Passage of Prop. 8 reveals rift between denominations

Three days after California narrowly passed Proposition 8, the statewide ban on same-sex marriage, congregants of Beth Chayim Chadashim gathered in their Pico Boulevard sanctuary for a Friday night Shabbat service marked by solidarity and grief.

“This week of all weeks we need Shabbat,” Rabbi Lisa Edwards told members of the predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue, as many clutched prayer books and one another’s hands.

In the tumultuous first week after voters approved the controversial ballot measure that would cast the legality of 18,000 marriages into doubt and halt further unions, supporters rejoiced and opponents took to the streets in emotional protests across the state.

Jewish voices had joined both sides of the bitter and costly Proposition 8 debate leading up to Election Day. Reform and Conservative leaders largely condemned the stripping of civil rights from a fellow minority population, while Orthodox officials praised constitutional protection for the biblical definition of marriage.

The ideological rift has sharpened tensions between traditional and progressive sects in Los Angeles and raised the question of how Jews, as a people, should respond.

“We Jews have been the brunt of a lot of discrimination throughout our history,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University (AJU). “To vote now that another group should be discriminated against is not at all respectful of what freedom has meant for us as Jews.”

Minority rights carry special resonance for the Jewish nation, said many Proposition 8 critics — especially in light of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht last week.

“Jews understand what it means to eliminate rights — that’s what happened to us in Germany,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.

An overwhelming 78 percent of Jewish voters in Los Angeles opposed the same-sex marriage ban, while just 8 percent supported it, according to an exit poll by the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. In the weeks before the election, more than 250 rabbis — a majority in the state — joined a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations opposing Proposition 8.

Eger, who has performed 50 wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples since a California Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage on June 16, said the separation of church and state has been a critical tenet of mainstream Judaism in the United States.

“This issue is not about religion — it is about civil rights,” she said. “This is about the separation of synagogue and state. As long as marriage is a civil issue, the Torah has nothing to say about it.”

But that’s not how many in the Orthodox community see it. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said the ban on same-sex marriage does not amount to a removal of rights, because the traditional definition of marriage never extended to homosexual couples.

“We’re not talking about rights; we’re talking about the sanctity of marriage,” Muskin said. “It’s a traditional moral, Jewish perspective that marriage is between a husband and a wife. It’s basic to the Bible — it’s as ancient as man.”

Muskin said he supports domestic partnerships for same-sex couples but believes allowing them to wed would send a sacred institution down a slippery slope toward other behaviors the Bible deems immoral.

“[Gays and lesbians] should have the same government benefits that anyone has,” he said. “The issue is the definition of marriage and how we’re going to impart that to the next generation. What about incestuous marriage — are we then going to permit that?”

Advertisements sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of California and the Orthodox Union have called heterosexual marriage “a central pillar of our faith” that is “crucial for the sake of our families, for our children and our society.”

But social justice is also a central pillar of Jewish faith, said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“This goes against everything we believe in. We were strangers in Egypt — we should treat others fairly because we know what it’s like being a stranger,” said Kushner, who married his partner in a civil ceremony last month. “There is a perception that it’s only the religious right who has something to say about this. Progressive people of faith also know what the Bible says, and we support marriage equality.”

In 1992, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism passed a national resolution calling for full civil equality for gays and lesbians, the AJU’s Dorff said. He called the Orthodox movement’s support of the same-sex marriage ban “a mistake.”

Clergy members who don’t believe in marriage for gay and lesbian couples would not have been forced to officiate at their wedding ceremonies if Proposition 8 was defeated, he said. The Supreme Court’s ruling this spring handed that decision from the state to religious leaders.

“Now what we’ve done is enshrine hatred and discrimination and bigotry into the California state Constitution,” said Eger of Kol Ami. “This was an issue of the judiciary, and it was wrong [for it] to be placed on the ballot in the first place.”

The question of what’s next was on everyone’s minds the night of Nov. 7 at Beth Chayim Chadashim, where at least 44 couples have tied the knot since June.

After a Shabbat service suffused with sadness and reflection, Edwards invited an attorney from Lambda Legal to discuss the legal action gay rights supporters are taking against Proposition 8. Lambda Legal, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, filed one of three lawsuits challenging the ballot measure the morning after its passage.

