The Shainbergs’ memory box for their first son, who was stillborn in 2015. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Charity reaches out to families grieving stillborn or neonatal death

By the time Maytal Shainberg got home from the hospital, her baby’s room had been cleared out, the crib disassembled and the toys returned. Every sign of the firstborn son she had carried for 39 weeks — who emerged without a heartbeat — was gone.

But the pain didn’t go away, and neither did the diaper coupons that continued to arrive in the mail. While such tragedy is not unheard of, Maytal and her husband, David, found many members in their Orthodox community ill-prepared to respond. Orthodox Jewish law, it turns out, offers little ritual direction when it comes to mourning in such circumstances.

And so, in many ways, when it came to coping with their loss, the Shainbergs were on their own — socially, religiously and logistically. “We had to invent the process for ourselves,” David said recently over lunch with Maytal in their Beverlywood home. “That shouldn’t be the case.”

In December 2015, six months after their baby was stillborn, the couple launched Forever My Angel (, a charity that springs into action when a local Jewish family of any denomination experiences a stillbirth or a neonatal death. The organization primarily provides practical help, such as coordinating meal trains, running errands and dismantling baby furniture. Its website includes advice for offering appropriate condolences. (Don’t start with “At least,” it says.)

“It’s logistical support for people who want to grieve,” Maytal said, “and partly a Hail Mary to the community, [that] we need to start thinking about this differently and treating these people differently, and not making everyone feel like this is something that should be swept under the rug or be embarrassed about. Because it’s life.”

Although Judaism has a robust tradition when it comes to mourning the death of an immediate family member, the same practices are not required when an infant does not live 30 days after birth — the age at which a child becomes viable according to halachah, or Jewish law. So in the case of a stillbirth, for example, relatives need not tear clothing, sit shivah, or say Kaddish.

But there’s no rule forbidding those things, either, which places the situation in a gray area.

“You can certainly mourn but there are no rituals required for it,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “The halachah’s perspective is, let’s move on. Life didn’t happen here — let’s move on and try to create another life, if you will, that will be viable.”

That perspective, David Shainberg said, dates to a time when the infant mortality rate was significantly higher, women played a more domestic role in the household and Jewish populations often faced existential threats. “That’s been the M.O. for hundreds of years: push forward and get through it as fast as possible, wipe it under the rug” and try to conceive again, he said. “The world is different now, and I don’t know that halachah has evolved in this regard.”

Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue said the community often fails these families. But he said that the halachah’s job is to establish only a minimum legal set of parameters for grieving.

“It doesn’t legislate for a maximum set of emotion,” Weiss said, adding “there’s no reason that one cannot observe ritually or express ritually one’s feeling.”

A lack of prescribed practices for Orthodox families, on the other hand, could be helpful for those who don’t want to dwell on a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome. “What’s required is a sense of balance,” Weiss said. “A necessity to express the grief and a balance so that they’re able to go on in a healthy way.”

For Maytal, that means lighting a candle in memory of her son every Friday night. Still, the Shainbergs said that without a halachic framework to guide the community, people who would support a family after a stillbirth don’t know whether or how to step in.

Looking up resources in the wake of their own tragedy, the Shainbergs said they found numerous support groups. But there had been a void when it came to logistical services that helped them live day to day.

“The charity was a response to what I felt like I needed,” Maytal said. “What I really need is someone to return the baby gift I just got. Or someone to go to Whole Foods to get milk because I want coffee and I don’t have any more milk, and I can’t bring myself to get in the car and drive right now.”

As such, everything provided by the charity and its website is geared toward acts of service and easing some of the everyday stresses grieving families face, Forever My Angel aims to enable them to focus on the act of mourning. The charity helps families across the spectrum of Jewish religious affiliation.

To that effect, Forever My Angel volunteers baby-sit, walk dogs, mop floors and drive carpools. The organization, which relies on donations from the Shainbergs’ friends and family, also can offer financial coverage for the hospital stay and funeral. The website explains what a mother should expect physically in the aftermath. And advice about the proper way to offer condolences is designed to protect a suffering couple from further agony.

Maytal and David Shainberg — with their 1-year-old son, Isaiah. Photo by Cyndi Bemel

There also are concrete suggestions for the hospital stay: Transfer out of the labor and delivery unit; ask the hospital for a memory box; spend time with the baby; consider choosing a name for him or her. (The Shainbergs named their firstborn but keep it private.)

Rabbi Jason Weiner, head chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said he is consulted on a case of stillbirth or fetal demise about once every six weeks and said reactions vary. Sometimes, he said, a husband and wife will respond differently. “I don’t give blanket or cookie-cutter advice,” he said. “It depends on the situation. And it also depends on their questions. My goal with a patient is to learn about what it’s like to be them at that moment.”

Forever My Angel can put grieving couples in touch with others who actually do know the feeling. By building a network of Jewish families who have experienced a pregnancy with an unsuccessful outcome, the charity has at its disposal a chorus of voices that show it’s OK to talk about what happened.

Upon receiving a referral from hospital chaplains or through word of mouth, David said, “it’s pencils down at work” for the couple, who run the charity by themselves in addition to their day jobs. David, 35, works in private equity, and Maytal, 30, works in financial technology. The couple reaches out personally to each couple, offering first empathy, then assistance.

Lemor Greer was nearly 42 weeks pregnant in May 2016 when her firstborn son lost his heartbeat. Forever My Angel organized a meal train, covered the baby’s funeral, and paid for a year of therapy, and the Shainbergs visited the Greers on the Greers’ first day back from the hospital.

“It’s such a big help that they take away all of those tasks and leave you with to deal with the emotional stuff, which is really what you should be exerting your energy on,” said Shuki Greer, Lemor’s husband.

The support group has made it possible for the Shainbergs to help Jewish families beyond their volunteer network. They have provided contacts to families in New York and Israel.

“We want to pull back this veneer of embarrassment and secrecy,” David said. “You shouldn’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist and try to face as few people in the Jewish community as possible until you get pregnant again.”

Maytal has since given birth to her second child, Isaiah, who recently celebrated his first birthday. She currently is pregnant with a third child. Mother’s Day is still hard for her, she said. So is Yizkor, the memorial service that she is not required to attend.

“There should be two kids running [around] out there,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder. We’re second-time parents but having first-time experiences. I feel like this should be easier. I feel like we’ll feel this way forever.” 

Feminism isn’t kosher

Fierce debates this month over women clergy represent the most fractious internecine conflict in the Orthodox Jewish community in a generation. After the progressive movement known as Open Orthodoxy ordained its first women, denunciations by centrist and right-of-center Orthodox rabbis alike were inevitable.

Written and verbal critiques of the ordination of women have largely focused on its propriety in the halachic (Jewish legal) system. But the halachic arguments miss the most important reason advocacy of women’s ordination smells treyf (not kosher): Open Orthodoxy seems largely motivated by the ideology of a certain f-word.

And feminism is not Jewish. 

Feminism has a well-developed set of beliefs, the most important of which run counter to our tradition. It’s not sufficient to bandy about platitudes like “feminism simply means women are fully human” or “anyone who thinks women are equal is a feminist.” Doing so grossly oversimplifies a sophisticated Weltanschauung by defining it as something with which nearly everyone – including Crown Heights Hasidim – would agree. If everyone is a feminist, then feminism is meaningless.

Here, I will not address specific practices and ideas by Orthodox Jews who identify as feminists, like prayers purged of supposedly sexist language and the mantra “if there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Writers before me have demonstrated well why those are bogus. Instead, I will show how three core feminist beliefs are incompatible with the Torah’s worldview: 

• Gender is a construct. Feminists have long embraced Simone de Beauvoir’s radical idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Women and men, they believe, are socialized from infancy into preconceived, arbitrary, hierarchical, pernicious roles. Gender differences don’t exist; they are learned. With enough educational, social, and political effort, our sexist society can let go of its gendered baggage. 

Yet in Judaism maleness and femaleness are real, and men and women are not interchangeable. The rights, responsibilities, expectations, and roles assigned to each are different, though the sexes are equally valuable. Contemporary Jews who complain of “unfair” Jewish laws (broadly speaking, only men can be witnesses and only men can initiate a divorce) must understand that such halachic differences are hardwired into the system, and cannot be overcome by declaring that gender is only in our heads.

• Women control their own bodies. “Reproductive rights” dominate today’s feminist agenda. Women supposedly must be the sole decision-makers regarding contraception and abortion because they are the ones who undergo the ordeal of pregnancy. No man – and certainly no law – may overrule a woman who feels contraception or abortion is best for her.

Nobody has reproductive rights in Judaism, though. To delay or cease procreation, a couple must ask a rabbi for permission. He considers the circumstances of both the wife and the husband and consults the sometimes-complicated Jewish laws on the subject. If he determines that halacha forbids contraception in their individual case, the woman cannot veto her rabbi’s ruling. Similarly, Jewish law is not “pro-choice.” There are times when abortion is prohibited (a pregnancy whose existence threatens no one) and times when it is required (to protect the life of the mother). Here again, couples approach rabbis. The woman may not simply choose to terminate a pregnancy.

• Heterosexuality and homosexuality are equivalent. As early as 1971, the National Organization for Women declared “a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle.” Since then, the feminist embrace of LGBT rights has only accelerated, with special emphasis on “marriage equality.” 

But Judaism’s prescription for opposite-sex bedroom and family life is consistent, running from the second chapter of the Torah (“A man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”) through Leviticus, the Talmud, the rishonim (earlier halachists), and the acharonim (later halachists). Our faith tradition cannot abide any change to the Torah’s demand for heterosexual behavior.

If you doubt that those three beliefs are central to feminism, ask any feminist outside of the Orthodox world whether a movement rejecting even one of them, much less all of them, could legitimately be called feminist. Or try asking a ”Jewish Orthodox Feminist” to denounce all three. Good luck.

Nobody should be blamed for trying to harmonize powerful ideologies which speak to them. For those who grew up in or chose traditional Judaism, the beauty and power of that lifestyle is difficult to drop. And for citizens of the modern West, no good person could dispute women’s basic equality and reproductive and sexual autonomy. But given the vital feminist planks listed above, anyone who insists they can articulate a formula that makes Judaism feminist – and feminism Jewish – doesn’t really understand either.

None of this means women’s roles in Judaism cannot expand. Perhaps the greatest Jewish innovator of the early 20th century was Sara Schenirer (), who founded the Bais Yaakov network of schools educating Jewish girls in Tanach (Hebrew Bible), halacha, Jewish history, and Hebrew, and well as secular subjects. Though pioneered by Schenirer’s insight, dedication, and perseverance, the change operated with the blessing of the greatest rabbis of her day. Feminism had nothing to do with it.

Some Open Orthodox Jews have argued, implausibly, that their ordination of women isn’t actually about feminist ideology. But feminism has been the engine driving their movement’s approach to women’s issues. Most of the women clergy associated with the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat seminary explicitly identify as feminists. Its dean, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, told Buzzfeed last year she “embraces” the term. Others, like Maharat Rori Picker Neiss list “Orthodox feminist” on their Twitter profiles. The seminary’s scholar in residence, Rabba Anat Sharbat, says the school’s leadership program is “halachic but also social and emotional and feminist.” 

I don’t know if Orthodoxy will ever ordain women rabbis. But if it does, the change will to develop organically – explored and embraced by the generation’s leading rabbinic authorities as an expression of precepts ensconced in the Torah all along. If Judaism wishes to continue providing authentic responses to the needs of today’s women, it needs feminism like a fish needs a bicycle.

The essential lesson of Chanukah is to shield Judaism from foreign contamination. Change within Orthodoxy regarding women’s learning and leadership must come from within, based on values and texts and ideas with ancient pedigrees. We needn’t rush to accommodate a value system that’s only a few decades old in which the dirtiest word is literally “patriarchy.” 

Abraham was a patriarch. So were Isaac and Jacob.

I’m sticking with them, thank you very much.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter or E-mail him at

Jewish Law-Halacha and the Iran Agreement

It’s the question on everyone’s mind. Will the Iran deal push it back from the nuclear edge and become a pathway to moderation and the global community. Or, is it a dangerous agreement, a replay of Chamberlain’s tragic deal with the Germany that paved the way for war.

Some have framed the issue as one of hope and trust.  The President says he has Israel’s best interests at heart.  Michael Oren argument’s in his new book Ally raise serious questions on this issue.

The issue of trust is irrelevant as is   President Obama’s belief that he is doing the right thing.  Nor are the hopes that the agreement will nudge Iran towards being a responsible member of the International community. So too is the question of Iran’s recognition of Israel and its policies of supporting terror.  Change in those areas would be great steps forward, but debating them  sidesteps the core concern.

According to Jewish law there is just one vital question, “Pikuach Nefesh-the preservation of life.

Will this agreement put Israel and other countries in greater danger or not.  Is that danger so acute, that the very existence of the country and the safety of millions at stake?  The essential question is, who makes that assessment.

According to Jewish Law-Halacha it’s analogous to questions of health. When faced with a major dilemma, whose advice should you follow? Thousands of years of Jewish legal precedent teach that expert medical opinion must be the deciding factor. The doctor, not the rabbi, determines if a patient should eat on Yom Kippur to preserve life.  It’s his advice we must follow.

