound those ads into our heads, whether we like it or not.  Repetition is the demagogue’s best friend. 

No member of Congress is farther to the right than Paul Ryan.  He’s an acolyte of the ideologue ” target=”_hplink”>safety net that has defined the American social contract since the 1930s, but explaining this takes time, which risks audience share, and in the face of a barrage of ads portraying him as the savior of seniors, it takes the kind of persistence that news executives fear hurts ratings.  He is a ” target=”_hplink”>fraudulent, but hey, how ‘bout the six-pack on that dreamboat?

If the media were doing its job in this election, the story it would be telling over and over is that Mitt Romney’s qualification for the presidency consists of a career at Bain Capital about which we know essentially nothing; that his economic plan is the most massive ” target=”_hplink”>financial disclosure rules that have applied to presidential candidates since his father ran; that his ” target=”_hplink”>identical to the Affordable Care Act he promises to repeal; that he has ” target=”_hplink”>suppress voter turnout may well send him to the White House.

But that’s old news.  Been there, done that.  I’ll leave it to others to make the case that the press is giving Obama a free ride.  If that’s true, then there’s been a double dereliction of duty.  News producers are afraid that indefatigable fact checking of either party will bore the pants off people.  But I don’t smell any fear of ennui emanating from station owners making billions off broadcasting the Big Lie.

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Obama campaign launches rabbis list


More than 600 rabbis joined a campaign initiative called Rabbis for Obama.

Obama for America announced Tuesday that Rabbis for Obama is designed to “engage and mobilize grassroots supporters.”

The rabbis represent themselves and not individual synagogues or organizations, according to the news release. The names of all the rabbis can be found on the website barackobama.com/rabbis. Most of the rabbis are Reform or Conservative, although a handful are Orthodox.

“This list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leaders from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry,” Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach director, said in a news release.

“Their ringing endorsement of President Obama speaks volumes about the president’s deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel and his dedication to a policy agenda that represents the values of the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community,” Forman said.

The number of rabbis signing on is more than double the number who added their names to President Obama’s 2008 campaign at the launch of a similar effort then.

Rabbis Sam Gordon and Steven Bob, both of Illinois, and Burt Visotzky of New York are co-chairs for this initiative. The first two started Rabbis for Obama in 2008.

Reform, Conservative rabbis: step up gun control


Reform and Conservative rabbinical leaders called for increased gun controls in the wake of a spate of shootings.

“Our tradition teaches: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Leviticus 19:16),” said a statement Thursday issued by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “As people of faith, the Rabbinical Assembly unequivocally calls upon lawmakers to take all available measures, to ensure the safety of the public to limit the availability of guns and the permissibility of their concealment.”

A statement the same day by Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted the shooting attack Wednesday by a man on the Family Research Council, in which a guard was injured, and alluded to shootings this summer at a cinema in Colorado and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that have claimed 18 lives.

[Related: Who will protect us from the NRA? by Rob Eshman /
Jews and Guns by Dennis Prager]

“Guns are too pervasive in our society and too easily obtained by those with mental illness, nefarious goals – or both,” Saperstein said. “Abiding by the principles of the Constitution need not be incompatible with sensible gun control.”

Saperstein’s statement also noted increasingly vicious political rhetoric as an element; the FRC attacker reportedly opposed the group’s opposition to gay marriage, and the Wisconsin shooter was a white supremacist.

“This trend of violence threatens us all and violates the values of respect for others that must be paramount in American civic and political life,” he said.

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