The lawsuits argue that the gay marriage ban was too drastic an alteration of the state Constitution to be called an amendment and would actually constitute an illegal revision. Constitutional revisions must first pass the Legislature before going to the voters.

The California attorney general has said the marriages performed since June would be upheld, but some expect a legal battle on that front, too.

Robin Tyler, whose highly publicized Jewish wedding ceremony with Diane Olson was the first same-sex marriage performed in L.A. County, also filed suit against Proposition 8 through attorney Gloria Allred.

“I don’t want to be on the freedom train alone,” said Tyler, 66, of North Hills. “It’s about everyone else and future generations not being treated like second-class citizens. I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will understand that this was an improper proposition.”

If not, she said, marriage equality advocates will bring a proposition to the ballot again in another four years.

However, critics fear their actions undermine the majority of California voters.

“The people filing these lawsuits seem to feel that the popular vote is of little importance in the face of what they see as a civil rights issue,” said Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who is based in Hancock Park. “Society has spoken, and most people want marriage to be defined the way the Bible defines it.”

That leaves people like Karen Wilson with lowered expectations for her wedding day.

Wilson had been planning to wed Caroline Bernard, her partner of 22 years, next August. The Westside couple still plans to go ahead with a religious ceremony but is setting aside their hopes of obtaining a marriage license.

“We’re feeling very betrayed and shocked,” said Wilson, 56, a doctoral candidate at UCLA. “Our ideal — our dream — was to have a religious ceremony that is also legal. But we’re not calling anything off.”

The families and friends of gay and lesbian couples aren’t backing down either, according to Steve Krantz, founder of the nonprofit Jews for Marriage Equality and regional director of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Krantz wants to continue to educate rabbis across the state about marriage equality. He has two sons — one gay, one straight.

“I love them both,” said Krantz of Sherman Oaks. “I want them both to have equal rights, and I want to dance at both of their weddings.”

LimmudLA — by the numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000 (paid out over three years.)

Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

Shopping for back to shul

It can be an exhausting process. And it can sometimes be exhilarating. Because of the hundreds of possibilities among Los Angeles’ shuls, success in finding the perfect one for you and your family too often seems just one more visit away.

Whether you are new to organized Jewish life, have kids, are pinching your pennies or just want a spiritual home base, there are four questions that are best answered before you begin your shul shopping.

First and foremost is your denomination, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other special non- or trans-denomination. Then there is the question of community: Are you becoming a member of a congregation because of the religious aspect of Judaism, to find friends or both? Most congregations offer a mix of social and sacred activities, but it’s worth asking yourself where your priorities lie.

Now for question No. 2: What specific features must your synagogue have?

If your main priority is a high-quality religious education program for your children, this city is packed with terrific congregation-affiliated day schools, preschools and religious schools. However, a well-regarded school can provide other challenges for small synagogues. For example, Temple Isaiah has struggled for years to retain families who join for the shul’s renowned preschool but split for larger congregations with more to offer post-graduation.

These days, joining congregations with affiliated day schools has become more popular than ever among parents seeking religious education for their children, and, in turn, membership has become necessary for securing a space on the school’s enrollment list. For example, enrollment at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy or Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school is only available to the shul’s members.

Here’s a tip: Becoming a member at a synagogue can sometimes lead to some cost cuts when it comes to the education of your kids. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s nursery and elementary schools are open to the Jewish community at large, but substantial tuition discounts (not to mention higher positions on the waiting list totem pole) are given to member families because the congregation subsidizes the schools.

For those seeking a religious supplement to the secular education of their children, religious school on afternoons or weekends is key. However, in most cases, the right to send your children to these schools is only given to congregants.

Parents or professionals with full agendas might want to find a synagogue with a flexible schedule of religious services. Congregations have progressively become more willing to compromise when it comes to scheduling in order to attract a wider range of members. Beth Jacob in Pico-Robertson (one of Los Angeles’ largest Orthodox congregations) offers three Shacharit minyamim every morning. Other synagogues have experimented with shorter services and earlier Friday night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together.

If you have never belonged to a congregation before, take a look at the shul’s adult education program. Numerous synagogues offer courses introducing new members to Jewish life.

For widows, widowers or divorcees, a synagogue with singles mixers or a mourner’s club may be the place for you to meet new people.

The singles scene has become an active part of congregational life in Los Angeles. Events like Friday Night Live (on the second Friday of every month) at Sinai Temple cater to the 25 to 40 crowd and have become popular for matchmaking and phone number-swapping.