So too in issues of security. The views of actual military officers tasked with the difficult challenge of threat assessment and security are the determining factor. Those with an intimate understanding of a countries military capabilities and vulnerabilities.  According to Jewish law it’s their evaluation that  is critical, we are taught to follow their opinions in issues of life and death.

Who is not qualified to make this evaluation?  Politicians who may be motivated by a host of factors, some noble, others not.   Retired Generals or intelligence officials who may not have the up to date military knowledge, and today may be politicians or beholden to other interests.   For sure not members of think tanks or media pundits, who may have multiplicity of agendas.

When it comes to Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, Jewish law takes the conservative approach. We do not put ourselves at risk for speculation  that maybe one day there will be a political transformation that could be game changing. It’s purely a security question, will this agreement put Israel, and for that matter the United States at greater risk. Is that risk so severe that military experts feel it cannot be mitigated.

There are a wide variety of viewpoints in the Jewish community. Some say we should support the President,  others the opposite.  It’s time to change the conversation.  It’s not about politics, rather the safety and security of eight million Israelis and hundreds of millions of others in the Middle East and beyond.   According to Halacha-Jewish Law, the only question is one of Pikuach Nefesh-saving a life. It’s not up to rabbis, politicians or pundits to ascertain the level of risk.  The military experts who are directly responsible for security need to tell us if they feel that this agreement poses a serious danger.  

We need to know the viewpoint of Israel’s military leadership, not the defense minister who is a political appointee, or Prime Minister, rather the generals whose expertise is threat assessment.  It would be also be enlightening to hear the viewpoints of US military leaders, unfiltered by politicians. If the consensus of the military leadership views this agreement as posing a grave risk to security  then it’s clear that Jewish Law would rule that agreement should be opposed, if they think it does not, then the agreement should be supported.

Rabbi Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is and author of the upcoming book “The Secret of Chabad”. His website is


Israeli rabbinic, legal groups partner for prenup in bid to prevent agunot

A Religious Zionist rabbinic organization in Israel has launched a new prenuptial agreement to help ensure that divorcing wives will receive a religious divorce, or get.

Tzohar, along with the Israel Bar Association, introduced the agreement on Sunday that encourages a husband not to withhold a religious divorce, without which a woman cannot remarry. Wives who are not given the Jewish divorce writ are known as agunot, or chained women.

It is the first time that a major legal organization in Israel has partnered with a rabbinic organization on such an agreement, according to Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s chairman.

Under the Tzohar prenuptial agreement, the husband commits to paying a high sum of money daily to his spouse in the event of a separation. The word get, or religious divorce, is not mentioned in the document, he said.

In a statement, Tzohar said the agreement meets the requirements of Israeli law and policy according to state legal courts, as well as Jewish law, or halachah.

Tzohar, which said the agreement took six years and 16 versions to finalize, also said that it was “uniquely positioned” to push the agreement into widespread use, since it has members throughout the country and is one of the “main facilitators” of marriages in Israel.

“No one deserves to stay chained in a terrible marriage with a knife at their throat,” Stav said. “This agreement can and should become the norm in Israeli society to ensure that the end of a marriage and separating from your partner be treated with respect and dignity.”

Stav told JTA that there are several prenuptial agreements circulating in Israeli society that were written by individual rabbis. He said this is the first time that a major Israeli rabbinical organization has put its weight behind such an agreement.

As opposed to the United States, where a couple can be civilly divorced before they get a religious divorce, in Israel they are the same.

Agunah organizations say there are thousands of chained women in Israel, while the Chief Rabbinate claims fewer than 200 do not receive a get.

Esther Macner: Agunah advocate promotes post-nuptials

At 62, Esther Macner radiates feistiness and confidence. 

During a recent interview at the Journal’s headquarters, she described herself as an “Orthodox Jewish feminist, which I’ve been all my life, before the word became a label.” 

A former prosecutor and trial attorney in New York, Macner moved to Los Angeles just five years ago and is now poised to become an increasingly important presence in the Los Angeles Modern Orthodox world.  Her focus is the crisis of women, known as agunot — literally “anchored” —  who are stuck in dead marriages, unable to make their estranged husbands grant them a Jewish divorce decree, known as a get. Less than one year ago, the mother of two and grandmother of two established the nonprofit Get Jewish Divorce Justice to advocate for these women who are unable to remarry without risking their status within their faith community. 

For Macner, the issue is deeply personal. She believes the Jewish legal system enabling the creation of agunot is “an embarrassment to me and a painful blemish on my identity.”

And while an agunah cannot remarry or have more children beyond those she had with her husband, he, if he can obtain the permission of 100 rabbis, is allowed to take a new wife and create a new family. 

To that end, Get Jewish Divorce Justice, along with several area rabbis, is organizing an event called “Retying the Knot, Unchaining the Agunah,” at which Orthodox married couples will sign postnuptial agreements, a legal vow to be fair to one another should they ever decide to divorce. 

The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at The Mark on Pico Boulevard from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Sunday, Sept. 7.

The agunah issue took the local limelight last March, when a group of Angelenos, including a few prominent Modern Orthodox leaders, traveled to Las Vegas to stage a rally at the second marriage of a former L.A. resident, Israeli Meir Kin, who was continuing to refuse a get to his first wife, Lonna Kin. The Jewish Journal ran a cover story about the Kins headlined “Till Get Do Us Part.” 

Macner’s mission with her fledgling organization is to let women caught in such marriages know that her group is a resource for help. 

In the Orthodox community, postnuptial agreements can be created by couples who never entered into halachic prenuptial agreements before getting married, and the documents obligate married couples to settle a divorce in a reputable rabbinic court, among other things.

Corrupt rabbinic courts have been part of what leads to agunah cases, Macner said, by allowing the husband to find ways to escape the marriage for himself — or sometimes even to attempt to extort money from the former wife.

Many of the L.A. rabbis who participated in the Las Vegas rally, including Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation; Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation; and Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, are among those participating in Sunday’s event. 

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City also will be at the event.

Rabbi Yona Reiss, a member of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, will present a talk titled “The Origin and the Urgency of the Halachic Pre-Nuptial Agreement.” 

More than 450 agunot are believed to live in the United States.

Part of the problem is that there is no official registry of agunot keeping a count, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), which organized the Las Vegas action, said in an interview at the time of that rally.

Here in Los Angeles, Macner is currently seeking volunteers for a task force that will reach out to “agunot who are in need of assistance,” a recent email from her organization said. 

Macner told the Journal that her efforts to raise awareness about agunot, including integrating prayers for agunot into the tehillim (psalms) readings at synagogues, have successfully helped resolve the cases of several women. 

Get Jewish Divorce Justice, with just two staff and no office space, is smaller than the better-known ORA, but its goals are similar — the “prevention of abuse in the Jewish divorce process, through education, advocacy and individual counseling,” an online biography for Macner reads. 

Macner said she views herself as a “liaison” among the rabbinic community, the victims, and the rabbinic courts, which often don’t work together in ways that might lead to resolving agunah cases, she said. For instance, women are not always comfortable discussing their situations with the male rabbis of the rabbinic courts, she said. Being an insider and understanding these issues helps her, she said: “I’ve always been Orthodox, and I have always worked from within the community.” 

Macner said she is also interested in forming a support group for women who have undergone these challenges to focus on healing through the arts. She is working to create a theater piece telling real women’s stories, which she called “The Agunah Monologues.” 

Macner draws on her experience as a trial attorney and divorce mediator, specializing in “family law, domestic violence and rabbinic court representation,” according to her biography. She is a graduate of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, received a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

Macner and her husband, Chaim Plotzker, live in Pico-Robertson. She jokingly describes the union as a “mixed marriage” — she attends services at B’nai-David Judea, and he attends Young Israel of Century City. 

Together they also attend the Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style congregation, she said. 

Prior to taking on the agunah issue, Macner worked as an advocate for the advancement of women in Orthodox circles, including creating a shul in 1980 where women read from the Torah and said Kiddush, and where young girls sang Adon Olam. 

As she made her way out of the Journal’s office, where the interview took place, a final question from a reporter stopped her in her tracks. 

“Why be Orthodox if you’re a woman today?”

Macner admitted to having some differences with the Orthodox community, in particular the way its laws can marginalize women.

But she said she can’t “divorce” herself from living a life based on halachah, disagree with it though she might. 

“It’s too high a price to pay to have someone deny their identity,” Macner said. “If something is wrong, you need to change it from within.”


For more information on the event, and to RSVP, visit

A new era for Torah-based fertility treatment

As modern couples are marrying later and often postponing having children, the use of cutting-edge fertility treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryonic genetic testing, is gaining widespread popularity and acceptance.

But for Orthodox Jewish couples who wish to pursue these options, the process can be complicated. 

Jewish law, halacha, restricts certain acts of sexual expression and can make routine medical procedures tricky to perform. If, according to the Torah, a man can ejaculate only during marital sex and is not permitted to spend his seed on anything but procreation, how might doctors test for male infertility?  

Further complicating the issue, Jewish modesty laws known as tznius, intended to elevate and consecrate intimate relationships, can stigmatize public discussions. But addressing these medical issues in a religious context might help them create families.

Such topics were at the heart of the Puah Institute’s Fertility, Medicine and Halacha Conference, held June 8 at the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. The event offered a series of workshops dealing with Jewish medical ethics and was the first of its kind on the West Coast. It attracted nearly 80 people of various ages — both men and women — who were seeking to bridge the gap between Jewish law and modern medicine.

“God gave us two things — the Torah and the world,” Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Kalman Topp said during his opening remarks Sunday morning. “That means there can’t be any contradiction between Torah and science.” 

But, until recently, Topp’s view represented a marginal view in the Orthodox world, which interprets nature as the result of divine will. “If a couple cannot naturally have a child, it is a decree from God and we should not interfere,” Topp said, citing one talmudic opinion, then countered: “But Rabbi Akiva says, ‘No,’ God is inviting us to be partners with him; if someone is going through difficult times, we have to become partners with God to find cures for things, to find solutions.” 

Akiva’s view paved the way for the Puah Institute, headquartered in Israel, whose mission is to help Torah-observant Jews fulfill the mitzvah of pru urvu — the commandment in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply — by seeking innovative ways for Jews to remain true to halacha and still take advantage of what science, technology and modern medicine offer. Founded in 1990 by Rabbi Menachem Burstein, who was trained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Puah now operates satellite offices in France and the United States, offering couples a range of services, including education, rabbinic counseling and kosher lab supervision that aims to minimize human error. 

“There are unique challenges for Torah-observant Jews going through this process,” Dr. Philip Werthman, director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine, said during a morning session focused on male infertility. “There has to be sensitivity [among physicians] and a willingness to work with the Rav.”

Each session paired a medical practitioner with one of Puah’s rabbis, who would explain — and sometimes alleviate — halachic challenges related to each topic. Regarding sperm analysis, a basic and often early procedure in the course of diagnosing infertility, Werthman raised some of the controversial issues couples must contend with regarding how and when to collect samples. Weitzman offered the Torah view (various sources suggest couples should wait 10, five or two years before attempting sperm analysis), as well as several rabbinic responsa addressing the laws’ particularities.  

The first thing Puah asks is: “What possible potential averot [transgressions] would be [committed] by fulfilling this mitzvah?” Weitzman said. Echoing the medical presentation, he stressed the importance of beginning with less-fraught procedures, such as examining lifestyle choices, before resorting to more invasive and problematic options. 

In the end, though, Weitzman offered a solution that honors both the Torah commandment and the couple: Either collect post-coital sperm with a non-spermicidal condom, or a woman can immediately collect a sperm sample from her own body after intercourse with her husband — a method Puah pioneered. 

Puah also offers interpretive guidance to procedures like cryopreservation (freezing sperm, eggs or embryos) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which can often be complex,  depending upon the specifics of individual cases. What if an unmarried woman in her 30s wishes to freeze her eggs in case she wants to become pregnant later? What if an embryo tests positive for a disability? Naturally, some of the solutions offered can be “tricky,” to borrow a word used frequently throughout the conference, but even “in extreme cases,” as these things are seen, a solution usually can be found. 

“People think that Judaism is this ancient, stodgy, even misogynist religion, but these very Orthodox, holy, spiritual rabbis have been able to get on board [with this] and help couples go through treatments,” Dr. Michael Feinman, a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist who helped establish Puah’s presence in Los Angeles, said. “The fact that a major religious figure can get up in front of a room and use actual words for male genitalia is mind blowing!”

By contrast, Feinman said, “the answer of the Catholic Church to all this was no. Simply, no.”

Although the crowd included many medical professionals and people connected to the Puah Institute, others came to learn about their own personal options. “I’m just pre-educating myself before starting a family,” said a 32-year-old speech therapist who asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons. “Much of it is reaffirming things I already know, like taking prenatal vitamins early, but it reinforces taking those first steps.”

A 25-year-old married woman who recently became pregnant through IVF said she was there to support the Puah Institute and Beth Jacob’s rabbis, who had supported her. “In general, the feeling is if a couple can’t bear a child, it’s the woman’s fault — her fault, her fault, her fault,” she said, also requesting anonymity because she had not yet told her family the details surrounding her pregnancy. “I wasn’t going to go through IVF without male testing,” she added, even though once her husband proved fertile, they faced other issues regarding protocols for Shabbat. “Your cycle doesn’t wait for you,” she said. 

