Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Suspension of Western Wall deal leaves Jewish leaders feeling betrayed


They’ve tried strongly-worded statements. They’ve tried private meetings with the prime minister. They’ve tried negotiations, protest and prayer.

But for the past five years, despite broad internal consensus and consistent pressure, the American Jewish establishment has been unable to persuade Israel’s government to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

The latest setback in that fight came Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiation between the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the Western Wall’s Charedi Orthodox management.

Work to expand the egalitarian section will continue during the suspension.  But a new agreement will now be negotiated by Israel’s cabinet, and will need to come to a new vote before moving forward.

The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s Charedi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but have since railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism, and at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”

Now, the American Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement say they feel betrayed by Netanyahu. They will be meeting in Israel this week to discuss a response, and the Jewish Agency will hold a special session Monday to discuss the issue. But no leaders committed to concrete plans for a response, beyond continued vocal protest.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA Sunday. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

Various advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the collapse of the deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, Jacobs expressed strong disappointment in the suspension, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. He included it in a list of recent Israeli government decisions the Reform movement opposes, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he told JTA. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the state of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013  seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.

Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld feels the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands.

“The Israeli Supreme court seems to be the only governmental venue that appreciates the long-term impact of Israel advocating its role as the home for all Jews,” she said. “Inevitably, we will find our way back to the courts. We will continue to protest.”

A range of other groups have also criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Women of the Wall prayer group, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, was one of the architects of the 2016 agreement.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” Sharansky said in a statement. “Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

Non-Orthodox leaders also decried the Israeli government’s advancing a bill to centralize authority for Jewish conversions under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a Charedi Orthodox body. Silverman compared the bill to a 2010 bill on conversions in Israel, which American Jewish groups also opposed because they argued it would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.

“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

More synagogues are phasing out mandatory dues


“Voluntary dues” may sound like an oxymoron, but the idea soon may be coming to a synagogue near you.

According to a new study by the UJA-Federation of New York, the number of non-Orthodox synagogues nationwide that have eliminated fixed annual dues has more than doubled in the past two years. Instead of charging a set membership fee, these synagogues are telling congregants to pay what they want — and they’re succeeding.

The nearly 60 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues that have stopped charging mandatory dues are just a small percentage of the country’s 1,500 or so Conservative and Reform synagogues. But the number is more than twice the 26 synagogues that had voluntary dues as of 2015. On average, the synagogues reported increases in both membership and total revenue since they switched to the voluntary model. They join nearly 1,000 Chabad centers in North America that always have worked on the voluntary model.

According to the report, the synagogues adopted the new model due to a mix of financial and values-based reasons. Synagogue members appeared increasingly reluctant to pay mandatory dues after the 2008 financial crisis, and a pay-what-you-can system was more appealing to families with less spare cash.

In addition, the report said mandatory dues may have alienated families that want to feel unconditionally welcomed at synagogue or who may have felt uncomfortable explaining to a board why they couldn’t pay the full fee. Engaging members with voluntary dues has caused synagogues to build relationships with congregants so they feel invested in the synagogue, as opposed to feeling obligated to pay an annual bill. The model, according to the report, also drives synagogues to increase financial transparency, so members know what they’re paying for.

“The existing model is no longer really aligning with the values and culture of the synagogue,” said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, a division of the New York federation that advises synagogues on strategy and produced the report. “The process of asking for a [dues] adjustment becomes all about the money, as opposed to ‘you are a member of this congregation and community.’ ”

Of the 57 synagogues included in the report, more than half are Reform, while about a third are Conservative. The remainder are either Reconstructionist or unaffiliated. None is Orthodox. Most have between 100 and 500 “member units” — families or individuals who belong.

While the synagogues don’t charge a fixed fee, many do indicate a “sustaining level” donation — the average amount the synagogue needs from each member unit to reach its goal. On average, the synagogues reported increases of 3.6 percent in total membership and 1.8 percent in dues. What that means is that more total money is coming in from more people but the average annual membership contribution has fallen.

At the Conservative Temple Israel of Sharon, Mass., in suburban Boston, which adopted the voluntary model in 2008 because of the recession, revenue and membership have remained steady. But only about 45 percent of members pay dues at or above the sustaining level — a bit above the average of 38 percent across the 57 synagogues.

“The original goals of switching to this system, creating a model that was financially welcoming and sustainable for both the synagogue and our membership, continue to be met,” Benjamin Maron, Temple Israel’s executive director, wrote in one of the report’s case studies. “In other ways, however, challenges have grown over the last few years. While our membership has grown, the overall income from our voluntary dues has not.”

The 57 synagogues are still less than 5 percent of the country’s Conservative and Reform synagogues, but Frydman believes the number will continue to grow. About 100 synagogues tuned in via livestream to a recent conference on the report.

Studies suggest that millennials are less inclined to become members of old institutions. Jack Wertheimer, a history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that free Jewish programs like Birthright — the 10-day trip to Israel for young adults — get young Jews used to the idea of no- and low-cost Jewish services.

“We’re living in a time when some Jews don’t want to pay anything to go to synagogue and benefit from synagogue,” Wertheimer said. “We’re living in a time today when institutions are held suspect and also seen as rather cold and distant. This whole idea of membership dues reinforces that point.”

Why aren’t Orthodox synagogues adopting the model?

Wertheimer and Frydman suggested that because Orthodox Jews view prayer as mandatory, the obligation carries over to synagogue membership. Even so, Frydman’s office is embarking on a study of young Orthodox Jewish professionals on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who often bounce between a few synagogues rather than sticking to one and becoming a member of it.

One large Orthodox organization that doesn’t charge dues, however, is Chabad, whose centers worldwide rely entirely on voluntary donations. While that means the emissaries who run the Chasidic movement’s outreach efforts spend a significant amount of time fundraising, Chabad spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson said it also removes a barrier to participation in Jewish life — and forces Chabad centers to run programs people want.

“This isn’t a technique or a model that’s devised through a focus group,” Seligson said. “This is about what’s at the [movement’s] core, which is love of Israel.”

Chabad emissary couples, he added, “are not living in an ivory tower. They’re beholden to the community that they’re serving. They need to actually be serving the community.”

While Frydman emphasized that UJA-Federation does not endorse any one dues model, she said the voluntary model is appealing to some synagogues because it ensures that the synagogue has an active relationship with its congregants.

“They’re cultivating the relationship so that people feel a connection, enough to want to be a part of something bigger,” she said. “It’s about that the synagogue should take the time to ensure that they know all the members, that they understand what people are looking for.”

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?


By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at jewishschoolpledge.com. As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

President Donald Trump in Ypsilanti Township, Mich., on March 15. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Jewish leaders owe an apology to Trump and America


Last month, I wrote a column under the headline, “There Is No Wave of Trump-Induced Anti-Semitism or Racism.” I was right. But my being right is not what matters. What matters is that the mainstream media and the Jewish left — which is now essentially almost all of Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy — were wrong. So wrong that it was morally inexcusable.

Some Jewish leaders need to either publicly apologize — to the Jewish community, to conservatives, to America and to President Donald Trump — or be fired from their positions. 

The entire claim that America was engulfed in a rising tide of anti-Semitism was a lie — “fake news.” And the claim that Trump’s election is what aroused all this anti-Semitism was not merely a lie, it was malicious libel.

No Jew has disseminated this libel as much as Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, part of a worldwide network. The man has engaged in chillul Anne Frank — a desecration of the name of Anne Frank.

Here are a few examples of Goldstein’s public comments:

“The cancer of Antisemitism has infected his [Trump’s] own Administration.”

“Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”

“The most vicious antisemites in America are looking at you [Trump] and your administration as a nationalistic movement granting them permission to attack Jews, Jewish institutions, and sacred Jewish sites.”

The entire claim that America was engulfed in a rising tide of anti-Semitism was a lie — “fake news.”