But beyond all this, connecting with a synagogue’s rabbis is often the most important part of a shul search. If you don’t like the rabbis, it won’t be much fun sitting through their High Holy Days sermons every year. Most will be more than happy to take the time to talk with you as you visit their congregation. Let them know your interests and what appeals to you – or doesn’t – about their offerings. How they address your concerns could give you as much information as what they have to say.

Another important intangible is the lay leadership. Temple presidents and boards decide what occurs on a daily basis at the shul, so it can be useful to speak to at least one board member to get a sense of the ruling body’s future plans. In addition, talking to the synagogue’s executive director and event coordinator can give you some insight on what it means to be a part of a congregation. Be careful, though, and take whatever they have to say with a grain of salt – after all, it is their job to convince you to join their shul.

If community outreach is important to you, look for a shul with an abundance of “social action” activities. For the politically minded, find a congregation that has a “social justice” program, a feature that is rising in popularity among congregations throughout the city.

On to question No. 3: How big do you want the congregation to be? Houses of worship like Stephen S. Wise Temple (the largest congregation in the United States) offer countless ways to explore every aspect of Jewish life, including major lecture series and events, but some people prefer smaller congregations. When you make your decision, don’t forget to keep your children in mind. Shared b’nai mitzvahs and large class sizes are staples of shuls like Wilshire Boulevard Temple. At the same time, kids can connect with a wide variety of friends in larger congregation.

Finally, question No. 4: How much are you willing to pay in membership dues? Most shuls have price tags of at least $1,500 for a yearly family membership, but, if money is tight for your family, some dues subsidy may be offered. Do not be shy. The vast majority of synagogues don’t turn away members because they cannot afford the annual fee. You need to sit down with the rabbi or executive director of the shul and tell them about your financial quandary. And for the devout, joining a Chabad might be the way to go, since membership is completely free of charge.

Don’t forget that what is most important when looking for a congregation is to find an environment that provides comfort, community and challenges. Make sure that you take time and are thoughtful on your shul shopping expedition. This is one purchase that is not easily returned.

The Other Shiites

The invitation to the gala event came out of the blue, from a woman I had never met, belonging to a group I had never heard of, part of a religious sect I knew nothing about.

Naturally, I accepted.

The evening was billed as, “A Journey Along the Cradle of Muslim Civilizations: Based on the Eleventh Century Travels of Nasir Khusraw.” It was presented by His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Western United States. Since Sept. 11, we have all been pursuing a continuing education in Islam, but this name, Ismaili, was new to me. The woman who extended the invitation, Dr. Nur Amersi, the council’s communications chair, explained that the Ismaili are a small sect within the Shi’a denomination of Islam. They follow the liberal teachings of Agha Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. I askedAmersi, a Tufts University-trained veterinarian, why I hadn’t heard more about these Shiites. “There aren’t very many of us,” she said.

The night of the event, March 27, my wife and I entered thestunning Orpheum Theatre downtown. Amersi was there, greeting us and an arrayof Jewish and Christian representatives. There are several thousand Ismailis in California, and they have regularly put on an annual theatrical spectacle asa way of educating their children and bringing together their community. Butonly in the past two years, explained chapter president Anwar Mohammed, did thecommunity open up the celebration to non-Muslims.

“We think it’s important to show a different face of Islam,”he said.

The result was a warm and welcoming reception, a peek at theperfect world: Christians, Catholics, Jews of all denominations and Muslimschatting volubly and extending handshakes over platters of delicious MiddleEastern food — all kosher. L.A. Mayor James Hahn pointed out that as the city’spopulation becomes majority immigrant, such demonstrations of cultural bridgebuilding are not just ideal, but imperative.

The performance itself was a kind of pageant of Muslimhistory through liberal eyes. I couldn’t help but notice that when theperipatetic Nasir Khusraw, a Muslim Benjamin of Tudela, arrived in Jerusalem,the play presented a version of that hotly contested city’s history that was asbalanced and open-minded as one could imagine. At a time when Shiite leadersand followers in Iraq are presenting a violent and incendiary face to theworld, the question again popped into my head, Why hadn’t I heard more aboutthese Shiites?

The Ismaili spiritual leader is the Aga Khan, a descendent,according to the group’s history, of the Prophet Mohammed through his grandson,Ali.