Although organizers were pleased with the conference turnout, Lea Davidson, Puah’s New York-based executive director, said a similar conference in Israel attracts nearly 1,800 people, and the one in New York, 250. Some wondered why more Angelenos would not attend a free conference, which corporate and community organizations — including EMD Serono, a division of Merck, along with the Jewish Community Foundation Los Angeles and the Florence Presser Baby Fund — created at a cost of nearly $25,000. 

“L.A. is still considered a small town in the Orthodox world,” Feinman said. “Women leave L.A. to find a husband in New York. It’s always hard to get turnouts here.”

But Weitzman suggested a different reason for the absence of both young and older couples who might have benefited from the discussions. “There are many people who are not here because they’re embarrassed to admit and publicize to the community that they have a problem,” he said, urging those present to tell their family and friends about Puah. 

“For the woman who sits behind you in shul who doesn’t have a child; for the man behind you in the beit midrash who is a genetic carrier; for the young couple who has intimacy issues — these are all crises. And when it’s difficult for us, that’s when we rise to the challenge. If there’s a Jew somewhere who needs our help, we want to help as many people as we can.”

Halachic hockey: A league of their own

As a buzzer sounded one recent Sunday at the Los Angeles Kings Valley Ice Center in Panorama City, nearly a dozen children glided — or attempted to — toward the bench as another dozen stumbled onto the rink. They lodged their blades into the frozen surface and assembled at center ice, where a referee was waiting with a black puck in his hand.

It looked like any other youth ice hockey league, save for a few exceptions: Tzitzit poked out from under most players’ jerseys, many fathers watching from the stands wore kippot, and reggae star Matisyahu was in the house watching two of his sons, Laivy and Shalom, enjoy some ice time.

Meeting every Sunday now for more than three months, the all-boys Los Angeles Jewish Hockey League (LAJHL) already has signed up more than 50 kids, according to Yitzchak Tenenbaum, who founded the league in December with Joshua Botnick and has two sons participating. 

Two of Botnick’s sons, Dovi and Ari, also play and were his motivation for helping establish LAJHL, Botnick told the Journal in an e-mail.

“They are huge hockey fans,” Botnick wrote. “I used to take them to ‘stick time’ but could not find a league their age that played on Sunday.”

LAJHL, which draws many of its participants from Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson, is not something that was in the works for years — anything but. The push to create the league came from, of all people, a non-Jewish rink manager. One day in October, when Tenenbaum took his children to the rink to skate around, the manager asked him if he’d be interested in signing them up for a league.

“I said, ‘Most of the leagues are on Shabbos, so we can’t play,’ ” Tenenbaum recalled.

So the manager suggested fielding calls for a Sunday league instead. After a friend forwarded Tenenbaum an e-mail from Botnick, who was already trying to gauge interest in a Jewish youth hockey league, the two were able to sign up 30 children in two months.

“We didn’t know what we were going to get,” said Tenenbaum, a lifelong New York Rangers fan. “We were thinking we were going to be lucky to get 20.”

Demand was so high, though, that by December, Tenenbaum and Botnick had to create two divisions for the league’s first week — one for kids ages 6-10 and another for the big boys, ages 11-13. The league plans to add a 14-17 age group after Passover, Botnick said.

For most of the players, this is their first time playing ice hockey competitively. While Tenenbaum and Botnick said they plan to turn LAJHL into a league with set teams, standings, playoffs and trophies, for now the Sunday games are less about winning than about teaching the game to novices.

During a recent game for the younger division, it was more like six-on-six hockey with training wheels than the high-speed, board-smashing kind. There was some light checking, but many more little falls by kids still learning the art of high-speed ice skating.

There were three coaches, all parents, skating along with the players, and the lines changed every two and a half minutes during the three 15-minute periods. On the ice, the athletes were in full protective hockey gear — helmet, shoulder pads, shin guards and all. 

Avi Goldman, 8, a goaltender, recently switched to the position so that he could get more playing time — the goalies don’t sub out at each interval. 

“He saved the game last week in a shootout,” his father, Eli Goldman, said of his son, who was sporting the No. 8 jersey. 

Asked why he wanted Avi to play ice hockey, Goldman responded, in jest, “He doesn’t know how to fight, so I figured he might as well learn on the ice.” (For the record, the LAJHL prohibits all brawls.)

Although the score — a tie at 3-3 — wasn’t all that important, skaters like Tenenbaum’s 8-year-old son, Tzemach, were certainly playing to win. After the match, Tzemach said he was upset when the referee, Botnick, didn’t call a penalty after a player on the white team supposedly tripped him into the boards.

The boy also succinctly explained his hockey philosophy and why he enjoys playing the offensive position of center:  “I like to score goals. I hate stopping goals.” 

Eli Dror, 9, who also prefers playing center, said he only got into hockey recently, just after the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012.

Botnick and Tenenbaum expect the league to keep expanding, but it will take time and, likely, donations and sponsorships.

“We would like to do one or two practices a week,” Tenenbaum said. “We would like for it to grow.”

For information about the LAJHL, e-mail 

405 construction downs eruv

The Los Angeles Community Eruv will not be in operation during the Shabbat that begins at sundown tonight, June 14, due to construction on the 405 Freeway.

An eruv makes carrying items within its boundaries on Shabbat permissible for Jews, according to halacha (Jewish law). This includes synagogue-goers carrying books and prayer shawls to parents wheeling strollers.

According to Howard Witkin, the head organizer of the Los Angeles Community Eruv (, construction at the 405 on- and off-ramps at Wilshire Boulevard will make it impossible to replace the 150 to 200 feet of fencing that needs to be standing in order to make the eruv kosher.

“There’s just too much going on there to make it possible for us to do repairs,” Witkin said, adding that this is only the second time in three years that this has happened due to construction.

“We hope to have a workaround for next week, but the next three weeks will be

problematic as the contractor rushes to finish new and demolish old bridges at

Wilshire,” he wrote separately in an e-mail to a community notification list.

According to Jewish law, carrying on Shabbat in a public domain is prohibited. But a kosher eruv — an enclosure often comprised of connected fencing, walls or string — turns an otherwise public domain into a private domain for halachic purposes.

When up, an eruv allows people to carry items from one place to another, such as from a home to a synagogue. When down, carrying in a public area is not halachically permitted. The missing fencing in the Los Angeles Community Eruv will make the normally enclosed area a public domain this coming Shabbat.

Witkin predicted that the eruv will be up again next Shabbat. He added that in the coming months, the organization will make a fundraising push to cover its annual operating costs of approximately $100,000.

“The eruv always runs short of funds in weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

This year we are especially short because of the extraordinary expenses of

repairs every week as we coordinate with the freeway construction,” he wrote in the community e-mail. “We will need at least an additional 10k to get through the summer and keep the eruv up.”

Ethics Plan Would Raise Sanctity of Business

An observant Jew was once brought before the judge on counts of tax fraud. Seeing the kippah-wearing Jew before him, the judge innocently asked, “Mr. Schwartz, you are clearly a God-fearing man. How do you explain your immoral behavior?”

Not missing a beat, Mr. Schwartz pointed his finger in the air and defiantly declared, “Your honor, religion is one thing, but business is business!”

Alas, we’ve witnessed several “Mr. Schwartzes” over the last few years, and each new headline evinces new winces of pain from our community. Rabbis have been beside themselves; for years, we’ve preached about the need to carry one’s Torah observance into the business place. Shockingly (as if), not all our parishioners were listening.

What’s more, an environment in certain industries seems to have developed where illegal business activity has not only been condoned but even considered the norm. The Jewish work ethic — what up until recently was the proud hallmark of pristine honesty and integrity — became tarnished.

L.A.’s Jewish community is the second largest in the country. We have much reason to be proud; we have established every imaginable organization or endeavor to dole out kindness and charity to those less privileged. Jews comprise a huge demographic of the righteous of our city.

At the same time, it’s been observed that life is like trying to make a bed using a fitted sheet that’s just a bit too small for the mattress. You pull one end of the sheet over one mattress corner, and the other end of the sheet pops off the opposite corner.

We all tend to focus on what we consider the important things in our lives at the expense of others. For some Jews, a focus on social action comes at the cost of Jewish literacy and ritual. For other Jews, a focus on ritual and Torah study comes at the cost of translating all that knowledge into action in the workplace.

Yet, the Talmud (T.B. Shabbat 31a) emphatically states that the first question a person will be asked when he or she ascends to heaven will not be, “Did you eat kosher food?” but rather, “Were you faithful in business?”

A group of rabbis and lay leaders, seeing this wound on an otherwise exemplary community continue to fester, felt that it was no longer enough to talk the talk. In order to really bolster awareness and education within the community, we needed to do something demonstrative that would raise awareness not only when in shul but also while shopping and doing business.

The Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative is nothing new. Several years ago, a group of Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel founded an organization called, Bema’aglei Tzedek (On Paths of Justice), with the mission of addressing the moral and socioeconomic challenges facing Israeli society (you can learn more at their Web site, One of their main projects is Tav Chevrati, which recognizes those businesses in Israel that provide minimum wage and other basic benefits to their employees. After launching an impressive marketing campaign, the Tav now boasts over 350 businesses that have the Tav seal hanging in their windows.

Using the Tav Chevrati model — with small modifications for the American business arena — our group realized that were we to attempt to redress all business ills we would be biting off more than anyone would be willing to chew. Under the direction of a team of attorneys, we instead chose to focus on the one area of business that has the most significant human impact, the area of labor law.

Peulat Sachir offers a covenant agreement to any business owner who complies with the six basic areas of labor law as required by the state of California: (1) minimum wage, (2) payment of overtime wages, (3) provision of meal and rest breaks, (4) leave policy, (5) workers’ compensation insurance and (6) discrimination/harassment policies.

Additionally, Peulat Sachir will host regular seminars on ethical business practices, which will be open to the general public.

Of course, one could argue: What’s the point of an attestation that someone is just obeying the law? In today’s world of Bernard Madoff rip-offs, kosher production scandals, subprime mortgage meltdowns and corporate greed, plenty. The simple public affirmation that I as a business owner comply with dina d’malchuta (the law of the land) is an important step toward the reformation of an unhealthy business culture.

One might also argue: Why focus so narrowly on this one area of business ethics? What about tax law? Immigration law? Clearly, there are many legal areas within the complex world of business that could and should be addressed.

For one thing, we’ve got to start somewhere. But it’s more than that; we believe that raising awareness about one area of ethics will positively spill over to others.

The employer who respects the law by meticulously paying overtime is more likely to report accurately on his tax return; someone who proudly procures workers’ compensation insurance for his minimum-wage employees is more likely to care about the needs of other underprivileged members of society.

The Peulat Sachir mission statement is thus twofold: To engender a new culture for Jewish businesses — one of commitment to the highest ethical and moral standards in all aspects of business — and to raise awareness of what we in the religious community expect from our vendors and, ultimately, from ourselves.

Those who appreciate what Peulat Sachir is trying to do will want to preferentially patronize those establishments that have signed a covenant. Those who don’t, won’t.

Peulat Sachir in no way penalizes or blacklists businesses that can’t or won’t sign on to the concept. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to decide the success of the Peulat Sachir initiative.

Who knows? Maybe Peulat Sachir will become a model for other communities. And just maybe, by elevating the sanctity of our businesses, we and our assets will all be blessed in the process.

If you are a local business owner and would like to receive more information, contact Peulat Sachir at

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

Donation of Organs Has Support of Most Rabbis

It was a decision based on a widespread misunderstanding in the Jewish community, locally and nationally. A young boy not yet 10 years old lay brain dead in a Los Angeles hospital after suffering a severe head injury in an accident. The attending physician explained to the parents that their son was brain dead.

Then a representative of the organization that arranges organ donations in the Los Angeles area approached the boy’s parents and discussed the possibility of having their son’s organs donated; by doing so, they were told, the lives of as many as eight people might be saved.

The parents gave their consent. Shortly thereafter, their rabbi paid a visit to them in the hospital. When they told him about agreeing to have the son’s organs donated, he quickly responded:

“Oh, absolutely not. You can’t donate organs. You’re Jewish.”

At that, the parents rescinded their offer to donate.

Now, as the chief executive of the organ procurement organization serving most of Southern California, I was distressed to learn about the parents’ change of heart. Not only did it mean that several people on waiting lists for organs might die; it also deprived the parents of the comfort that would come from having their son leave a legacy of generosity.

But their withdrawal of consent didn’t surprise me. While most Jews and Jewish organizations support organ donation, there are still some Orthodox groups that ardently oppose it.

Although I’m a non-Jew, I have become aware of nivul hamet, the biblical prohibition against the needless mutilation of a cadaver. According to the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS), this prohibition is the reason why autopsies should not be performed on Jews.

I’m also aware of halanat hamet, a biblical prohibition against delaying burial of a body, and hana’at hamet, a prohibition — some say biblical; others say rabbinical — against anyone benefiting from a dead body, such as selling it for medical research.

But as the HODS points out, a basic tenet of Jewish law — pikuach nefesh — overrides both of these prohibitions and commandments because it says: “Save one life and it is as if you have saved the entire world.”