If the organization doesn’t fire this man, it is complicit in his radical politicization of an institution calling itself a center for “Mutual Respect,” and in the misuse of Anne Frank’s name to disseminate political hate.

More important than Goldstein and his so-called Center for Mutual Respect is Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of what is supposed to be the leading American-Jewish organization dedicated to exposing and combating anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League. He has played a leading role in disseminating the narrative that since the Trump election, America has been drenched in anti-Semitism — even comparing its levels to those of Nazi Germany.

As reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in December:

“ ‘Anti-Semitic rhetoric in the United States has reached levels unprecedented since 1930s Germany,’ Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt warned a gathering of Israeli lawmakers in Jerusalem on Monday.

“ ‘Anti-Semitism has wound its way into mainstream conversations in a manner that many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find terrifying,’ he said at the Knesset meeting, which was convened to discuss the plight of American Jewry under the incoming Trump administration.”

Greenblatt’s allusion to Nazi Germany cheapened the evil of Nazism and of the Holocaust; I wrote about left-wing Jews doing this very thing in another column in mid-February.

And note Haaretz’s inflammatory description — “the plight of American Jewry under the incoming Trump administration” — made six weeks before there was a Trump administration!

In December, Greenblatt told NPR:

“We found it so deeply problematic when some of the images and some of the rhetoric [from Trump] seemed to evoke longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies.”

Greenblatt repeated this charge in February in an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post:

“Last year, we watched as the Trump campaign repeatedly tweeted and shared anti-Semitic imagery and language, allowing this poison to move from the margins into the mainstream of the public conversation.”

That whole charge — made by the left within and outside of Jewish life — was false. But the left has always believed it is OK to falsely accuse conservatives of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, bigotry, xenophobia, hate, etc. It’s effective, after all.

Greenblatt also wrote in that Washington Post column:

“Trump could have said he condemns anti-Semitism and takes incidents, such as the dozens of threats made to Jewish Community Centers, seriously. But instead, he lashed out against those asking the question.”

It turns out that President Trump was right: There was no eruption of anti-Semitism in America, let alone in the White House. And “those asking the question” did indeed deserve the contempt the president showed them.

It turns out that some disturbed American-Jewish kid in Israel was the source of nearly all these threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs). And the handful of other threats to JCCs came from a Black radical.

So, it turns out, as I wrote here four weeks ago: “[T]here is no wave of Trump-induced anti-Semitism or racism in America. This is only one more example of left-wing hysteria. … ”

And, it turns out that the conclusion to my column was also valid:

“Jews who think there is such a wave do so because they hate Donald Trump so much, they want to believe it. In other words, a lot of Jews want to believe that Jews are hated in America more than ever. Yet another way in which leftism has poisoned Jewish life.”

That’s the “poison” that ought to concern Jonathan Greenblatt.

In the meantime, he owes the president of the United States and the American people an apology.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Report: Los Angeles measles outbreak centers on Orthodox Jewish community


A measles outbreak in Los Angeles County, California, is centered on the Orthodox Jewish community, according to reports.

Some 20 people have been infected in the outbreak, with 18 in LA County, 15 of whom, according to the LA County Department of Public Health “either knew one another or had a clear social connection, ” the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend.

None of the 18 people could show proof of vaccination, according to the health department’s interim health officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser. Most of those infected were in their 20s but the infected also included young children and older adults, according to the newspaper.

The outbreak comes six months after California passed a strict vaccine law, making vaccines mandatory beginning in first grade.

Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten, president of the Los Angeles Bikur Cholim organization, said in a column written for Jewish Home LA that at the end of December he had received a call from Dr. Franklin Pratt, medical director for the Los Angeles Department of Public Health Immunization Program, “who advised that just days prior, a measles outbreak was identified in the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community linked through epidemiology, social interaction, and geography.  He asked that Bikur Cholim urgently readdress and write about this issue in order to reach as many Jewish communities as quickly as possible.”

Gunzenhauser said county health workers interviewed each infected person to find out everywhere they went during the four days before and after they developed the rash associated with measles.

The county workers ultimately identified more than 2,000 people who may have come into contact with a measles patient, and discovered that about 10 percent  of them had not been vaccinated.

“Regardless of what or when any regulations were implemented or any parents’ personal belief, no child should be allowed to remain at school or enter a play-group, whether at a home or synagogue, without proof that they’ve been immunized,” Ten wrote.

In 2015, a wave of pertussis, or “whooping cough,” appeared in the haredi Orthodox communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Progressive Judaism needs more ‘doing Jewish’


Renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen recently furnished research showing that the American non-Orthodox population is sharply declining. His recommendations include suggestions that non-Orthodox Jews marry younger, marry Jews, and “raise their children as Jews.” But the critical question is what does it mean to raise one’s children as Jews in a non-Orthodox context?  The answer really is quite simple even if its execution raises complexities. American Jews interested in preservation and transmission need to become more sensitized to making a greater number of affirmative Jewish choices, including choices perceived as more religious than cultural.  In short, they simply need to “do Jewish” more.

There can be no doubt at this point that most American Jews do not believe strict religious observance is fundamental to their Jewish identity.  The 2013 Pew Report, the most recent comprehensive study of the American Jewish community, found that “observing Jewish law” was “essential to Jewish identity” for only 19% of the respondents. But if observing the laws of the Jewish religion is not important to the vast majority of American Jews, how would they define Jewish identity?  The answer to this question is far from clear in the Pew Report and other sources.  At best, we know that American Jewish identity is multi-faceted and fluid, particularly among Millennials.

We also know that, despite the dwindling numbers of non-Orthodox, the majority of identified Jews in the United States still fall somewhere along a spectrum ranging from fairly traditional (although not Orthodox) to self-denominated purely cultural. Paradoxically, even many cultural Jews many feel it is important that their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren share their Jewish identity and cultural affiliation.  The Pew Report also shows that today’s American Jews are proud to be Jewish. They seeing being Jewish as an important part of their lives and they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.     

Unless these Jews, and their progeny, can find a way of practicing and transmitting a meaningful form of non-Orthodox Judaism, the result will indeed be an eventual disappearance of many, if not the majority, of Jews into the greater vortex of American culture. This result is unthinkable, as it would mean that so many Jews would lose not only any remaining ties to their religion, but also to the culture and identity they claim to love and cherish.

For many Progressive Jews, the concept of faithfully following Jewish law in its entirety, simply because God commanded that we do so, is foreign. We live in an age where many people do not respect the authority of religious figures, particularly the rabbis who shaped Jewish law hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Our society prizes autonomy and customization. Most people pick and choose that which feels meaningful and have no second thoughts about discarding everything else.

Although Progressive Jews may be uncomfortable with the largely unfamiliar language of “Jewish law,” they respond far more positively to the concept of “Jewish tradition.”  I first noticed this distinction during the time I directed a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at my law school.  I soon began to appreciate that although the language of Jewish “law” suggests hard and fast rules and consequences for disobedience that are alien to most non-Orthodox Jews, Jewish “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission

So exactly what is Jewish tradition and how does it differ from Jewish law? The Jewish tradition can be analogized to an umbrella that covers both the concrete legal components formulated by the rabbis as well as the more amorphous cultural aspects of the religion practiced by the people over the centuries. In other words, Jewish tradition includes both Jewish law and culture.

Most people do not recognize this interconnection between Jewish law and culture.  Throughout history, the rabbis shaped Jewish law, halakhah, in response to their surrounding cultures.  These cultures included both the cultures of the Jews specifically as well as the host nations in which Jews have lived for centuries.

Similarly, what we think of as Jewish culture has been greatly influenced by the existence of the law the rabbis formulated. When self-denominated cultural Jews will soon light Chanukah candles, they may see this activity as purely cultural.  The same is true for celebrating a Passover Seder.  Yet, the roots of these behaviors come from Jewish law even if many Jews do not recognize this origin.  In short, Jewish law and culture are completely intertwined. Today, the majority of Jews see Judaism as more cultural in nature, and many do not appreciate the law’s impact upon this culture.