Ali’s descendants, known as the Fatimids, founded Cairo inthe 10th century, making it their capital, and produced a 200-year period ofrenaissance in Islamic culture that spurred contributions to arts, science andphilosophy. This came to an end when first Saladin, then the Moguls, defeatedthe Fatamids and dispersed their followers across the globe. There are about 14million Ismailis in the world today — about the same as the number of Jews.

Their leader encourages intellectual freedom, tolerance andeducation. The men and women we met at the Orpheum were engineers, doctors,lawyers and entrepreneurs. Their children attend the best schools. They praynot through imams but according to liberal texts disseminated by theHarvard-educated Aga Khan himself. 

The Ismaili, then, is a sort of Reform Jew of the Muslimworld. But it seems that proportionately, Ismailis are as few in number amongMuslims as Reform Jews are as plentiful among Jews.

This fact has not been lost on those Muslims who have spokenout on behalf of liberalism in their faith. Irshad Manji, author of “TheTrouble With Islam,” has pointed to Ismailis as an example of the liberalpotential of Islam. At the same time, she is clear that such potential is farfrom having been reached.

“The problem is that these denominations are absurdlyperipheral within the world of Islam,” she said in an interview senior producer Deborah Caldwell. “All of them deserve to havemore theological influence than they actually do.”

Manji, herself a marginal figure within mainstream Islam,went on to draw the parallel even more sharply: “In the world of Islam,Ismailis tend to be better educated, more entrepreneurial and morephilanthropic than most other Muslims…. As a result of those traits, they arealso often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, ‘the Jews ofthe Muslim world.’ And it’s not surprising that being accused of being anIsmaili is the second-biggest accusation that I get, second only to what –being accused of being a Jew.”

There is some group in every religious tradition thatgravitates toward absolutism. There are Jews who would embrace the Ismailis butreject their own Reform brethren, and we know there are Muslims who prefer toalloy their hard-line faith with militant nationalism, the results of which areon the evening news. 

I’m under no illusions that Ismailis will become the Islamicmajority. But, in our continuing education about Islam, it’s important not toneglect the lessons they have to teach.  

Power, Politics And People

New York publishing executive Steven Baum is a lifelong Conservative Jew who recently joined a Reform temple, and he’s not happy about it. “There’s hardly any Hebrew,” he says. “They don’t wear yarmulkes. It’s just not the Judaism I grew up with.”

So why did he make the switch? Because, he says, his oldest child was reaching bar mitzvah age and his Conservative congregation had introduced a rule that bar mitzvahs must attend services with their families twice a month for the year before being called to the Torah. “There’s just no way we can do that,” says Baum (not his real name). “We had no choice. My shul drove me out.”

Steven Baum is one of a growing number of American Jews who are victims of the most troubling and least discussed conflict in Jewish life today: the war between the Jews and their rabbis.

It’s a war that cuts through the heart of every Jewish denomination, but most sharply through the two biggest ones, Conservative and Reform. It leaves rabbis feeling lonely and abused, and congregants feeling angry and abandoned. Indirectly, it is helping to embitter the conflicts among the denominations.

To hear the rabbis talk about it, the problem is simply that Jews are wandering off the reservation. But it isn’t true. Most American Jews are still quite Jewish by their own definitions. Those just don’t happen to be the rabbis’ definitions.

Upward of 80 percent of all American Jews attend a Passover seder and light Chanukah candles every year, according to most recent surveys. Nearly that many fast on Yom Kippur and send their children for bar mitzvah training (including those married to non-Jews). As many as 95 percent say that being Jewish is very important to them.

The trouble is that’s quite enough for most of them. Only about a quarter to a third do much more: going to synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles, participating in organizational life, celebrating Israeli independence day. For the rest, Passover-Chanukah-atonement-bar mitzvah is as Jewish as they want to be. Like it or not (for the record, this correspondent doesn’t much like it), they are going to show up three times a year, year after year, period.

This is not any rabbi’s conception of Judaism. Rabbis are trained to lead their congregants toward ever-higher standards of piety. Watching the flock sit there and glare at them, flatly refusing to move, must be deeply frustrating to the shepherd.