HODS, on its Web site, goes on to note that rabbis who object to organ donation do not do so on the basis that a body must be buried whole. Rather, says HODS, “Their objection makes sense if they believed that organ donation was taking critical organs from a live person, and that would, in effect, be killing the person.”

But it is very clear in law and medical practice around the world that brain death is, in fact, “death,” a determination that was confirmed just a few weeks ago by the President’s Council on Bioethics.

And the distinguished Orthodox rabbis who support organ donation through HODS strongly agree that brain death is death and disagree with those who contend it’s wrong to take organs from a person who is brain dead but whose heart is still beating. In the Winter 2008 issue of the national publication, Jewish Action, HODS says these rabbis “all agree that brain-stem death [the medical requirement for a brain death declaration] is halachic death, even though the heart is still beating [because it is supported by mechanical ventilation] — and [they] support organ donation.”

(The six rabbis quoted by HODS are Shaul Yisraeli z”l, former dayan, Chief Rabbinate of Israel; Dovid Shloosh, chief rabbi of Netanya; Avraham Shapira z”l, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel; Shlomo Amar, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel; Ovadya Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel; and Mordechai Eliyahu, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.)

It is my fond hope that this discussion will clear up the misunderstandings harbored by some members of the Los Angeles Jewish community. At any given moment, there are some 100,000 people, many of them Jews, on those waiting lists for organs. A decision to donate by families who lose loved ones to brain death will enable many of those desperately needy people to live. 

Thomas D. Mone is chief executive officer of OneLegacy, the organ procurement organization serving Los Angeles County and six other Southern California counties. He is also past president of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs), which comprises OneLegacy and 57 other federally designated OPOs, and is a director of UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Jewish Agency wants changes in Israel conversion policy

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jewish Agency Assembly adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to “allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The twin resolutions were adopted by the world body Sunday after heated debate and a crossfire of amendments and counteramendments. The issue has long aroused the ire of Diaspora Jews, who have been upset at the refusal of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities to recognize conversions performed by rabbis in the Diaspora.

The assembly defeated a stronger resolution, submitted by delegates from Los Angeles, that would have called on the Israeli government to “recognize and accept as Jews” all those converted under the supervision of rabbis from the four major Jewish religious movements, as well as those from “other religious streams of Judaism.”

Yaakov Ne’eman, who has been appointed by successive Israeli governments to resolve the controversial issue, had threatened to quit if the stronger resolution was adopted.

One of the adopted resolutions cited “a deep crisis within the conversion process” brought on by the arrival in Israel of some 300,000 new immigrants not considered Jewish by the Orthodox religious establishment. It calls on the government to establish Jewish religious courts that “will base themselves on appropriate moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

Noting that Israel’s Supreme Court already has recognized “conversions by the different streams of Judaism for civil matters,” the other resolution calls on the government to “establish immediately an independent conversion authority to resolve and deal with the conversion issue.”

Personalize your ketubah without breaking the law

For many brides and grooms, the ketubah signing that precedes the veiled walk down the aisle has a bit of mystery about it. They may not be sure exactly what the ancient Aramaic text says, but the signing ceremony sets just the right air of solemnity as a prelude to the veiled walk down the aisle.

Some couples who read the text carefully encounter a document that seems at least mildly chauvinist, with the husband taking an active role and the wife only consenting to become his wife. Although some couples decide to write their own egalitarian ketubah and forego the traditional document, many decide to also have a standard ketubah.

Donna Frieze, a convert to Judaism, had an additional kosher ketubah to ensure the legality of her marriage.

“Later in life,” she said, “we don’t know if we or our children would want to go to Israel and if there would be any question about our marriage.”

Despite concerns by feminists with the male-oriented language of the ketubah, the document originally developed as an insurance policy to protect the bride if the marriage ends — either through divorce or death of the husband.

The most fundamental role of the ketubah, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, is to elucidate the responsibilities and obligations a husband accepts in a marriage. According to Maurice Lamm’s the “Jewish Way in Love and Marriage,” the ketubah specifies that the husband is setting aside 200 silver zuzim, called a mohar, that will be paid to the bride in the event of his death or a divorce.

The husband also agrees in the ketubah to support his wife with food, clothing and “other necessary benefits,” which the Talmud defines as satisfactory conjugal relations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained in 2003, maintained that a ketubah can express greater mutuality and still be in consonance with Jewish law. Using a document created by Rabbi Gordon Tucker as a basis for her ketubah, Jacobs and her husband Guy Austrian expressed mutual responsibility for each other in their ketubah: “The groom and bride also agreed of their own free will to work for one another, to honor, support, and nurture one another, to live together as a family, and to create their home in love, companionship, peace, and friendship as befits the sons and daughters of Israel.”

The traditional ketubah also lists two additional transfers of property. One is the bride’s dowry, or nedunya, of silver, gold, valuables, clothing and household furnishings, which the groom accepts in the sum of 100 zuzim. The second is an additional 100 zuzim, called tosefet ketubah, that the groom provides as a wedding gift to the bride. In the Sephardic world, the tosefet ketubah is often a negotiated sum that is specified in the currency of the land.

The groom must secure these monetary obligations with a lien on his property: “I take upon myself and my heirs after me,” reads the ketubah, “the surety of this ketubah, of the dowry, and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire.”

In the notes to Tucker’s ketubah, which Jacobs described as “the bare minimum of what you need halachically,” he claims that the only obligatory elements of the ketubah are the mohar and the lien it engenders. Concerning these monetary payments, added Jacobs, “they are part of a ketubah, but it is not necessary to specify how much.”

Tucker included language to allude to both the mohar and the lien on property: “The groom and the bride also accepted full legal responsibility for the obligations specified here, as well as for the various property entering the marriage from their respective homes and families, and agreed that the obligations of this ketubah may be satisfied even from movable property.”

The standard ketubah, despite its formulaic nature, is required for every Orthodox marriage. Because the standard ketubah does not require a husband to grant his wife a religious divorce and a get, Blau supported the idea of a bride and groom signing, in addition to the ketubah, a separate prenuptial agreement — also to protect the bride in case of a divorce.

Although the Orthodox community is committed to the existing ketubah document, whose language comes from the Mishnah, Blau said he has no problem with a bride and a groom making additional agreements and commitments, as long as they do not controvert Jewish law.

When Rabbi Jacobs and her husband got married, they did not want to have two ketubbot, but rather one ketubah that satisfied both Jewish law and their own values. “We wanted something that to our standards was halakhically acceptable,” she explained, but also egalitarian.

Using Tucker’s ketubah and adding to it three additional paragraphs of a more personal nature enabled Jacobs and her husband to have a single ketubah, something that is often not true for couples Jacobs has married. If they have written their own ketubah, but not in a way that satisfies Jewish law, she requires them to have an additional kosher ketubah — even if it is a computer printout that will go in a safe deposit box after the ceremony.

An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial

When Eileen Isenberg thinks about her own funeral, she has a very clear picture in her mind.

“First I want 20 minutes of sad,” she said, to allow people to remember her, with the second movement of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto playing in the background.

“Then I want people to bring out the klezmer music and platters of all different kinds of rugelach and chat about the good stuff and the fun.”

When it's time to push the casket down the aisle, she wants a band she's already picked one to break into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” New Orleans-style, and the mourners to step in line and escort the casket to graveside.

“I want to leave my dear friends with a sweet taste in their mouths and a twinkle in their hearts,” said Isenberg, 77, a Reform Jew who isn't planning to die anytime soon.

This is definitely not what a Jewish funeral used to be. At least not in the non-Orthodox world.

When it comes to thinking about the end of life, be it in the business of funeral homes or in the minds of Jews everywhere, the world is changing.

“It's not about mourning the death anymore. People want to celebrate life,” said Isenberg's daughter, Lynn, a Marina del Rey resident who launched a customized funeral planning business, “Lights Out Enterprises,” after penning the novel, “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, 2005). Lynn Isenberg believes mourners can celebrate without compromising the life and integrity of the deceased.

Blame it on the baby boomers. One outgrowth of the aging of 78 million largely nontraditional Americans born between 1946 and 1964 is that they are revolutionizing the final frontier with personalized send-offs, both for themselves and their parents.

You can also blame it on our death-denying, death-defying culture. Why fall back on those morose, antiquated and tiresome rituals when we can put some “fun” back into the $11 billion funeral service industry?

And you can blame it on the high cost of dying. And the lower cost of cremation. Along with the opportunity to have our ashes mixed with cement and forged into an artificial reef ball, to rest eternally on the ocean floor.

Or blame it on ignorance of Jewish burial and funeral customs. The fact that we don't know a grave from a crypt. Or what to do if we happen to be unaffiliated, intermarried or tattooed.

Still, while not everyone is jumping on the “I gotta be me” funeral bandwagon, a funny thing is happening on the way to the mortuary.

These days, more and more Jews are breathing new life into Judaism's age-old approach to death and dying. They're also sometimes discovering that the rituals the ones that have always been followed by the Torah-observant world can speak to them as well in fresh and personal ways.

For traditional Jews, this is no surprise.

“It's been done this way for 3,600 years,” said Moe Goldsman, who has served as funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar since 1989. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

As with most things Jewish, the practices governing burials are based on Torah: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), as well as, “As we come forth, so shall we return” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

They also operate on the principles of respect, speed and simplicity, rendering everyone equal in death, with these key components:

  • Nothing should be done to prohibit the natural decomposition of the body. Embalming or cosmetic enhancement is prohibited.
  • The body is accompanied or watched from the time of death until burial. It is ritually cleansed and dressed in white linen shrouds.
  • Burial is in a plain wooden casket, with no metal parts. The casket remains closed.
  • Burial takes place in the ground, as soon as possible.
  • Flowers are discouraged. Charitable contributions are instead suggested.


Historically, each community's holy society, or chevra kadisha (not to be confused with the Los Angeles for-profit mortuary by the same name), took on the responsibility of caring for the deceased, considered the most sacred task in Judaism because it's a mitzvah that cannot be repaid. Over the years, the non-Orthodox community has relinquished this obligation to the care of strangers.






Jon Kalish of NPR's 'All Things Considered' recorded a chevra kadisha preparing a body


“Someone passes away, you call the mortuary and they pick up the body. You're totally removed,” said Sinai Temple's Cantor Joseph Gole. “It wasn't too many generations ago that you did taharah (the ritual cleansing and purification of the body) right on the kitchen table, in the house.”

Tachrichim or shrouds, Hillside Mortuary

Meat packing raid stirs larger ethical and economic concerns

While some Los Angeles kosher supervisors and suppliers see the crackdown on illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, as a temporary setback, others are concerned with larger economic and ethical implications that reach beyond this particular case.

“They don’t have a lot of things,” said Albert Zadeh, owner of kosher supermarket Pico Glatt, of Agriprocessors. “If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases.” Chicken is a particular problem, he said.

Most customers — 80 percent, he said — are not aware of the problem, so their shopping habits have remained the same. Zadeh said he’s not planning to raise prices on meat and poultry.

“Prices are high enough,” he said.

Zadeh said that Kehilla, the kosher supervisory agency that oversees his market and receives meat from the Agriprocessors Postville plant, is addressing the issue of obtaining supply.

Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, believes the effects of the raid will be short term.

“As far as I understand, this is a temporary situation,” he said, noting that Agriprocessors is trying to address the labor issue. And while there are other kosher meat suppliers, “I don’t think anyone can ramp up production to cover the shortfall.”

But it’s not a crisis, he emphasized — especially at this time of year; “It’s the Omer [the period between Passover and Shavuot when many religious Jews do not eat meat], and generally after Pesach, there is a reduction in spending.”

Teichman stressed that this situation has nothing to do with kashrut (dietary law).

“This is an immigration, legal and labor issue — if they could not maintain the kashrut standard, they would not produce,” he said.

But what about the ethical issues pertaining to the use of illegal immigrants as a labor force at a kosher facility? Are kashrut supervisors concerned with issues of Jewish observance beyond the technicalities of the slaughtering process?

Teichman believes the company was not aware of the illegal immigrants who were using fraudulent paperwork.

“We support all legal activities,” he said of Kehilla.

Rabbi Yakov Vann agrees. “We do deal with ethical issues,” said Vann, director of kashrut services at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the other main kosher supervisory agency here. Although he would not comment on the Agriprocessors case or on immigration violation, he said the RCC is very concerned with “work practice issues and the way you treat your employees.”

Coincidentally, the RCC is about to begin importing meat from a new plant in Wichita, Kan., under the label California Delight.

“We have been working on this for a year and a half,” he said. The important thing for meat, he said, is “never to rely on one source.”

That’s what Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz does: use more than one source. “It’s not affecting me at all,” he said.

The ethical issues of “Mitzvot ben Adam L’Chaveiro” — commandments between human beings (as opposed to those between God and man) — has prompted some local Orthodox rabbis to consider taking action.

On Sunday, May 18, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City met to discuss creating a hechsher (kosher certification) for ethical issues.

Although the discussions are “way too premature” to know specifics, Muskin said that in general, “we want to make sure that kashrut is not only a ritual issue but a human issue — that the human interrelationship between proprietor and worker is also according to halacha, or Jewish law.”

In fact, he said, the issues of whether workers are being treated well, whether they are getting paid minimum wage, whether they are being paid on time — and for overtime — and if the work conditions are sufficient, these are all issues covered in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law.