The Jewish tradition can serve as the foundation for inspiring and educating Jewish adults and children to appreciate the beauty of the religion.  I believe most Progressive Jews feel, or can be educated to feel, a responsibility to perpetuate the tradition even if they do not see Jewish law as “binding” or representing the direct word of God. It is enough that one appreciates the beauty of the Jewish tradition and desires to benefit from its content and wisdom.

It is vital for all Jews to be taught why and how Jewish tradition can provide the basis for the particulars of the culture about which they do care. This tradition has played a pivotal role in shaping the Jewish people over the millennia.  It has allowed Jews to connect the past with the present, and it can furnish a path to the future.  Elements of the Jewish tradition can touch the heart, soul, and mind of every willing Jew, and add meaning to life.  

All identified Jews, including the Orthodox, have a stake in this enterprise because its success will result in the preservation of a rich and vibrant Jewish tradition for a greater number of Jews. Many conventionally religious Jews understand that a stronger appreciation for Jewish tradition across the board will strengthen the Jewish community on a global level, despite inevitable differences in degrees and manners of observance.  Several years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony, and therefore, all parts are needed for the whole to function well.  I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth.


Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

Betsy DeVos, Trump pick for education, pleases Orthodox, spooks church-state separationists


Add sweeping school reforms – and with them, funding for private schools that Orthodox groups embrace and secular Jewish groups fear — to the campaign promises that Donald Trump plans to fulfill.

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, the president-elect named Betsy DeVos, a billionaire education reform activist and champion of charter schools and public funding for private schooling, as his education secretary.

As leader of the American Federation for Children, a group that promotes charter schools, DeVos promotes exactly the model advanced by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., at the Republican convention in July. The elder Trump has said he would earmark $20 billion in federal money to charter more independent schools or for vouchers for poorer families to pay for private schools. By picking DeVos, whose advocacy and funding for lobbying has led to sweeping changes in her home state of Michigan and elsewhere in how schools are funded, he seems to be moving in that direction.

“Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families,” Trump said Nov. 23 in announcing the DeVos nomination.

“School choice” is music to the ears of Orthodox Jewish groups, sometimes joined by other proponents of Jewish day schooling, who have argued for decades that constitutional church-state separations should not cut off day schools from public funds. Jewish day school tuition can cost $14,000 a year, and at least twice that for Jewish high schools, especially in the New York area.

Agudath Israel of America, welcoming the announcement, said it has worked with DeVos for years “to give parents educational options for their children.”

Opponents of the broader choice DeVos favors have illustrated flaws in the Michigan model to make the case for the public school system and its regulatory oversight. Michigan’s national ranking has dropped commensurate with the expansion of charter schools and vouchers as a result, in part, due to her advocacy, critics point out.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, called the DeVos nomination “encouraging.” He said that parental oversight would act as a corrective once parents have a broader range of school choice.

“The regulators of the schools should be the parents, the parents who care for their children,” Diament said. “They’ll see if the school is making a good education and if it’s not, they will move their child to another school.”

Jewish groups that advocate for stronger church-state separations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, were silent on the DeVos pick, declining JTA requests for comment. That’s not in itself unusual, as Jewish nonprofits generally observe the “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” rule when it comes to presidential personnel choices.

General church-state separationists were less circumspect.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the DeVos nomination an “insult to public education.”

“Private school vouchers violate the fundamental principle of religious freedom because they fund religious education with taxpayer dollars,” it said in a statement.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and heir to a long tradition of Jewish advocacy in and for public education, said the DeVos appointment is “about the decimation of a public school system for children.”

“I’m not surprised those who want vouchers are celebrating this choice,” Weingarten said in an interview.

She said the inequities that Orthodox Jews say are embedded in restrictions on public funding for religious education — high taxes for services they don’t or can’t use — are better addressed through government paying for nonsectarian activities and needs.

“We found ways to spend public dollars for remedial education, for transportation, for special needs” for Orthodox Jewish day schools, Weingarten said. “We found ways to ensure that people who had reason to want religious education and yet at the same time … were entitled to public dollars, to get them.”

In recent years there has been a softening of opposition among non-Orthodox groups to government-funding ideas for parochial schools, as the cost of day schooling has soared and its benefits in building Jewish identity are seen as incalculable. Jewish federations have been active in efforts to obtain state money for things like technology and textbooks, while some Jewish groups are supporting state programs that provide tax credits for donations to private schools.

Nevertheless, in May, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, representing a network of local Jewish community relations councils and national agencies, reiterated in a policy compendium that it “opposes policies that divert resources from public schools, such as voucher programs that provide public dollars to non-public schools, whether secular or sectarian; we strongly support private funding for Jewish day school education.” The Orthodox Union dissented.

Fears of sweeping changes may be overstated. Democrats, while in the minority in the Senate, are still able to filibuster laws, and much of the education system is run at the state and local level.

Diament said he saw the DeVos choice as one of setting a tone encouraging broader school choice through advocacy and federal funding incentives.

“Even without legislation, first of all, from the bully pulpit, she can be an advocate to the states and local government agencies to do more in terms of school choice,” he said.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said the changes that DeVos hoped to achieve would face a number of practical hurdles. The expansion of the use of vouchers for private schools, for instance, would invite greater government scrutiny, he said.

That could meet resistance among the haredi Orthodox, whose schools emphasize religious studies over secular studies. Last year, the New York City Department of Education launched an investigation of three dozen yeshivas suspected of failing to meet standards in secular subjects such as English, math and science.

“It may have some implications for the Hasidic community, where accountability has been a hot-button issue in recent years,” Stern said.

Church-state separationists would also likely seek to enforce anti-discrimination laws on schools benefiting from vouchers, Stern said, leading to battles over whether schools must hire staff or admit students whose families deviate from conservative moral codes.

“What if you have to admit children of gay marriages?” he asked.

Stern said a Trump administration could learn, as it facilitates public spending for private schools, that not all comers would be to its ideological liking – but there would be little the administration could do to discriminate.

“Who’s to prevent Farrakhan from applying” for public funds for schools, he said, referring to the leader of the radical anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement.

Dance studio has the right moves for Orthodox girls


For Orthodox girls and women, dance lessons aren’t as easy as learning a plié here and a relevé there. Classes might be mixed-gender, the outfits aren’t always modest, performances can take place on Shabbat and the music may be suggestive. 

Growing up in an observant family in Atlanta, those were always constraints for Sheila Asher Meyer. 

“My mother signed me up for dance when I was 5,” she said. “But we were Orthodox and I didn’t have the same opportunities.” 

Meyer, 38, who now lives in the La Brea neighborhood of Los Angeles, wanted other frum girls and women to be able to experience the power of dance. So, 13 years ago, she opened A Time for Dance, an 1,800-square-foot studio on Beverly Boulevard, where she provides ballet, pointe, tap, Middle Eastern dance, Zumba, and jazz classes for girls and women. The students also put on performances as a culmination of everything they’ve learned. 

“It’s an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise because they wouldn’t fully be able to participate in a dance program,” said Meyer, who has three daughters and who started by teaching a class for her daughter and her friends. “We provide an exposure to the arts and it opens up a whole new world for them.”

A Time for Dance, which serves between 150 and 200 girls and women annually, also offers classes in gymnastics, singing and yoga.

Kids’ classes (ages 2-16) are held in three sessions throughout the year: September through December, January through March, and April through June. There’s also a fine arts summer camp that runs for seven weeks. Though most classes are hosted in the La Brea location, Meyer travels to North Hollywood and Pico-Robertson for additional group lessons. 

There also is an annual musical for girls that takes place in June. This year, it was “Aladdin,” and past shows have included “Neverland” and “Alice in Wonderland.” 