In fact, it’s one of the little-noticed side effects of the modern era. When the ghetto gates were thrown open 200 years ago, rabbis lost their age-old authority to enforce rabbinic law by fining violators or casting them out of the community. Jews were suddenly free for the first time in history to do whatever they pleased, and that’s just what they did. Rabbis have been fuming about it ever since.

The rabbinic frustration has flared up into helpless rage in recent years, fueled by the nationwide panic over intermarriage rates. For many rabbis and their closest lay allies, nonobservance and intermarriage are two sides of the same deadly coin, like marijuana and heroin. Skip services, end up in the gutter with grandchildren named Chris.

Lately, rabbinic alarm is turning histrionic. At the recent Dallas convention of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, devoted most of his surprising keynote speech to attacks not on the Israeli chief rabbinate but on backsliding Reform Jews. “Never in our history has the gap between the serious Reform Jew and the non-serious Reform Jew been so great,” Yoffie told the delegates, adding that the non-serious “are the majority, even in our synagogues.”

Conservative rabbis are, if anything, even more upset. At a recent Conservative symposium on Long Island, some of that movement’s leading rabbis expressed “despair” at the low level of ritual observance among their congregants. To the rabbis, Conservative Judaism is a doctrine of binding rabbinic law — evolving, updated, streamlined and user-friendly, but still binding. Only a fourth to a third of their congregants buy into it at all. This depresses the rabbis deeply. “An ignorant, empowered laity is dangerous,” said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

How do the lay folk react to all the fireworks? Based on anecdotal evidence and fragmentary hints from surveys, it appears that in the seven years since the Great Intermarriage Scare began, nonstop rabbinic breast-beating has essentially heightened the polarization between the deeply committed (25 percent or 30 percent) and the three-times-a-year majority.

Day-school attendance is creeping up, taking in a somewhat larger minority of Conservative congregants. At the same time, afternoon-school attendance is shrinking, as more and more families settle for the two-years-and-out model of bar mitzvah training. Similarly, sales of kosher food are booming among a growing minority, while surveys show that a strong majority now expresses no alarm at the prospect of intermarriage.

Overall, both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have lost ground as shares of the Jewish population in the last generation. The Conservative movement, for generations the largest American wing, has dropped to second place in the last decade as it raised its standards of piety, driving increasing numbers of young families into the less rigorous Reform movement. Reform Judaism, in turn, finds itself under pressure to shift from its longtime tradition of voluntary halacha and begin to adopt standards of behavior for members.

If and when that happens, it’s not clear where the rest of the Jews will go. They clearly don’t want to leave Judaism. But they don’t want anyone telling them what to do either. Just ask Steven Baum.

Dues and Don’ts

Brandeis study finds benefits in free-membership policy at synagogues

By Susan Jacobs, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Brandeis University researcher is maintaining that synagogues can increase their numbers by offering free membership.

Joel Streiker bases his thesis largely on a recent study he conducted for San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, which last year began to offer new members free membership for one year. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 220 people joined the Reform congregation. Usually, 50 new members join every year.

In his survey, Streiker found that 78 percent of the new members said that the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as an adult.

After one year of free membership, nearly half of the new members decided to pay the annual dues and become regular members of the congregation.

“There is a perception in the Jewish community that Jewish living is expensive,” said Gary Cohn, executive director of Temple Emanu-El. He said that the congregation wanted to tell prospective members that “the most important thing is to get connected.”

Although members who could not afford dues were never turned away from the temple, “people are embarrassed to ask,” said Cohn.

The no-dues policy eliminated this embarrassment.

Temple Emanu-El’s membership dues are $1,400 for families and $800 for single adults. Different rates are available for young adults and senior citizens.

A similar program is now being tested at Congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco, said Streiker, but such programs require considerable financial risk by the congregation.

“Emanu-El has a lot of financial resources. Any synagogue that tried this would have to have deep pockets,” he said. Temple Emanu-El did not lose money, because nearly half of the new members decided to begin paying dues, he added.

Streiker was enthusiastic about the potential success of such programs, but said, “If synagogues don’t have anything to offer, after a year, new members will drop off.”

According to the study, the cost of membership is often a deterrent to potential members for financial and
psychological reasons. New members were “reluctant to make large payments for benefits they didn’t know about or didn’t appreciate,” said Streiker.

Emanu-El has been inundated with questions from other congregations about the program, said Cohn, who estimates that as many as 20 congregations across the country will adopt similar programs within the next year.