The rabbis don’t yet know how this new oversight would take place but know that “we have to be sensitive to these issues,” Muskin said. “If we haven’t been in the past, we must now be extra sensitive. This is part of halacha, and it can’t be ignored.”

Halacha is just a click away at online yeshiva

You can buy tickets online, get a college degree online, so why not attend yeshiva online?

Enter Web Yeshiva, the first real-time Torah center whose second semester begins May 6 with signups at Sure, there are thousands of Web sites devoted to Jewish subjects, and plenty of podcasts that offer lectures on Judaism -the “ShasPod” even offers the entire daf yomi of daily Talmud learning loaded on an iPod – but “The Jewish People’s First Online Yeshiva,” as the Israel-based online program calls itself, offers real classes through web conferencing for people around the world.

“There are many people who would like to study Torah but aren’t doing so on a regular basis – either because no relevant classes are given in their communities, work schedules, or whatever,” said founder Rabbi Chaim Brovender. “Then there are people who attend shiurim in a passive way without internalizing the message. But Internet learning provides an option that enables more and more people to involve themselves in committed Torah study.”

This semester, 46 weekly classes are being offered, including Talmud, Bible, Halacha, Jewish business ethics, and a Hebrew Ulpan for beginners. Access to one class is $75 per semester or $250 for unlimited access to all classes. Students are offered access to archives of all classes, 24-hour a day technical support and access to all WebYeshiva blogs and podcasts as well as a daily video on Halacha.

Like other virtual learning and videoconferencing, Web Yeshiva students see and hear each other and the instructor in the virtual classroom. Students must log on at a set time (as opposed to some virtual learning, where lectures are posted for students to read anytime), and they can see the texts being studied on the left side of the screen, and watch the videos and chats on the right.

The only question for yeshiva students is — how do you cut class?

Appropriate response to killings rests in Torah

The pain felt by the family and near environment of any murder victim is deep and traumatic. The murder of adolescents in an educational institution is horrifying. But a murder that takes place within the walls of the house of study, the yeshiva, amplifies and extends the grief and suffering beyond the families that lost their dear ones and beyond the victims’ close surroundings.

We immediately associate this slaughter with the picture that has become fixed in our minds as Jews schooled in millennia of persecution: The bloodthirsty non-Jews kill us as we stand in prayer in the synagogue and as we sit learning Gemara in the house of study.

In this old-new picture it is quite clear what symbolizes each side: We are symbolized by prayer and study; they are symbolized by the sword, the gun and acts of violence. We sit in the tents of Shem and learn Torah, motivated by a moral drive, self-criticism and a desire to repair the world. They engage in “Esau’s labor,” raining down the blood and fire of destruction on themselves and on us.

But as we delve deeper into our minds to agonize over this painfully sharp image of murder in the house of study, our field of view is blurred by other pictures that interfere with the age-old world order. A gang of Jewish fascists goes on a rampage in the neighborhood of the murderous terrorist; several hours later, we are told, in the name of a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Torah world, that yeshivot are forbidden to employ Arabs.

At first sight, these two Jewish reactions are quite unrelated: The band of neo-Kahanists is light years removed from the Lithuanian world of Torah study; the person who informed the media of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s opinion had no inkling that the riot and the ruling would be connected in the press and later in the public mind.

The general public — both the sector that condemns these responses and the sector that sympathizes with them — perceives them as “religious Judaism’s reaction to the murder.” How do “religious Jews” react to the murder at the yeshiva? They take the law into their own hands and run amok in the neighborhood where the murderer lived or cast collective guilt on all Arabs and call for dismissing them from their jobs and depriving them of their livelihood.

But we could also witness an appropriate Jewish response of another type, which rests on loyalty to the views of the Torah and halacha, as recorded in the pages of the very books whose pages were perforated by the murderer’s bullets.

We might hear that those of us who sit and learn in the house of study adhere steadfastly to a moral position that begins by isolating violent murderers from all other human beings. We might hear that we clearly distinguish between the absolute majority of the Arab citizens of Israel and the violent murderers among them.

As Jews, we have a different language, which is not the language of force; a different language that is not based on violence.

Halacha defines the right of minorities to live among us in peace and security, to determine their place of residence according to their needs and free choice, without posing a security threat to us and without our discriminating against them or harming them by deed or humiliating word.

As with the modern return to Zion, it was also clear at the first return from Egypt that the future Jewish kingdom would include a non-Jewish minority. Halacha states a fundamental principle about the residence of a non-Jew in the Land of Israel:

“One does not let him settle on the frontier or in an unhealthy place but only in an attractive place in the middle of the Land of Israel, where his crafts are marketable, as we read, ‘He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill treat him'” (Deut. 23:17) (Tractate Gerim 3:4; also Sifre Tetze).

Halacha established dependence between the right of residence and the right of livelihood and insisted on the right of minorities to move up to a better neighborhood if they wished to do so. Developing from this statement of principle, the issue of the status of the non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state emerged as a broad and ramified halachic topic, with implications for security, employment, workers’ rights, residential rights, welfare, commerce, agriculture and industry as well as for cultural ties and neighborly relations between Jews and non-Jews.

The Torah lays down the precept that we must provide for the basic livelihood and welfare of both Jews and non-Jews who live in the Land of Israel and strenuously insists that we not infringe the status and rights of the minority. All social rights, the laws against fraud and withholding wages, apply to both Jews and non-Jews.

Many halachic texts indicate that the Torah sees itself as the guardian of the minority and is careful to emphasize and define its rights in detail, because in the absence of a halachic fence to defend the minority, the majority is apt to discriminate against it.

According to the commentators, there are several reasons for this halachic stance:

  • The acid test for the ethical nature of a Jewish majority society is how it treats minorities, or in contemporary terms, if we want the State of Israel to be a Jewish nation state we must meticulously respect the status and rights of the non-Jewish minority among us.
  • As Jews, we have long experience of life as a minority and must display understanding of the pain of the minority. In the words of Sefer Hahinnukh (by Maimonides’ disciple): “He reminded us that we have already been burned by that great pain, which is suffered by every human being who sees himself in the midst of strangers … and we remember the great anxiety attached to this.”

The widespread public expectation that religious or ultra-Orthodox Jews will conduct themselves in keeping with Jewish standards, that they will evince loyalty to the moral principles anchored in the precepts of the Torah, is manifested after every act of violence, corruption or immorality in which religious people are involved.

By the same token, what the two Jewish reactions mentioned above have in common is that they do not see the Torah as the source of obligatory moral behavior, whether toward ourselves or toward others.

They do not believe that we have a duty to present a clear alternative to the terrorists and murderers, an obligation to tell them: “You murdered innocent people who were learning Torah; you desecrated a holy place. But you will not deprive us of our values and essence.

“You may cry, ‘Death to the Jews’ and go out and murder. We will not respond with, ‘Death to the Arabs’ but with, ‘He shall live with you’ and with, ‘You must not ill-treat him.’

You want to get us to assign collective guilt, to persecute and discriminate against all the Arab citizens on your account. But we, who have been victims of such an indictment, will endeavor, even at the height of the war you are waging against us, to improve the lot of the Arabs who live with and among us in peace.”

Professor Naftali Rothenberg is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the rabbi of Har Adar.

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel

In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law Committee’s gay ruling stepped outside Halacha

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last week validated three responsa, or teshuvot, on the general subject of homosexuality.

In fact, the primary technical issue was the Jewish legal status of sex between members of the same gender. From the answers offered to that question followed the views of the authors as to the permissibility of commitment ceremonies — implying, of course, a need also for “uncommitment ceremonies” — and the ordination of gays and lesbians as clergy, who serve as exemplars of commitment to halachah.

Two of the papers reaffirmed the classical position of Jewish law forbidding such sexual activity and, therefore, forbade commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The third paper permitted most sexual activity between men — forbidding only intercourse — and sexual activity between women. As a result, the authors of this paper permit commitment ceremonies and ordination.

I was the author of one of the papers that reaffirmed the classic Jewish legal position, a position I had affirmed in 1992 when this subject was last on the law committee’s agenda.

Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general.

I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues:

  • How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? None of the authors of any of the papers denied what the uncontested precedents of Jewish law are, and that the preponderant majority of decisors of Jewish law from time immemorial considered all types of sexual behavior between members of the same sex to be a prohibition of biblical status, d’oraita, based on rabbinic interpretation of scriptural verses, midrash halachah.
  • What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which
  • Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition?

The authors of the permissive paper argued that the Talmudic category of “human honor,” which they translated as “human dignity,” allowed for its abrogation. I argued that the category is entirely inapplicable to the case under discussion, even if we assumed that the prohibition is rabbinic and not biblical.

In almost all of the cases in which the category is invoked, the claim is that X may violate the law out of deference to the honor of Y. In the case under discussion, X is to be entitled to violate the law out of deference to his own honor, for which claim there is no real precedent.

What’s more, such a claim is theologically weak, since no law-abiding Jew would ever entertain the possibility that his honor would supersede that of God. And in the few cases of application of the category, which can possibly be understood to imply that X may violate the law out of deference to his own honor, X is always literally in a social context and in the presence of others.

For example, X may wear a hearing aid on Shabbat in the synagogue lest he be embarrassed by his inability to hear the Kaddish being recited and not answer the communal lines when the community does. In our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.

How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark? We all understand and agree that decisors of Jewish law often approach the subject before them with a predisposition to give a specific answer. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

What, then, distinguishes a good decisor from a poor one?

The good decisor is able to judge his decision with enough dispassion to see whether his predisposition has blinded him to the indefensibility of his answer, and the poor one is not.

It is my opinion that my colleagues have here been blinded to the indefensibility of their conclusion. It is based on three pillars — I have not discussed one of them here — each of which is either quite clearly false or, at a minimum, is debatable.

For their conclusion to follow, however, all three must be considered as true and valid. This leads me to conclude that their decision was arrived at entirely independent of halachic reasoning, and that the defensibility of their after-the-fact reasoning was not relevant to them. The decision simply had to be as it was.

The combination of the above leads me to believe that the permissive position validated by the law committee was really outside the halachic framework, and I resigned from the committee.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?

When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”

View on Eisen From L.A.: Thumbs Up

Local reaction was positive — with an element of wait and see — to the choice of Stanford professor Arnold Eisen as the new, de facto leader of the Conservative moment. Eisen, who isn’t a rabbi, will take over this summer as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Issac Jaret, president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, focused immediately on Eisen’s position on gays — the seminary does not currently ordain openly gay rabbis.

“On the one hand, Eisen has stated he is in favor of the ordination,” he said. “On the other hand, being that he is not a rabbi, professor Eisen may have less impact upon this decision than another chancellor might have had with similar views.”

Jaret would not articulate his own position on gay ordination but added that “any decision on this matter [would] leave a significant segment of the movement dissatisfied.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a prominent innovator in the movement, also foresees a period of division and discontent, adding, “The Conservative movement must become much more responsive to the world and not live by quotations of halacha [Jewish law] alone.”

Schulweis, a longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, called the movement behind the times: “To be a movement that will excite its people, you have to be on the cutting edge, and you can’t be too little too late.”

He joked that the definition of a Conservative Jew “is someone who is willing to do something, but never for the first time.”

Schulweis quoted the Passover Torah portion to underscore his point: “The question Ezekiel asks is, ‘Will these dry bones live?’ The challenge to the new chancellor, the seminary and the Conservative movement is whether or not we can resurrect the dessicated bones of apathy.”

His colleague at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, put it another way: “The most important issue is what it means to be a religious movement in a completely voluntary and individualistic culture. How do you build contemporary spiritual community?”

Los Angeles rabbis interviewed for their reaction were unconcerned that Eisen is not a rabbi.

“They made an important statement in the scholar they chose,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “They didn’t take a biblical scholar or a scholar of rabbinic literature. They took someone who is an expert on American Jewry and American Jewish life — not in a historical context but in a contemporary sociological context,” he said.

Eisen’s books include “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America” (Indiana University Press, 2000) and together with Stephen Cohen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (Indiana University Press: 2000).

Vogel called Eisen “someone who can speak more on the condition of American Jewry and help to form a vision for American Jewry.”

More praise came from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who took his own name out of consideration for the seminary job.

“Professor Eisen is a deep and subtle thinker about Judaism and American Judaism in particular,” Wolpe said. “This can only be a very powerful shot in the arm for a movement that was looking for a very powerful shot in the arm, that was looking for reinvigoration.”


The Agunah: A Modern-Day Nightmare


A couple of years ago I received two back-to-back phone calls in my office: The first, from a 21-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman who had escaped her physically abusive 6-month long marriage, only to find herself trapped two years later because her husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce (a get). She can never remarry or have children as long as her husband remains recalcitrant.

The second call was from a Modern Orthodox young woman who was ready to marry the man of her dreams — only to discover a few weeks before the marriage that her rabbi refused to conduct the ceremony after he learned that the groom was a mamzer (illegitimate child of an incestuous relationship), because his mother had failed to obtain a get before marrying the groom’s father.