To ensure that it’s “kosher,” Meyer will take out anything questionable from the script — like the romantic relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine — and make sure all the costumes are appropriately modest, or tzeniut. The musical is held on three different dates for the various age groups, and men are allowed to attend the performance by the youngest group only; the shows for girls ages 7-12 and 13-16 are only for women.

The strictly female rule goes for the women’s productions, as well. In 2011, there was a performance of “The Crown of Creation,” an interpretive dance about the women of the Tanakh. The most recent one, held in 2012, was a full-length original ballet called “The Spirit of Shabbos.” Julia Berger played the Shabbos Queen and danced alongside her daughter Aliza Sebban, who was 9 at the time. 

“There is a very strong feeling of women sharing creativity and expressing themselves,” Berger said of A Time for Dance.

Now 13, Berger’s daughter is taking hip-hop lessons at the school. The classes are taught by backup dancers for Jason Derulo and Rihanna, but the moves of those artists aren’t taught if they’re not modest. 

“I love the fact that young girls, especially the ones learning hip-hop, get to revel in the creative aspect and not in the exhibitionist aspect,” Berger said. 

“Hip-hop culture isn’t necessarily in sync with strong Jewish values,” she continued. “The girls get to learn dance moves and enjoy the rhythm of the music without any words or messaging that’s inappropriate. It’s a really wholesome environment and it encourages all the great things about dance.”

Karen Fishof, whose 9-year-old daughter has taken drama, tap and ballet classes and was Iago in the production of “Aladdin,” said the performance on a nearby school stage was a confidence booster and a great way to learn public speaking.

“She absolutely blossomed and loved it,” Fishof said. “The girls feel very professional because they get miked up by professional companies and have tech rehearsals, and they’re on a real stage.” 

Meyer said she teaches individuals who range from Modern Orthodox to Chassidic and live in various neighborhoods across Los Angeles. 

“It’s really nice to see all the community come together,” she said. “There are students from the city, the Valley, and all different types of schools.”

Meyer said her studio offers an important outlet for frum girls, who often don’t have much time to themselves in general.

“They’re in school all day, then they go home and help out, and then they have Shabbos. Life is busy with other pressures,” she said. “At my studio, they have an opportunity to develop another side of them. They may not love school, but they thrive in the dance studio.”

The Pledge


I am a gay Orthodox Jewish teen. That in and of itself may be one of the most controversial sentences in modern Jewish history, but it’s also simply my life. I daven, or pray in com-munity, and I am part of the honors Judaic program at my school. I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep all the fasts, and I celebrate the holidays. However, I also spent my summer in Israel interning for the LGBT wing of the political party Yesh Atid, attended the gay pride parade and am an intern for an organization called Eshel, a group that specializes in Orthodox inclusion for LGBT Jews.

This spring, as an intern for Eshel, which is funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, I was privileged to take part in an informative course on community organizing through a Jewish lens titled Join for Justice (www.joinforjustice.org). When the course ended, each participant was encouraged to take on a summer project and, using the information gained in the course, make a difference in whatever way we could in the world.

Although I knew my project would have an LGBT focus, I couldn’t seem to figure out in what direction I would take my project until I was inspired by Gandhi’s famous adage, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is when it became clear to me that I was that change I wished to see in the world, not in a self-righteous sense, but in that I am far luckier than other LGBT members of Orthodox communities. I have been blessed with loving and supportive family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and a community that has allowed me to find myself Jewishly as a gay man in a healthy manner. 

Unfortunately, I am the exception.

Homosexual Jewish teenagers across America remain fearful that they will be shunned by their community and expelled from their homes or schools. In extreme situations, some have taken their own lives in a state of perpetual hopelessness.

Being a closeted gay person proved to be the most difficult challenge I have faced in my life. High school workload, SATs, peer pressure and the many other issues high schoolers are subject to, all paled in comparison to being in the closet. I kept a part of myself under lock and key, hidden in the darkest and deepest depths of my psyche, because I believed that opening that Pandora’s box would rob me of everything I cared for and loved. My religion, my family, my friends, my presence at my school, would, in my mind, all be in serious jeopardy if I dared to reveal the truth to anyone.

However, it came at a terrible price. My frustration with keeping my sexuality a secret eventually spread into other areas of my life like an infectious disease. It poisoned my relationship with my parents and friends and forced me into a constant state of fear, sensi-tive to anything that could in theory “give me away.” I was mentally unstable. I finally reached my breaking point at the end of my 10th-grade year. I realized that nothing could be any worse than staying in the closet, and I took a leap of faith. One by one I told my friends, community leaders, rabbis, teachers, the principal, the head of school, and, of course, my family. Surprisingly, each and every one of them was supportive and loving. At that moment, when I was finally “out,” I instantly felt free, as if a weight I had been carrying for so long that it had become part of my everyday life, had been lifted off my shoulders.

However, at the realization that those who mattered to me did not at all care about my sexual orientation, and in fact, were there every step of the way on my coming out journey, I felt I had wasted years of my life suffering the burden of carrying this secret when I could very well have been what I am now: happy. I loved my school, I loved my friends and my family, and I sacrificed my own sanity in a bid to protect those pillars of my existence. Had I known from the beginning that my friends, school and everyone I loved would support my coming out, I would not have had to endure the unbearable struggle of staying in the closet.

Gay students exist in the Orthodox Jewish School system, and I guarantee you that your local school is no exception. They stay hidden, like I did, out of fear. It was a fear that proved inaccurate, but it feels valid and very well may be for others like me. I am not alone. We are among you.

Will my school be OK with my sexuality? This was a question that haunted me for years, and yet there is a very simple solution that would have addressed this burning question. If students were to know that their school supported them, it would ease many of their anxieties and bring them one step closer to being freed from the life-sucking prison known as the closet.

This is why, when Eshel asked that its interns create a project, I sat with the leadership of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I am currently a senior, to create a Pledge. The Pledge is an à la carte series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to protect their students. With the support of my parents, I worked together with the leadership of Shalhevet High School and authored the Pledge, available online (www.jewishschoolpledge.com), which will be shared with the entire Shalhevet family, to let every student who is like me know that he or she is not alone. Some examples of our Pledge include a promise that no student will be expelled for his or her sexual orientation, that harassment or bullying of any student by another student, teacher, or administrative member will not be tolerated, and that no one will be pushed toward “conversion” therapy. Additionally, the Pledge warrants that the school will strive to connect gay and lesbian students with a support network that is either on- or off-campus, and will provide religious guidance to students throughout the coming out process with trained staff.

As the Pledge was adopted, Rabbi Ari Segal, the Head of School at Shalhevet High School, published an article in our student newspaper where he shared his perspective on how he, as an Orthodox rabbi and the Head of School at Shalhevet, finds a way to support LGBT students at Shalhevet. Rabbi Segal’s beautiful words truly hit home for me, and I pray that every school looks to him as an example of what it means to be a halachically committed and sensitive rabbi.

Every child and teen (and adult) deserves to know that his or her school is a safe environment. Shalhevet turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and supportive place but, for a long time, I did not know that would be the case.

The Pledge takes a necessary and mean-ingful step in bettering the lives of all Jewish students. Furthermore, we wrote the Pledge with the express purpose of creating the perfect balance of protecting gay Jewish teens while not threatening Jewish law, and I firmly believe we have accomplished that. This is not about being politically correct, progressive, or even “LGBT friendly” — the Pledge is about the health and safety of our students.

I am gay. I am Orthodox. I am not seeking to change the halacha and I am not seeking to subvert Jewish values. Quite the contrary: I am seeking to make it possible to be an observant Jew in the Orthodox community regardless of one’s sexual orientation. I invite you to join me on this quest. I invite you to make sure gay students feel as cared for and appreciated as their heterosexual counter-parts. The longer we sweep this issue under the rug, we as a community become com-plicit in the sufferings of our LGBT members. The Torah tells us we are all created, b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we therefore all deserve a fair chance to be a contributing part of God’s nation. So, won’t you join me in making this happen? Won’t you join me in protecting Orthodox observance among all our students? Won’t you join me in making Judaism accessible to everyone? I urge you to reach out to me via this newspaper at editor@jewishjournal.com if you would like your school to sign this Pledge or to find out more about the project. Together we can make a difference, stand hand in hand and show what it truly means to be a light unto the nations.