These two cases vividly illustrate the current problems of the modern day agunah (a woman chained to an unwanted marriage), because halacha (Jewish law) gives the husband the sole, unfettered power of divorce. While under Ashkenazic tradition a woman can withhold her “consent” to such a divorce, the remedies available to the victim of a recalcitrant husband or wife differ substantially. A woman whose husband refuses to grant her a get can never remarry and have children from another man because if she does so, her children and all their progeny are considered mamzerim, who are forbidden to marry any Jew other than other mamzerim. In contrast, a man whose wife refuses to “consent” to the get, has options: he can obtain the consent of 100 rabbis (a heter) to remarry without the wife’s consent, or if he does remarry without a heter, his children from the subsequent marriage do not bear the stigma of being mamzerim. (In Sephardic tradition, a husband may even divorce his wife without her consent, eliminating his need for a heter.)

These disparate consequences, coupled with the husband’s exclusive power to terminate the marriage, have resulted in a modern-day nightmare to Orthodox women. The power to condemn their wives to remain chained in marriage, to a man who often remarries without granting his wife a get, has spawned an entire marketplace for extortions. Men have demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars, waiver of the wife’s rights to spousal support and even custody of children they have abused, in exchange for the wife’s right to remarry. This bartering for the wife’s freedom has become so universal that, unbidden, some rabbis even begin a get process by asking the wife what she is willing to give her husband in exchange for the get.

While remedies have been suggested and some implemented, none have cured the basic ill resulting from this gross imbalance of power. In Israel, laws have been enacted allowing incarceration and forfeiture of driver and professional licenses of recalcitrant husbands. Most recently, an Israeli court awarded a woman monetary damages for her husband’s refusal to give her a get for more than 12 years. But these laws fall pitifully short of a final solution. First, these laws are unavailable to women outside of Israel. Second, some men have opted to remain jailed or do without their licenses rather than give their wives a get. Even the judgment of monetary damages was a mere Pyrrhic victory — while she has a judicial decree for money (which she may never be able to collect), the courts could not force her husband to give her the get, and thus she remains an agunah.

Other suggested solutions have met with only limited success. Many conscientious rabbis now refuse to perform a marriage ceremony unless the couple first signs a prenuptial agreement authorizing the beit din (Jewish court) to award daily monetary support (or damages) for each day the husband refuses to give a get or the wife refuses her consent. Such prenuptial agreements, however, must meet the civil requirements of the state where it’s executed — a condition of which rabbis are often unaware. Additionally, such prenuptial agreements have the same flaw as any of the Israeli laws. No prenuptial agreement can force a recalcitrant husband to give a get — it can only award monetary sums to the wife, but it can still leave her trapped. A very poor or a very rich man can afford to disregard the monetary damages he would suffer under the agreement, and the opportunity for extortion or revenge inherent in the husband’s unfettered power to withhold the get cannot be eliminated. Finally, there are many rabbis who refuse to mandate the signing of such a prenuptial agreement, and an Israeli rabbi recently even decreed such prenuptial agreements invalid. Clearly, the prenuptial agreement is not universally accepted nor does it result in a global solution.

More recently, some have advocated “annulment” of the marriage as a way to eliminate the agunah problem. But this solution has been met with tremendous opposition in the Orthodox rabbinical community. Some rabbis who have granted or advocated annulments in such cases have been marginalized and their status in the Orthodox community threatened. In one recent case, a rabbi who granted annulment to a woman who had been an Agunah for more than 10 years was publicly condemned and his rulings in other cases delegitimized by another rabbi.

The lack of consensus among Orthodox rabbis on a permanent global end to such unfettered misuse of the husband’s power has led to homespun solutions. Some have advocated the use of nonobservant witnesses at Orthodox weddings to assure that an Orthodox get would not be necessary in the event the marriage fails. Others have simply ignored the law and remarried without the get, leaving it to the next generations to untangle the mamzer problems thereby created.

There is, however, concurrence on one thing — a permanent solution must be found to eliminate the agunah problem. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has begun an agunah-awareness campaign this year, beginning with the Fast of Esther. JOFA hopes to generate education, discussion and resolution. While many might dismiss this issue as just the “women’s problem,” it should be an equal cause for concern for every Orthodox man who has a sister, a daughter or a mother. They are all potential targets for extortion or imprisonment in an insufferable marriage.

Alexandra Leichter is a Beverly Hills family law attorney, and is a member of the Westwood Village Synagogue.


How to Approach a Grieving Jew

"Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief" by Rabbi Maurice Lamm (Jewish Publication Society, $30).

Grief erases all regular rules. All the logic that has ever seemed to govern one’s life suddenly seems useless. More than useless, it seems pointless. In death, we are all brought down to the same physical level. In grief, all rules are shaken to the core. Individual, groups, even whole societies can exist in states of suspended animation, for in struggling with the implications of death, they cannot participate in the daily activity of living.

In a religious context, that very suspension is a double-edged sword. Religion must be based on a system of logic. Without it, no belief or ritual would make any sense. So what is a religion like Judaism, with its long history of legal logic, to do with mourning? How is Judaism to cope with the mourner, who is living the paradox of grief: showing the rest of us exactly how crucial the laws that govern every moment and gesture can be to maintaining order and meaning in life, but also making us face the question of whether those rules really mean anything at all.

In 1969, Rabbi Maurice Lamm published "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," which became a staple for those trying to cope with the death of a loved one, and served as the template for the hundreds of books dealing with grief in a Jewish context that have been written since. Now, 35 years later, he has returned to the subject in "Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief."

An Orthodox rabbi, Lamm lives and writes in a world that values halacha, or Jewish law, as the proper way to deal with all aspects of life, both good and bad. Yet grief is the one example of a time and state that defies law. We can see in his treatment of the topic of mourning the ways in which Judaism itself has tried to reconcile the difficulty of grief.

Lamm goes into great detail about the practice of "sitting shiva," the seven-day period of enforced mourning that traditional Jews have long followed. During that week, members of the community visit those who have experienced a death. He goes into great detail about the particulars that govern even the experience of shiva: The mourner is to sit low to the ground so that he or she is closer to the earth and thus to death; the mourner doesn’t wash his or her hair and wears a piece of clothing that has deliberately been torn. Visitors, too, are given instruction about how to interact with those whom they visit. They may not allow the person to isolate himself in his sorrow, but by the same token may not greet the mourner directly.

All these rules to regulate what is ultimately ungovernable. Even this has been written into Judaism’s understanding of the grief process. Before shiva even begins, the mourner exists in a netherworld, not subject to the regular rules. For a day or two, the mourner exists outside the legal system. He or she lives out the fact that death cancels all logic, that law is powerless in the face of death.

What Lamm never seems to confront is that in laying out how the mourner is to travel from that netherworld to full participation in life, Judaism finds a way to re-exert its own logic onto the moment of greatest grief. In the progress from the first shock of death to the re-entry into the community one week later, the mourner is brought back from the place where law has no meaning to the world in which law reigns supreme. In fact, traditional Jewish thoughts about grief and the practices that it has devised, never really do let go of the logic of law.

The result, for "Consolation," is that Lamm is on surest ground when he sticks to the formalities of grief — not just the laws of interaction with a mourner, but even in the suggestions he gives about how to deal with someone in that delicate state.

In fact, Lamm shows sensitivity to the turbulent emotions of any mourner in his approach toward those who would wish to give consolation. The book stresses patience. It offers detailed advice about how to avoid the most dreaded of all situations: saying the wrong thing to a person sitting shiva. He even encourages those visiting to endure some discomfort if it will alleviate some of the mourner’s anguish.

To his credit, Lamm anticipates the existential questioning that comes up during a period of grief, but his book is less successful when it tries to engage those questions on their own, precisely because the law is never too far out of sight. One cannot attempt to answer the spiritual dilemmas that death inevitably brings up if one is unwilling to also suspend all logic, if only for a brief moment, and Lamm simply cannot do that. His worldview is too caught up in the reassertion of the law, and not open enough to its seeming irrelevance in the light of grief’s suffering.

For all that, Lamm has written an important book, a book that offers something to grab onto at a time when the bottom seems to have dropped out, when nothing makes sense and we yearn for the assurance that there is meaning, that the existential questions do have answers. Sometimes, rules can be the greatest consolation of all.

Lamm will be speaking Aug. 31 from noon-2 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (800) 757-4242.

Jewish Law Favors Stem Cell Research

Even as Ron Reagan makes a case for stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention, Californians may take matters into their own hands. In November, the state ballot will include a 10-year bond issue, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research. If it passes, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would make the Golden State the golden goose of publicly funded stem cell research, generating approximately $295 million annually for stem cell research. This figure dwarfs by 10 times the $24.8 million spent by the federal government on human embryonic stem cell research last fiscal year.

While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

If the major denominations within Judaism can agree on this issue, why are others around the nation up in arms? Because stem cell research raises questions about how life is defined and when it begins. Although stem cells are found in the body at all stages of development, the ones that seem to be most promising for research purposes are those extracted from embryos (fertilized egg cells) only a few days old. Most embryonic stem cell research is performed on excess embryos created in Petri dishes for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. These preimplanted embryos (also referred to as pre-embryos) would otherwise remain frozen or be discarded.

In the laboratory, embryonic stem cells are able to replicate rapidly to create a "line" of cells uniquely capable of developing into any kind of cell in the human body. These cells provide enormous potential for treating and possibly curing a host of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease and cancer. The catch: extracting the stem cells destroys the embryo.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement’s Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people’s lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God’s realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God’s work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe."

In the case of stem cell research, scientists hope to learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. This knowledge holds potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs, as well as for testing safety and effectiveness of new drugs without harm to human subjects. Preliminary research in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy cells transplanted into a diseased heart can regenerate heart tissue. Other studies are exploring whether human embryonic stem cells can form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in therapy for diabetics.

In 2001, Bush ordered that the federal government fund only embryonic stem cell research performed on the limited number of existing stem cell lines, precluding federal funding for research involving production of new stem cells or research on those produced overseas. (Private research on embryonic stem cells is not presently affected.) Under pressure from critics, the National Institutes of Health announced on July 14 that it would create a bank to distribute existing stem cells, but critics say this doesn’t go far enough.

"The government should not only allow stem cell research, they should fund it generously," Dorff said.

But while Jewish leaders endorse federal funding for stem cell research, they also urge that it be performed with stringent guidelines and controls, and for therapeutic purposes only. Selecting traits to create "designer babies," for example, would be unacceptable.

"For every step God gives us of greater control over the physical parts of man, we had better be sure we have a firmer handle on the nonphysical part of man — on the neshama — on the soul," Adlerstein said. "God gave man intelligence to be able to create things."

At the same time, as "moral gatekeepers, Jews are there to remind the world that not every combination that you can produce should be produced," he added.

Religious Court Serves as First Resort

In downtown Los Angeles, three judges are deciding a case involving tens of millions of dollars and dozens of properties.

The judges aren’t dressed in robes or seated behind wooden podiums with a court reporter close at hand. Instead, the three bearded rabbis are sitting in a small conference room at a table piled high with documents they peruse carefully.

It may look unassuming, but a small set of offices that make up the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) beit din (rabbinical court) is a mainstay of the Orthodox community.

“It is one of the hallmarks of the Jewish community to have a means of solving issues when they arise according to the Torah, so as to keep the society civil so that there is justice and fairness,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the beit din. “It is a mitzvah from the Torah that if two Jews have a dispute, they have to go to beit din.”

The beit din serves several communal functions. It acts as a legal arbitration panel on financial disputes according to halacha (Jewish law) and California law, administers gets (bills of divorce), ushers Jews-by-choice through the conversion process and eventually decides on their conversion worthiness and convenes hearings in matters of personal status (proving that a person actually is Jewish) or inheritance.

While there are other beit dins in Los Angeles — such as the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a multidenominational conversion beit din, or the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), which is the court of the Conservative movement — the RCC is the only one that operates within the strictest, most traditional interpretation of halacha. In financial matters, it is the busiest of the beit dins. It hears between 15-20 cases a year, while the RA so far has heard only one this year.

The beit din is made up of panels of three rabbis who, in addition to their rabbinical ordination, have a rabbinic legal degree of yadin yadin, which means they spent seven to 10 years studying the Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgment) section of the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) and can now act as a judge. (Choshen Mishpat is the most complicated of the four sections of the Shulchan Arukh. It deals with the Jewish laws of financial statutes, torts, damages, contracts, acquisitions, landlord and tenants and loans and claims, among other topics.)

Observant Jews are required by halacha to make the beit din the first port of call in a legal dispute against another Jew. This saves Jews from having to publicly reveal their disputes in a secular court. It also ensures that money matters, like all other matters of Jewish life for observant Jews, will be adjudicated in accordance with halacha.

The beit din operates in conformance with California arbitration statutes and legal codes. Participants sign a binding arbitration agreement, which means the decision the rabbis reach is halachically binding and will be upheld in civil court.

“The beit din is not as formalistic in the presentation of arguments and factual presentations as it would be in civil court, and that allows for a freer exchange of arguments,” said Encino attorney Harris L. Cohen, a nonobservant Jew who has had two clients try their cases in the RCC beit din, one involved the purchase of a $1 million business. “Also, a civil court wants to keep all hearsay out, but at a beit din, they want to hear everything, so that opens up the trial to all sorts of issues that you never had to deal with [in civil court].”