Micha Thau is a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and student author of The Pledge.

Israel’s ‘Shabbat war’ heats up, with Jerusalem feeling the squeeze


On the first Friday evening that Jerusalem restaurant Azza 40 opened without a kosher license, allowing it to serve customers on the Jewish sabbath, crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested outside, threatening to smash windows and burn the place down.

“It was crazy,” said Reut Cohen, 29, the restaurant's owner and head chef, recalling the events of September 2014. “The police came, the street was blocked, there were religious people yelling, swearing, even spitting at us.”

It was just one of many protests, most of them peaceful, that ultra-Orthodox groups have mounted against cafes, restaurants and cinemas that open on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day. Several have been led by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus.

Azza 40 is still going strong, with Friday nights and Saturdays the busiest days of the week, despite occasional disruptions. But the pressure on businesses not to open between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday has increased, fuelling tension between the growing Orthodox community and those who feel religious strictures are impinging on their freedom.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the potential fallout of what's been dubbed by local media the “Shabbat war” came this month in Tel Aviv, a city normally known for its secularism.

Work on a new railway station and track maintenance had to be suspended on a Saturday after complaints from religious parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition.

It was a desecration of the holy day, said the chief rabbinate, which had largely ignored such work in the past but had been facing pressure in ultra-Orthodox newspapers and on social media to demand it stop.

“Shabbat is not open to negotiation and haggling, and there's no place to compromise its sanctity,” said the chief rabbis in a statement explaining their position.

As a result, work was moved that weekend to Sunday, the start of Israel's week, causing traffic meltdown as the main Tel Aviv highway was partially shut down. Special buses – ironically organised on a Saturday – were laid on. 

The dispute caused turmoil in Netanyahu's cabinet, with the transport minister, who supported Saturday work, on the firing line. He kept his job, and construction was quietly resumed a week later, including on Saturdays, a sign neither Netanyahu nor his ultra-Orthodox partners wanted the coalition derailed.

But while Tel Aviv was briefly shaken by the debacle, the sharp end of Shabbat tension remains Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox make up a third of the population, an increase of five percentage points over the last decade, and religion is never far from any issue.

 

“IT'S A DESERT”

This week, Jerusalem's municipality charged eight grocery store owners with violating bylaws that prevent businesses in the city center from opening on Shabbat. The increasing sway of the ultra-Orthodox in the city, in numbers and politically, means the municipality is under constant pressure to clamp down.

The results are uneven: One cinema chain closes on Shabbat, another stays open, despite protests. In some cases, businesses have found convoluted solutions to allow restaurants in the centre to operate on the holy day, when tourists are often at a loss to find anywhere to eat. 

Last year, Cafe Landwer, a chain of around 60 coffee shops, opened a site in Independence Park, an attractive green space close to the Old City, across from the U.S. Consulate.

It wanted to operate on Friday evenings and Saturdays to cater to tourists and secular customers. But an ultra-Orthodox group opposed the move and threatened to withdraw the kosher certification granted to Landwer Coffee, a separate company owned by the same family, if it didn't change policy.

Cafe Landwer franchised the restaurant and its name has changed to Alma Cafe, although the menus still say Cafe Landwer. There are occasional protests by the ultra-Orthodox, but it stays open on Shabbat, its busiest day of the week.

“It's one of the few places in the centre of Jerusalem that is open on Saturdays, so everyone comes here,” said manager Karina Topaz, 23. “When we first opened, a few people came and yelled at us, but now it's okay.”

In nearby German Colony, a wealthy neighbourhood of old stone houses, there is no such permissiveness. Whereas ten years ago there were two or three cafes on its tree-lined main street that operated on Shabbat, now there are none.

“At the weekend, it's like a desert. It's dead,” said Orly Turgeman, 35, who manages a small hotel in the neighbourhood.

“You have the feeling there's nothing left in Jerusalem. There's not the environment of an open, pluralistic city.”

The ultra-Orthodox population, with its dress code of black hats and coats, has a birthrate more than twice the national average, making it Israel's fastest growing group.

German Colony has become more religious over the years, with its many elderly, Orthodox residents keen to maintain the traditional calm of Shabbat. The same is true of Kiryat Shmuel, the neighbourhood where Azza 40 is located.

“I am very much not in favour of restaurants opening on Shabbat,” said Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, whose home and synagogue are around the corner from Azza 40. “It disturbs the Shabbat atmosphere of the place, besides being against Jewish law.”

Reut Cohen, the owner, is unfazed. She now offers pork and shellfish on the menu – both distinctly non-kosher – and is determined to stand up for secular principles.

“It's critical for our business, the neighbourhood, the city and the country,” she said. “If the religious don't want to come, that's fine, but they have to live and let live.”

After closing, rallying cry for Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy


For more than 20 years, a Jewish Orthodox day school in West Hollywood strived to provide a quality education to children from immigrant families who couldn’t afford to pay a private school tuition. 

But in recent months, Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy fell behind on rent payments and it was forced to close in July. Now, supporters are fighting to reopen its doors somewhere else. 

“I want to cry when I think about what happened,” said Kenneth Lowenstein, 35, an alumnus who is trying to raise money for the school. “Where is the outcry from the philanthropies? Where is the community outrage?”   

The academy’s financial troubles started a few months ago, after its landlord raised the rent, Lowenstein said.

The school occupies a corner near the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just a short walk from the glitz and glam of The Grove and other luxury boutiques that have popped up in the vicinity. The academy paid $8,000 a month until its landlord nearly tripled the rate to $22,000 earlier this year, according to Lowenstein. 

 A representative of Hayworth Property Management, the leasing management company, declined to comment for this article, and Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, who has been the principal of the school since 1994, said he preferred not to discuss the reason for the academy’s closure.

Bernard Suissa, president of the school’s board, said rising costs forced the academy to close but there are no hard feelings. The property’s landlord has been Jacob’s biggest donor for many years, he said.“Sometimes we didn’t pay for many months and they looked the other way,” Suissa said. “They were incredibly patient and gracious with us.”

More than 80 percent of the school’s income came from donations and only 20 percent from tuition, Harrosh said. On top of that, the majority of students whose families struggled with financial problems received a significant discount. The tuition was set at $10,000 a year, but only a fraction of students paid the full amount, according to Harrosh. “If you could pay $600 a month, they would take you,” Lowenstein said. “If you could afford only $200 a month, they would still take you.”

That proved to be an unsustainable business model.

“Rabbi Harrosh has never been a successful fundraiser, but he has always been an excellent teacher,” Lowenstein said. “He has touched so many lives though his education and impacted so many children.” 

The Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, named after Holocaust survivor Rachela Silber Perutz, was founded in 1993 by Rabbi Rubin Huttler as an emergency school for children who immigrated from Russia and Iran. It enrolled 55 students last year in grades one to eight, some of them with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

“We took in children who other schools couldn’t handle,” Harrosh said. “We enrolled children who struggled emotionally, academically and financially.”

Since the school’s closure in July, some families placed their children into public schools, while others are still scrambling to find a new school.

One parent is Ross, the father of a 9-year-old son who has a pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, characterized by delays in the development of social and communication skills. (Ross preferred his full name not be published in order to protect his son’s privacy.) 

He reached out to the academy two years ago after other Jewish Orthodox schools refused to accept his son, and was welcomed. Over time, he said, his son fell in love with Perutz Etz Jacobs. Once a day, the boy spent at least an hour studying one on one with Harrosh or other teachers. During holidays, the boy begged Ross to take him to school. 

In August, Ross found out that the academy was forced to close, news that his son didn’t take well. Now, Ross is scrambling to find a new school for his son. 

“It was very traumatic for him,” Ross said. “He has nowhere to go now, and he is very upset about it.”

Unlike some other schools, Perutz Etz Jacob, situated in an unimposing, one-story structure, could never brag about a state-of-the-art building, spacious grounds or classrooms equipped with iPads, said Lowenstein, who spent two years there before graduating in 1995. 

But its teachers provided plenty of love and support for their students, according Harrosh. 

“Our students saw Judaism in action,” the rabbi said. “When you care about every child, you see Judaism in action.”

Lowenstein, who now runs a security firm, said he was a troubled child with learning disabilities when he was accepted to the school, which quickly became his second home. 

“I had combative relationships with my parents and sometimes I asked my teachers to stay a little longer,” he said. “The school became my home away from home.” 

Many other children had similar experiences, said Ross, who reached out to the academy after several people told him how Harrosh changed their lives. “More than one person told me something like, ‘When I was a kid, Rabbi Harrosh saved my life,’ ” he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the yellow one-story stucco building located at the intersection of Beverly and Hayworth Avenue showed no sign of the day school. Construction materials were seen in empty rooms through a dusty window. 

Just recently, Lowenstein posted a message on Facebook about the closure of the academy, calling on the school’s alumni, including lawyers, doctors and real estate developers, to give back to the school that “has done so much for so many families.” His hope is that with the community’s support, the school will find a new building so that it can relocate.  

“I want to reach as many people as possible, make phone calls, and track alumni via social media,” he said. “I want to do as much as possible to help the school.” 

In the meantime, Harrosh is planning to meet and work with some students one on one. He said it breaks his heart knowing that some children still have not started the school year. 

“Those children need more love and attention,” he said. “I don’t blame other schools, but they are too big to give attention that those children need.” 

Israeli religious court goes off the deep end


Why would a rabbinic court in the world’s only Jewish state do something that would blatantly turn off most of the world’s Jews?

That’s what I asked myself today when I read that Israel’s top religious court rejected the validity of a woman’s conversion from one of the leading lights of American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City.

This is taking chutzpah and arrogance to another level.

It’s one thing when Charedi rabbinic courts routinely offend and reject non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which is bad enough. But to go against a hard-core, bona fide and beloved Orthodox rabbinic leader?

How could they be so tone deaf?

But wait, it gets worse. This latest decision was on appeal, which means it’s the second time the court has rejected this woman’s conversion. Apparently, they weren’t too moved by the outrage that followed the initial decision.

After that first decision, the Jewish Federations of North America released a statement saying that the “denial of the legitimacy of this convert, who has embraced the Jewish People and undertaken to live a full Jewish life, undermines that fundamental principle (of accepting the convert). Moreover, the Bet Din’s rejection of one of America’s leading Orthodox rabbis is an affront to the country’s entire Jewish community.”

Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest U.S. group of Orthodox rabbis, expressed “regret [at] the angst caused to this righteous convert, as well as the vulnerability felt by many righteous converts who feel that their legitimate status as Jews remains always subject to scrutiny.”

After the latest decision, Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the activist group ITIM, released a statement saying that “the rabbinical court has humiliated Nicole, cast a shadow over tens of thousands of conversions around the world, and has created a crisis of confidence between diaspora Jewry and Israel’s government.”

Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, said that “today’s decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which effectively delegitimized a prominent rabbi in the American Jewish community, demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry.” 

Evidently, none of that indignation has had any impact on the Torah dictators of the Jewish state. They have become extremely good at thumbing their noses at Diaspora Jewry.

The question is: Will this latest outrage become a tipping point?

Now that Israel’s rabbinic courts have shown their propensity to reject even Orthodoxy, will this be the final straw that turns world Jewry against the Chief Rabbinate?

The way I see it, if this sorry episode begins the long journey towards the separation of synagogue and state in Israel, it will be for the good. Religion is best when it has no power to coerce. The minute you force your Judaism on me is the minute you turn me off from Judaism.

Compare two Charedi movements—the Chief Rabbinate and Chabad. One coerces, the other loves. One turns you off from religion, the other turns you on. One divides, the other unites.

The Chief Rabbinate has been forcing its stringent interpretation of Judaism on Jews for too long. Because it never felt the need to persuade or love or empathize, it lost its humanity. Power nourished its arrogance.

Now, it’s time for the Jews of the world to say, Enough. All denominations—from Reform to Orthodox—must unite and tell the Chief Rabbinate that they don’t own Judaism. We do.

Most Jews have no Jewish message to the world


Ask just about any Christian — whether Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or Eastern Orthodox — “What is your purpose as a Christian? What is your message to the world as a Christian?” 

You will receive some variation on this response: “To spread the good news of Jesus Christ and bring as many people as possible to salvation through faith in him.”

Ask any Muslim — Sunni or Shiite — the same questions, just changing “Christian” to “Muslim.” And you will receive this response: “To bring the world to the one true religion, Islam.”

Ask a Mormon the same questions, substituting “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saint” for “Christian” and you will be told: “To convert as many people as possible to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” That’s why tens of thousands of young Mormons are sent around the world to make Mormon converts.

Then ask any Jew the same questions. 

Of course, unlike these other religious groups, Jews do not seek to convert the world to their religion (though we should certainly make the case for Judaism and announce that we welcome converts). 

Here are likely responses:

Response 1: “What do you mean?”

This would be the response of many Jews from the secular to Orthodox. The reason is that the idea of bringing a Jewish message to the world is just not part of their vocabulary.

Response 2: “Our first task is to talk to fellow Jews. So many Jews are alienated from Judaism and the Jewish people, we have to concentrate all our messaging on them.”

Response 3: the Orthodox response: “Our task is to keep the mitzvot that God has commanded us to observe. Then we will be a light unto the nations.”

This is the general Orthodox response. There are, of course, individual Orthodox Jews who believe Jews are obligated to reach out to the non-Jewish world with a Jewish message. But they are rare. The only institutional Orthodox exception is Chabad, which preaches the “Seven Noahide Laws” to non-Jews. 

Response 4: the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular response: “Our task is tikkun olam, to repair the world by working for social justice.”

Regarding the Jewish responses, the first point worth noting is that, unlike Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Muslims, there is nothing approaching a unified Jewish response to questions about the task of a Jew or the nature of the Jewish message to the world.

The second, and even more important point, is that none of the Jewish responses actually answers the questions. The first two obviously don’t. 

The third response, the Orthodox, acknowledges that Jews have a purpose, but no obligation to talk to the world. 

But if that is the case, for what purpose did God choose the Jews? Chosen to do what? 

Again, the Orthodox answer is “to keep the commandments.” That suffices, we are reassured, because when Jews do that, Jews will be a light unto the nations.

But how can you be a light if almost no one can see you? The most observant Jews are also the most cloistered Jews. How many non-Jews see the Jews of Orthodox enclaves such as Monsey or New Square in New York, Bnei Brak in Israel, or anywhere else the most observant Jews live? The answer is close to zero. Moreover, I am not certain that when non-Jews see Charedi or ultra-Orthodox Jews, they leave with a message.

So, with few exceptions, Orthodoxy has opted out of providing a Jewish message to the world.

Finally, we come to Response 4, the tikkun olam response given by most Conservative, Reform and Jewishly-identifying secular Jews.

Now, there is no question that Judaism wishes the Jew to help repair the world. But what religion doesn’t want to repair the world? Do committed Christians not want to repair the world? Just look at all the charities and hospitals created by Protestants and Catholics. For that matter, what decent secular ideology doesn’t want to repair the world? Do the great majority of liberals and conservatives not want to repair the world?

Obviously, then, since Jews from the left to the right want to repair the world, when Jews speak of the Jewish message as tikkun olam, they must be referring to something more specific than simply wanting to repair the world.