There are other differences, too. The beit din charges $400 an hour, and most cases are adjudicated in five to nine hours. Although some people choose to bring lawyers to the case, the less rigid structure of the beit din means that lawyers are not always necessary. This in turn means that trying a case in a beit din is a much cheaper option than civil court, which can cost plaintiffs between $5,000 and $10,000 in legal fees just to enter a plea.

The beit din has no jurisdiction to try criminal cases, and does not award punitive damages.

“Possibly they would be able to get the suit cleaned,” said Rabbi Gershon Bess, who sits on the arbitration panel, “but that is about it, because [halachically] a person is responsible for his actions.”

High-powered lawyers don’t count for much in the downtown conference room.

“There are no theatrics here,” Bess said. “A dramatic speaker doesn’t help much. We would hope that the issues are just trying to flesh out the truth.”

For more information on the Rabbinical Council of
California, call (213) 489-8080 or visit .

Q & A With Robby Berman

Robby Berman was a journalist living in Israel writing about organ donation when he came across some alarming facts: Out of 200 people who were declared brain-stem dead in a given year, only 70 families agreed to organ donation — giving Israel the lowest percentage of organ donors in the Western world. So while 130 Israelis in that year were buried with viable organs, 114 died waiting to receive organs. The No. 1 reason that both religious and secular Israelis gave for not donating organs was that halacha (Jewish law) forbids it — a common misconception rooted in superstitions and a misconstruing of halacha. That information was enough to make Berman, 37, quit his writing job to found and direct the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS). Created in December 2001, the organization has reached more than 8,000 people worldwide.

The Jewish Journal: This issue has been in the news since 20-year-old Alisa Flatow was killed in a terrorist attack in Gaza in 1995 and her family donated her organs. Have you seen a turnaround in the superstitions or a change in the numbers?

Robby Berman: Alisa Flatow was the first blip on the radar of Orthodox Jewish consciousness that perhaps organ donation was supported by halacha. But that blip went off the screen as fast as it went on. J.J. Greenberg’s donation last year was also noted by the public [Greenberg was killed in Israel after his bicycle was struck by a truck that ran a red light], but there has been no long-term change in our educational programming about this critical issue. I will lecture and spend an hour explaining how the Torah supports organ donation and they say, “Yes, yes, yes,” and then they walk out and say, “….Still, I think Jews don’t do that.”

JJ: Have you been successful in turning that around?

RB: We’ve had some incredible successes and also some failures. We have recruited dozens of Orthodox rabbis and over 1,000 laypeople who have registered for the HODS organ donor card. We have distributed 10,000 educational brochures in English and 5,000 in Hebrew. Overall awareness of this issue is growing. There also has been an increase over the past two years in organ donation from Orthodox Jews.

Where I haven’t been successful is in cultivating the necessary resources to take this project to the next level. Major funds are needed to embark on an educational advertising campaign in the major Jewish population centers — New York, L.A., Chicago, Florida — but that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and I have not been able to raise that.

JJ: The difficulty in raising funds may be related to what holds people back from dealing with organ donation — the unwillingness to confront issues of death and dying.

RB: Right. Who wants to talk about dying? There are all those emotional issues attached. I think to a large extent people hide behind the skirt of halacha and use it as an excuse. We try to educate those who are truly concerned about halacha and for those that use it as an excuse, HODS hopefully takes away their excuse.

JJ: What are the halachic issues involved?

RB: Most rabbis will agree that to donate organs from a dead person is a mitzvah. The Torah has three prohibitions concerning a cadaver: You can’t mutilate, get benefit from or delay burial of a body, but all rabbis agree that to save a life you can do those things.

The legitimate halachic issue is defining when a person is considered dead. There are rabbis, such as Reb Elyashiv in Jerusalem, who believe that as long as a person’s heart is still beating — such as someone who is brain-stem dead on a respirator — the person is alive. He does not allow donation from a brain-stem dead person because he believes the person is alive and you would be killing him. Others, such as the chief rabbinate of Israel and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hold that brain-stem death is halachically death and therefore not only could you donate organs, but you should.

JJ: Do HODS donor cards reflect those halachic issues?

RB: Ours is the only donor card in the world that allows people to choose between these two options. One can indicate the willingness to donate either after brain-stem death or, alternatively, after irreversible cessation of heartbeat. [From a medical perspective the latter option is not optimal because once the heart stops beating certain organs become less viable for transplant.]

JJ: What strategies have you found effective in breaking down the emotional obstacles?

RB: When we stop talking in abstract numbers and start showing faces and real people. Our Web site shows 22-year-old L.A. resident Ariel Avrech, who died this year waiting for a lung transplant. We show a number of Orthodox Jews who died in accidents and had their organs donated…. And, more importantly, we have pictures of people whose lives were saved by receiving organs. These people would be dead if not for organ donation. That has a powerful pull on people.

Robby Berman will speak Saturday, March 20, 10:30 a.m.
at Kehillat Yavneh, 5353 W. Third Street, and 11:15 a.m. at Shaarei Tefila, 7269
Beverly Blvd. To register for a HODS organ donor card or to access more
information, go to  or call (212) 213-5087.

In Sickness and in Taffeta

As a woman prepares to say "I do," her friends prepare to stand by her side in purple puffy dresses and lavender dyed shoes. In sickness and in health, in velour and in taffeta, in chartreuse and in lemon. As her bridesmaids, they will participate in a tradition that may be as old as Judaism itself.

There are several theories behind the inclusion of bridesmaids in a Jewish wedding ceremony. According to halacha, the ketubah must be signed by two witnesses, both observant males over the age of 13 who are unrelated to the couple. These witnesses, often close friends of the groom, may then go on to act as groomsmen during the wedding ceremony. In time, women also brought their own attendants, or bridesmaids, to stand by their side under the chuppah. In today’s more liberal weddings, bridesmaids may also act as official witnesses.

It is also believed the angels Michael and Gabriel attended the wedding of Adam and Eve as royal escorts or shoshvinim. In that tradition, a bride and groom each choose two shoshvinim to act as their left and right hands during the wedding ceremony and throughout their marriage. Today, bridesmaids carry on that shoshvinim tradition, spiritually and emotionally escorting the bride through every stage of the wedding process.

A bride looks to her right-hand woman often during the prewedding months.

"My bridesmaid, Morgan, was so thoughtful and so selfless and really put herself out," said newlywed Rachel Hoisman, who married husband, Danny, on Aug. 26 at Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel. "She really took the time to think about what I was going through during all the planning."

Tovah Reiss, who will marry fiancé Scott Kramer on Nov. 22, found her eight bridesmaids to be invaluable during her engagement.

"They threw me the most wonderful shower and bachelorette party, all of my out-of-town bridesmaids flew to L.A. to help out at least once this year," she said, "and they just keep calling to check in and ask what they can do."

Reiss’ sister-in-law designed the shawls the bridesmaids will wear under the chuppah next week, and along with Reiss’ sister, designed Kramer and Reiss’ ketubah.

"With everything my bridesmaids have done for me, I can honestly say I feel like I have been treated like a queen," Reiss said.

As she should be. Jewish tradition likens the bride and groom to a king and queen, and it is both an honor and an obligation to treat the couple like royalty. During the kabbalat panim, or precermony reception, the bride is seated in a "throne," surrounded by her bridesmaids, as the guests greet her with praise. During the ceremony, the procession of identically dressed women who precede the bride down the aisle is reminiscent of a royal entourage arriving ahead of their royalty’s grand entrance. During the reception, the bridesmaids are called upon like court jesters to entertain the newlyweds. According to the Talmud, whoever gladdens the chatan (groom) and kallah (bride) is "as if he rebuilt one of the ruins of Jerusalem." At many Orthodox wedding parties, bridesmaids bring "shtick" like elaborate masks and flower leis; they perform songs, jokes, skits and even magic tricks. Some bridesmaids fulfill this mitzvah by simply ensuring that the bride is having fun.

"My bridesmaids came up and danced for me, and with me," said Hoisman, 33, whose Orthodox wedding entailed separate gender dancing. "All the dancing and celebrating with my friends — it was really great."

While the bridesmaids try to treat their bride like a queen, today’s brides try to treat their friends like more than ladies-in-waiting.

"I want to avoid being Bridezilla," said Marni Feenberg, who will be wed at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in June. "I asked my friends to be my bridesmaids because I want them next to me, that’s what’s important."

According to Bridesmaid101.Com, bridesmaids’ duties have grown to include scouting wedding locations, addressing invitations, ordering favors, shopping for the wedding dress, planning a bridal shower and a bachelorette party. On the wedding day, the bridesmaids should assist the bride with her dress, makeup and hair, seat guests, provide moral support and bring an emergency kit with bobby pins, contact solution and needles and thread. But calendar and financial challenges have led women to scale back on these nuptial demands.

"Once upon a time, bridesmaids did bring the emergency bobby pins, they were involved in all the planning, but today women are really busy with their own jobs and lives, so you just hope they remember to show up at the rehearsal," said Hollywood Hills resident Hoisman, whose six bridesmaids helped with a bachelorette party, but not with picking flowers, selecting a wedding dress or making party favors.

Being a bridesmaid often comes with a hefty price tag. Showers and bachelorette parties, shower gifts and wedding gifts, travel, hotel, dress, shoes, makeup and hair sessions — being a bridesmaid is a costly commitment. To help lower the costs, brides are starting to ease their bridesmaid expectations.

The attendants may still appear like a matching royal entourage, but their dresses are both affordable and practical. Hoisman’s bridesmaids wore Nicole Miller blush pink silk skirts and cream-colored twin sets.

"After the wedding, the girls could shorten the skirt and wear it to a cocktail party or even shul," said Hoisman, who owns her own real estate development company.

Reiss’ bridesmaids bought matching dresses, but could select their own shoes.

"They all have different money situations. One of my friends will probably buy a $500 pair of Jimmy Choos while another will spend less than $50," said Reiss, 24, who hired two Mac makeup artists to work with the women on the wedding day. "They can wear their hair however they want and their makeup is my treat," Reiss said.

Feenberg, a manager with Fox Music, decided to give her five bridesmaids an even bigger break.

"My bridesmaids can pick their own dresses, it can be something they have in their closet or something new, as long as it’s long and black," said Feenberg, a Woodland Hills resident. "After being a bridesmaid four times and buying dresses I’ll never wear again, I didn’t want my friends to have to bear that same kind of expense."

In fact, these brides are the ones spending money. As a token of their appreciation for their friends’ support, both Reiss and Hoisman bought their bridesmaids jewelry. Hoisman’s bridesmaids received tourmaline stud earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue, and Reiss’ will receive sterling silver necklaces from Tiffany’s. So the brides are now giving their bridesmaids the royal treatment.

And so it seems the Jewish bridesmaid is becoming less about tasks, duties and matching nail polish and more about friendship. These brides truly appreciate the friends who stand by their side, not just at a shower, during a dress fitting or under the chuppah, but at all times.

"All of my bridesmaids are very special people in my life, and it was important to have them as a part of my wedding," Hoisman said.

Like Michael and Gabriel, Reiss’ bridesmaids are her cherished royal escorts.

"My bridesmaids are my closest, nearest and dearest best friends," said Reiss, who is the first of her friends to get married. "They’re my college roommates, my oldest childhood friend, my overnight-camp friend, my sister and my sister-in-law. And I couldn’t imagine them not being there every step of the way."

Your Letters

A Conservative Challenge

In our studies at Beth Chayim Chadashim’s (BCC) Queer JewishThink Tank, we are not throwing out the halacha, nor are we bending andtwisting the texts to suit our own devices (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan.17).

BCC and Rabbi Lisa Edwards are at the forefront of thisexploration and are 100 percent committed to the full integration and acceptanceof gay Jews within Judaism.

To relegate a Reform synagogue to the sidelines in thisglobally impacting discussion and to discount the essential importance of BCC,a 30-year-old gay synagogue, by not consulting them for your “Out of theCloset” issue, is shortsighted at the very least. 

There is a danger in leaving the entire halachic, Talmudicand Tanachic “playing-field” to those who dwell “inside the box.” Other voicesmust be listened to and those other voices do have a great deal to say.

Melanie Henderson, Los Angeles

Thank you for your excellent article covering thecontroversy within the Conservative movement about the inclusion of gay,lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. However, I wish to take strongexception to the comments of Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the JewishTheological Seminary, who said that ordaining gays and performing commitmentceremonies for us would fracture the movement.

The movement is already fractured. I was raised in aConservative home, and my grandfather was one of the founders of the movementin Chicago.

As a gay man I am a second-class citizen, my relationship of20 years unrecognized, my learning unimportant. In many Conservative shuls, Iam not welcome in positions of leadership or for honors on the bimah.

Like so many other gay folk, I have joined the Reformmovement where I am much more welcome, although my practice and beliefs aremore in line with Conservative ideology. I guess I just don’t count when itcomes to assessing what is happening in the Conservative movement.

It’s already fractured, rabbi. Open your eyes and watch thepeople leave that you have driven out.

Avram Chill, Silver Lake

Plant a Tree, Save a Car

Rob Eshman’s logic on oil is a little slippery (“Plant aTree, Save a Car,” Jan. 17). If it is in the Jewish interest to reducedependence on Arab oil, then why not support tapping into domestic sources ofenergy as well as conservation?