And they are. They are referring specifically to progressive politics. Tikkun olam for these Jews means extending taxing the rich, increasing the size of the government, creating new and enlarging existing welfare programs, fighting carbon emissions, supporting same-sex marriage, greatly increasing the minimum wage, providing free college tuition, criticizing Israel and supporting every other left-wing policy.

But if the Jews’ message to the world is identical to the left’s message to the word, there is no Jewish message to the world. Nor, for that matter, would there be any compelling reason to be Jewish. 

All one would have to do to in order to fulfill what Judaism stands for is become active in left-wing causes. Which is precisely what most young Jews have concluded, and have therefore become leftists without Judaism.

In Part Two, I will suggest what ought to be the Jews’ messages to the world.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Sanders returns to childhood home in Brooklyn


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he was brought up as a child, kicking off his New York weekend with campaign rally outside his childhood home on E. 26th street in Midwood.

“Thank you for coming out to my old neighborhood. I spent the first 18 years of my life in apartment 2C right here,” Sanders said standing on a stage outside 1525 East 26th street. “Right on this street, I spent thousands of hours playing punch ball.”

As Sanders gave his traditional stump speech, some local Jewish teenagers yelled, “We love you, Bernie,” as one of them waved a campaign poster with “Shabbat Shalom” scribbled on the top.

“>fired back at the Jewish senator’s critics, accusing them of distorting his comments. “As many people know, Sen. Sanders, as a young man, spent months in Israel and, in fact, has family living there now. There is no candidate for president who will be a stronger supporter of Israel’s right to exist in freedom, peace and security,” Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement. “The idea that Sen. Sanders stated definitely that 10,000 Palestinians were killed is just not accurate and a distortion of that discussion. Bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not be easy. It would help if candidates’ positions on this issue are not distorted.”

The clarification wasn’t good enough for Assemblyman Hikind. After attempting to 

Charedi lawmaker in Israel compares Reform movement to mentally ill person


A Charedi Orthodox lawmaker in Israel reportedly compared the Reform movement to a mentally ill person.

[MORE: Knesset members react]

Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism party made his remarks Tuesday in the lead-up to a Knesset debate the next day on the Supreme Court’s decision that non-Orthodox converts can immerse in a public mikvah, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works,” Eichler was quoted as saying. “The High Court can’t force a hospital to allow the court’s surgeons and the court’s medicines into the operating room. And so it is intolerable that the directors of ritual baths will have to allow organizers of Reform religion-changing ceremonies into a Jewish ritual bath.”

Eichler also reportedly said the Supreme Court has “no authority to enforce Jewish law, whose source of authority is the Torah, which the High Court does not recognize as a source of its legal authority.”

He also said: “The High Court decision to force the members of the Jewish religion to carry out ritual bath rules and conversions according to the Reform religion, which does not believe in the purity of the ritual bath … is a serious infraction of freedom of religion for the members of the Jewish religion, which has clear laws. Religious freedom is promised in the Declaration of Independence to the members of all religions in the State of Israel, including the believers in the Jewish religion.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that mikvahs in Israel must open to non-Orthodox conversion rites. Previously, Israeli mikvahs have denied access for conversion immersions to Reform and Conservative converts. Israel’s mikvahs are run by Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, which operates in lock-step with the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement Wednesday called Eichler’s remarks “another example of the extreme intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. Clearly they feel a seismic shift in their decades-old monopoly on Judaism in Israel. Their stranglehold on Judaism is being loosened, and their response is desperate and pathetic.

“It is hard to imagine what twisted Torah MK Eichler studies when he characterizes the largest movement in Jewish life as ‘mentally ill.’ Our Torah teaches us the values of pluralism and of tolerance — and it teaches us not to use phrases like ‘mentally ill’ as an epithet.”

Rabbis Denise Eger and Steven Fox, president and chief executive, respectively, of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, called Eichler’s comments “disturbing and ignorant,” adding that they are “insensitive and backwards.”

“At the very moment that hundreds of Reform rabbis from North America are in Jerusalem celebrating the vibrancy of Reform Judaism in Israel and calling for tolerance, the MK’s comments are an unfortunate reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve equality for all Jews in Israel and around the world,” they said in a statement. “We condemn these comments and the worldview they represent.”

In an Op-Ed posted Wednesday on the website of the Jewish Press, an Orthodox Jewish weekly newspaper, Eichler asserted that “the prime minister, the supreme court and the secular establishment are subservient to the Reform millionaires.”

He added that Reform clergy are “investing millions in bribing Israeli public opinion shapers, something the Christian missionaries and certainly the Muslim preachers would dare to do.”

The Kotel decision: A Sephardic Jew responds


Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Kotel had no barrier separating the sexes. It was an open place of prayer, spirituality and meditation for all Jews. Those were the days when Jews were not branded by denominations. Somehow, this ancient, sacred space was transformed into a shtetl-style ultra-Orthodox synagogue, a commercialized bar mitzvah factory and a focal point of tension, violence and divisiveness among Jews of various modern-day denominations. 

Hardly a sacred space anymore, the Kotel has now become known for its turf wars among Jews. We once believed that the everlasting presence of the Shekhina reigns over the Kotel. This long-lost spiritual tradition has been replaced by political debates over which denomination “has control” over this so-called “holy site.” The Kotel is not a synagogue, and it doesn’t belong to any denomination. There should be no minyanim, no bar mitzvahs … and no barriers separating people at the Kotel. The “landmark decision” should have been to restore the Kotel to what it once was: an open place for all Jews to come pray and meditate as individuals. Instead, with this decision, the Kotel will eternally represent the divisiveness and politics of Judaism’s modern-day denominations. 

How sad to see an ancient, sacred space in Middle Eastern Jerusalem now being defined by a Eurocentric denominational system that has largely failed in the United States, and to which the majority of the residents of Israel have no relationship. Rather than being a place whose purpose, character and spirit represents Jewish unity, the Kotel has now been further cheapened and reduced to just another set of “Orthodox, Conservative and Reform” synagogues in Jerusalem. 

This permanent physical division between Jews in the heart of Judaism’s holiest space brings to mind the words from the Book of Lamentations recited on Tisha b’Av: Al Eleh Ani Bokhiya — “For these matters, I weep.” This divisive and politically motivated decision has given me something new to mourn on Tisha b’Av.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Mixed emotions about the Kotel compromise


What’s the definition of mixed emotions, asks the old gag line: Finding out that your business competitor and rival has just driven off a cliff — in your new Lamborghini. 

The Orthodox community has to greet news of the Kotel agreement similarly. We can hope that it will bring relief from the ugliness of acrimonious battles between brothers and sisters, all under the critical gaze of the non-Jewish world wondering whatever happened to the much-vaunted Jewish unity. 

But what a horrible price to pay for a cease-fire! The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews. With all our differences, all of us directed our hearts for centuries to that remnant of the outer wall of the two Temples. Having miraculously gained physical control of it in 1967, fulfilling what had long been only a dream, we find ourselves unable to maintain enough unity to preserve a single place in the entire world where we can come together and express our Jewishness in prayer. It is a tragedy that we will live with, but a tragedy nonetheless.

As an Orthodox Jew, I cannot help but wonder whether this agreement is not a tactical blunder on the part of the non-Orthodox denominations. 

Visitors to the Kotel/Kotels will look out at two areas. The Orthodox area, the traditional Western Wall, will be alive with activity 24/7, with tens of thousands of people at certain times of the year. The non-Orthodox Southern Wall will not be able to assemble large numbers on a regular basis. Likely, more cameras will be on hand than prayer books. The heterodox area will not display a fraction of the fervor and passion found on the traditional side. The contrast will speak loudly to the legions of Israelis struggling to find a religious identity.