Environmentalists, who seem to oppose all oil drillinganywhere in America, share the blame with SUV owners for fattening the Saudibank accounts that find their way to terrorist groups.

Conservation and new technologies are important, but like itor not the U.S. economy is going to need a lot of oil for many years to come.

The United States (and Jewish interests) cannot afford todeclare these energy sources off-limits due to the childish, fanatical mindsetof many environmentalists.

Frederick Singer, Huntington Beach

Send Troops

In reading Rob Eshman’s article, “Send Troops” (Jan. 10), Iam greatly disappointed in his apparent lack of understanding of the realitiesof the world situation. The worst idea that could be proposed is for the United States to send troops to Israel to serve as a buffer. I shudder to think ofwhat the fallout would be from U.S. troops killing Israelis trying to break upa firefight between Israel and the Palestinians, especially if it was perceivedas intentional.  And if U.S. troops, acting as buffers, don’t try to intercede,why would Israel need a buffer force?

Emanuel R. Baker, Los Angeles

From L.A. to Tel Aviv

In David Margolis’ story about The Federation’s Tel Aviv-LosAngeles Partnership (“From L.A. to Tel Aviv — A Partnership That Works,” Jan.3) he did not distinguish between projects, which are conceived, developed andexecuted by the Partnership’s staff and lay committees, and those in which thePartnership is a partial source of funding for implementing projects ofindependent institutions with goals that complement and reinforce those of thePartnership. The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity is one suchindependent institution.

One example of the center’s recent work is “The Dybbuk”project, a two-year-old, ongoing three-way collaborative effort among the TelAviv University and UCLA theater departments and the Center, with eachinstitution providing the talents of its respective artists in the creation ofa pioneering world-class contemporary dramatic musical work based on a Jewishclassic.

Despite the article’s unfortunate omission of the Center, welook forward to continue sharing the Center’s accumulated experience andexpertise in developing and strengthening Israeli-Diaspora relations throughJewish culture in the communities of Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, and to involvingthe Partnership in future Center initiatives directed toward shared goals.

John H. Rauch, President Center for Jewish Culture andCreativity

David Margolis’ otherwise comprehensive article missed oneof the more ambitious projects which is currently being explored by the TelAviv-Los Angeles Partnership of The Jewish Federation. That is, the attempt tocreate in Tel Aviv a legal services agency modeled after Bet Tzedek LegalServices. Bet Tzedek is the only Jewish organization in the country that isdedicated to providing free legal services to the poor, elderly and disabledmembers of the community, covering a wide variety of legal areas. Further, itis the only organization to provide free assistance to, and representation of,Holocaust survivors in applying for reparations and other available programs.

Tel Aviv has a significant indigent population who havevirtually no access to the legal system and is very much in need of anorganization like Bet Tzedek. We hope this project will take root and come tofruition during the coming year.

Stanley Kandel, President , Board of Directors Bet TzedekLegal Services

Second Generation

I would like to thank Rachel Brand for the thoughtful andcomprehensive article about the Second Generation (“Support Group Helps SecondGeneration,” Dec. 27). In addition, I would like to clarify a few minor points.Many Second Generation individuals have achieved fully actualized lives,successfully incorporating the lessons learned at home to become some of themost productive members of our community.

The goals of our organization now are to provide asupportive environment where those who share our legacy can exchange ideas andfeelings about their heritage. We promote Holocaust education and memorialization,foster an understanding of the implications of the lessons of the Holocaust onsociety and support both the State of Israel and the Los Angeles Museum of theHolocaust.

Dr. Morry Waskberg, Vice President

I wanted to thank you for writing such a sensitive andcaring article about the noble organization Second Generation and survivors ofthe Holocaust, especially now when so many people that I know and work with tryand say that the Holocaust never existed and that it’s only a big lie createdby Jews.

Some day, people like the doctor you interviewed won’t be around totell their story or their parents’ story. And the people who say the Holocaust wasa lie and that Jews were never singled out and murdered will win the publicover with their lies.

Name Withheld by Request, Los Angeles

Lowering the Bar

Thank you Gary Wexler (“A Plea to Lower the Bar on BarMitzvahs,” Jan. 10) for openly saying what too many of us do not have thecourage to say when it comes to extravagant, vulgar, inappropriate, hedonistic,tasteless parties that have come to define the terms bar mitzvah and batmitzvah all too often.

Wexler’s article should be required reading for every Jewishparent of children 10 and older. It should be sent by synagogues and rabbis toparents and children. It should be given to every parent when the bar mitzvahdate is given. I hate to use the term “silent majority,” but I hope there isone, and that more parents develop the character to do the right thing and notsuccumb to peer pressure, social pressure or their children’s whiney demands.

Howard M. Fields, Hidden Hills

Shalom Center

My response to the Shalom Center ad (Jan. 17) and to Rob Eshman’srecent plea to be allowed to present all points of view is this: Auschwitz isthe lesson to Jewry from those who refused to stand up and fight Hitler. Thedestruction of Israel by nuclear-tipped scuds will result from Shalom Center”peaceniks” sitting comfortably in the Diaspora while urging other Jews to dolikewise rather than confront the Iraqi enemy.

Peaceniks, among other appeasers, pushed Israel down theprimrose path to Oslo and toward today’s Palestinian suicide bombing turkeyshoot. The Shalom Center purposefully ignores the lesson of WWII and the gravesof 6 million Jews. We who fought Nazism in the military vow “never again.” Jewsmust ignore the peacenik guilt trip and rise to the needs of Israel’s survivalshould the hostile Arab world get nuclear weapons.

Jerry Green, Los Angeles

Planning Ahead Can Save on Health Care

Eva, 74 and a widow, was a healthy and independent woman until she went shopping one day last December and was mugged. She was attacked with a screwdriver and thrown to ground, breaking her shoulder in four places.

"I ended up on the sidewalk, totally helpless," said Eva, who lives in Westwood and prefers to not give her last name. "I went from being very active to being disabled. My recovery was very painful, and I am still not done."

Eva was hospitalized for a month, and when she came home, she found that she needed nursing care and help doing basic tasks around the house, such as bathing and getting dressed.

"A nursing home just didn’t appeal to me," Eva said, and so she found home care. The cost of such care was between $17 and $20 an hour, and Eva needed it at least 16 hours a day for six months.

The cost of her care could have totaled in excess of $55,000 for those six months. However, Eva was able to avoid the expenditure because she had a long-term-care insurance policy that she bought the year before. The premium cost $2,273.

Because elder care can be an enormous drain on an individual’s resources, with nursing homes costing in excess of $100 a day and home care costing even more, planning ahead and buying long-term-care insurance is one way of preventing the costs from being too overwhelming.

For some in the Jewish community, long-term-care insurance — and particularly the home-care policies — can also have a religious significance. They see it as a facet of the mitzvah of Kibud Av V’em (honoring one’s parents), because it allows children to have peace of mind about their aging parents living out their last years with dignity.

In a 1998 article written by Joel Schwartz in the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists Newsletter, Schwartz argued that according to Torah, home care is preferable to nursing-home care, because institutionalized living brings with it a certain loss of honor. While some nursing homes are cheery and bright, others may be drab, unfriendly and, in some cases, even detrimental to the health of those who need care.

Government regulations require nursing homes to provide 3.2 hours of care per patient per 24 hours. In some cases, a nursing home might cut corners because it does not hire enough staff to meet the requirement.

In such a scenario, which some experts in the field say is not uncommon, patients who are severely incapacitated will suffer. They said bed-ridden patients might develop bedsores, because they are not turned often enough, and incontinent patients might be diapered to save labor costs.

Few people want their parents to suffer such problems, but many with aging parents have their own families to provide for and do not have the time or resources to take proper care of their parents themselves.

For many people, long-term-care insurance provides the answer to the problem. Although the premiums might appear high — and even seem useless if the person paying them is healthy — they can end up saving people tens of thousand of dollars if the need for long-term care should arise.

Karen Shoff, a Santa Monica gerontologist, insurance agent and author of "There’s No Place Like a Nursing Home: Four Powerful Steps That Will Change Your Life" (Invisible Ink, 2002), believes that planning for one’s physical retirement is as important as planning for one’s financial retirement. Shoff advises people to start planning for their twilight years in their 50s and 60s, so that they will be able to avoid both nursing homes and the costs involved with home care.

Shoff’s plan involves buying a long-term-care policy, appointing a geriatric-care manager who can assist with legal and medical issues and find services, making a living will that spells out how a person wants to be cared for in the event of an illness and finding an ally who will help carry out the plans.

"You can’t wait until the fire’s there, and people are tearing their hair out," she said. "You need to plan ahead logically."

However, there are some who shy away from long-term-care insurance because they see it as unnecessary to pay premiums above and beyond health insurance and Medicare, which they believe will cover most emergencies. Furthermore, many people argue that, depending on the circumstances, nursing homes can provide better service and offer a wider variety of resources than a home care, in addition to having a social setting that might not be available at home.

"There is an understanding in halacha [Jewish law] that sometimes a parent needs to be put in an institution — for example, if the parent has dementia, and the children can’t handle the burden" said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "You need to weigh up the circumstances."

Still, others credit their long-term-care insurance and the home care it bought them with peace of mind. "When I took out the policy, my children kept telling me that I was throwing money out the window," Eva said. "But after I was mugged, they were relieved that I had this help, that I was OK and that I was not going to be dependent on them."

Cape Town Clash

A controversial conversion has reignited a dispute over Orthodox Jewish standards between South Africa’s Orthodox establishment and one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the Southern Hemisphere.

Attempts to paper over the cracks between the beit din, or the Jewish law court, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues and Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation had been made in August. At that time, Sea Point members, who had been considering pulling out of the union to set up their own rabbinical court, decided instead to give the parties six months to work things out.

However, the issue has erupted again as the result of an article in the latest issue of Noseweek, a South African publication known for investigative journalism. The article focuses on the validity of the conversion that Karin Berman underwent before her marriage to construction magnate Saul Berman, a prominent Sea Point member.

Karin Berman was married to the late Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.

Members of the beit din reportedly told Karin Berman that they do not recognize her conversion or marriage and said the child she is expecting will not be recognized as Jewish. The credentials of the Paris rabbi who converted Berman were withdrawn 20 years ago, when he was discredited for having certified conversions for a fee, Noseweek reported.

However, Sea Point’s U.S.-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, insisted that the conversion was valid. Noseweek reported further that the rabbi who married the Bermans in Rome said that he had accepted everything as kosher, based on an introduction from Steinhorn. Steinhorn denied the rabbi’s statement.

The conversion squabble, however, masks deeper issues that have been dividing the South African Orthodox world for some time. Steinhorn told Noseweek that the conversion was "the least of the issues" involved in the dispute.

The heart of the dispute centers on whether Sea Point must observe the standards of halacha demanded by the country’s chief rabbinate in Johannesburg, or whether it can adopt looser standards.

"The fact of the matter is that in the Orthodox world today outside of South Africa, which is very provincial, very closed and very British, there’s a whole world called modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

"We in Sea Point are its only representative in South Africa," he continued. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris "can say what he likes, but he does not represent modern Orthodoxy."

Steinhorn disputed claims that the fervently Orthodox community was growing stronger in South Africa, dismissing them as "public relations." The fervently Orthodox, he said, are "disenfranchising most of Judaism."

The Noseweek article mentioned that Harris objected to an invitation that Sea Point extended to Tzili Reisenberger, an Israeli-born theologian at the University of Cape Town, to address the congregation.

"We see nothing wrong with inviting a professor who teaches Bible at the university to come and give a shiur [lesson]. That’s part of modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

A statement attributed to Harris in Noseweek, charging that Reisenberger officiated at same-sex marriages, was "baldly untrue," said Clive Rabinowitz, Sea Point vice president. Harris later apologized to Reisenberger and retracted the accusation, admitting that his statement had been incorrect and defamatory.

But Harris described as "patent nonsense" the notion that the beit din was being "unnecessarily harsh" and using the controversial conversion to "coerce" Sea Point into stricter observance. At issue, he said, is the fact that "there’s a lot of cheating going on here," with Sea Point congregants defining for themselves what modern and centrist Orthodoxy are.

"Modern or centrist Orthodoxy is observant," Harris said. "The only differences between it and ultra-Orthodoxy lie in attitudes to non-Jewish people and attitudes to general scholarship. They are not differences about the observance of Torah, and this is where both Steinhorn" and a prominent congregant, Judge Dennis Davis, "have got it wrong."

In that sense, Harris continued, Sea Point "is cheating by putting their own definition on modern Orthodoxy."

Harris described as nonsense the article’s assertion that Sea Point was "the last outpost of ‘liberal Orthodoxy,’" resisting "the flood of ‘fundamentalist pietude’ washing south from Johannesburg."

"They are defining Orthodoxy in their own way, and no one else in the Orthodox world will accept it," Harris said.

Rabinowitz, who proposed the resolution to disaffiliate from the union in August, said the public spat was "extremely unfortunate."

Negotiations between Sea Point and the union are "limping along," said Rabinowitz, who predicted that the talks "may yet lead to a resolution of the problems."

Steinhorn said he was not optimistic that things would be resolved between the beit din, the union and Sea Point. "We want unity," Steinhorn stressed, "but I don’t think they can live with modern Orthodoxy," he said.