I cannot forget my first visits to the Kotel decades ago, and the spirit of togetherness of our people, albeit from disparate backgrounds. This will now disappear. So when I will look out at the two areas and the successes and failures they bespeak, I will mourn, not gloat.


Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is a co-founder of and contributor to Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.

Jewish community foundation gives $1.1m in Israel grants


Efforts in Israel to bring Jewish ceremonies into the public sphere; to prepare Ethiopian Israelis for careers in technology; and to offer job training to young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities are set to get a significant funding boost.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) recently announced it is awarding $1.1 million in grants to six Israeli organizations whose work helps strengthen the country’s Jewish identity and supports economic development.

Awarded annually, this year’s Israel Grants will provide between $150,000 and $200,000 each over three years to a wide range of initiatives. Money for the grants comes from charitable assets the foundation manages on behalf of Jewish philanthropists in the Los Angeles area.

“The Jewish Community Foundation is fortunate to be able to support programs and initiatives that strengthen the fabric of our community and of the Jewish people living in Israel,” Elana Wien, director of JCFLA’s Center for Designed Philanthropy, said in an email. “We award these grants so that organizations conducting important work on the ground in Israel have the resources to make an even greater impact on the country.”

This year’s grant recipients include Beit Tefilah Israeli, a Tel Aviv-based organization that hosts Shabbat and Jewish holiday celebrations in public places, such as the Tel Aviv Port and public parks. Launched in 2004, Beit Tefilah Israeli attracts approximately 40,000 people a year to its events, co-founder Rabbi Esteban Gottfried told the Journal by phone during a recent visit to the United States. 

Celebrations organized by the group include a weekly Shabbat service at the port that attracts about 1,000 people, and a giant Sukkot festival that includes prayers, concerts, lectures and children’s activities and brings in about 15,000 people over the course of a week, Gottfried said.

The goal is to provide a way for Israelis to connect with their Jewish roots and foster a Jewish-Israeli identity, even if they are not Orthodox Jews and don’t regularly attend religious services at a synagogue, Gottfried explained. He said the idea is to create a model of community that’s inclusive, pluralistic and open to people of different backgrounds.

“Many people come to pray but they’ve never been in a synagogue before. They feel at home in these kinds of prayer events,” he said. “It’s really a slow revolution that is happening in Israel.”

Gottfried said Beit Tefilah Israeli will use the $200,000 from JCFLA to support the existing Open Tent Shabbat and Holidays: Israeli-Judaism in the Public Sphere program, as well as efforts to expand it beyond Tel Aviv.

“We really welcome this grant because we need more support for what we are doing,” Gottfried said. “We are very happy … (The Foundation) saw that we are touching so many people and bringing them relevant and meaningful and happy Jewish ways to celebrate the holidays and celebrate Jewish life in Israel.”

Other organizations receiving grants include Tech-Career, which runs a vocational training and job-placement program for young Ethiopian Israelis. Titled Closing the Digital Gap – Empowering Ethiopian Israeli Young Adults, the program focuses on training participants for careers in Israeli technology and software companies. The program will receive $200,000. 

The grant “will assist us in providing a unique opportunity for young Ethiopian Israeli men and women to develop a technological career, to integrate into the high-tech industry, and ultimately into Israeli society,” Avigail Harel, Tech-Career’s resource development director, said in a statement.

Another grant recipient is Hillel – The Right to Choose, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young adults who have left the ultra-Orthodox world through services including psychological counseling, housing, educational scholarships, vocational help and mentorship. The foundation’s $200,000 grant will support Hillel’s Workforce Integration and Facilitation Program, which provides job training to help participants integrate into the Israeli workforce and broader society.

The other grant recipients include Jerusalem-based Beit Midrash Elul, which will get $150,000 toward its work engaging Israeli Jews in public events related to Jewish identity, and through the exploration of modern and traditional Jewish texts. Hut HaMeshulash, also based in Jerusalem, was awarded $150,000 toward programming to strengthen Jewish identity among at-risk youth through learning Jewish text, art, music, creative writing, and Shabbat and holiday-based activities. The Joint Council of Pre-Military Leadership Academies will receive $200,000 to expose high school graduates to Jewish literature, holidays, history, practice and communities through a one-year leadership-training program.  

Wien said the wide-ranging grants aim to help Israelis from different regions and walks of life, including immigrant groups, underserved populations and low-income women.

“Through our grant-making, it is our goal to increase Jewish knowledge, cultural understanding, engagement and practice for all Jews living in Israel as well as to promote economic self-sufficiency,” she said.

Women of the Wall decries report that PM promised Charedi parties no change at Kotel


The Women of the Wall group vowed to continue reading from the Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel in the wake of a report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Charedi Orthodox parties that it still would not be allowed.

Army Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu met last week with the Charedi parties and promised there would be no change to the current status quo at the Western Wall, which prevents women  from reading a Torah at the religious site.

The state must respond to a petition filed by the Center for Women’s Rights, an Israeli NGO, asking the Supreme Court to remove impediments to women bringing private Torah scrolls to the Wall.

In the past, the Women of the Wall has smuggled a mini-Torah scroll into the women’s section. During a service in April, male supporters of the group who hoisted a scroll over the divider between the men’s and women’s sections encountered violent opposition.

The Women of the Wall in a statement referenced a speech given by Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly in November in which he called for more efforts to make the Western Wall a place of inclusion.

“Apparently when Netanyahu spoke of ‘all’ Jews in November 2015, he forgot that women make up half of all Jews,” the group said. “No Israeli Prime Minister has the right to take away Torah from half of all Jews.

Women of the Wall said if Netanyahu “does bend to the pressure” of the Charedi parties, its members will continue to read Torah in the women’s section.

“Even if we must hide our Torah scroll and smuggle it past the guards, we will do so just as Jews have been forced to do so many times before us in exile,” the statement said.

Women of the Wall gathers at the Western Wall at the start of each Jewish month for the morning prayer service. Its members have clashed frequently with staff from the office of the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites of Israel, and with police for holding services that violate the rules enforced by the office.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling acknowledged the women’s right to pray at the Western Wall according to their beliefs, claiming it does not violate what has come to be known as “local custom.”

Regulations at the site set by the office have allowed women to wear prayer shawls and kippahs, but prevented them from using a Torah scroll in their section.

Can Open Orthodoxy help revive Judaism?


There are two ways to look at the controversy raging in the Orthodox world right now over a fledgling movement that calls itself “Open Orthodoxy.” One way is to put the controversy under a microscope and go through all of the arguments and name calling. I will do that, don’t worry. The other way is to consider a question I’m much more interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

First, the name calling, and I mean that literally. One of the big issues in the controversy is whether the Open Orthodox movement — which believes in greater religious leadership roles for women, among other things — can call itself Orthodox. This issue has been brewing for several years, but it came to a head last week when a group of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, after examining statements and positions put forth by representatives of the Open Orthodox group, proclaimed that the movement is “beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.”

This proclamation followed one a few days earlier from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest association of Orthodox rabbis, banning members from employing women clergy in their synagogues, regardless of the title used. 

In response to the RCA proclamation, Los Angeles Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, whose Orthodox synagogue B’nai David-Judea in the past year hired its first female clergy, wrote a heartfelt and somewhat defiant column in the Jewish Journal, saying: “This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged — however grudgingly — as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.”

Now, if you’re a liberal Jew, like most American Jews, you might be looking at this and thinking: “Are these Orthodox leaders for real? Haven’t there been female rabbis in other movements for more than 40 years? Don’t they have anything better to worry about?”

Part of me shares that sentiment, but another part has a deep appreciation for the value of maintaining tradition. The easy thing to do would be to label the RCA position as sexist or retrograde, and just dismiss it or get angry. After all, in today’s world, the notion that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to do something only because she’s a woman is not just out of date, it’s offensive.

But what may look like sexism to the modern eye can, to a traditional eye, be a respect for gender roles. Generally speaking, the more you move to the right in Orthodoxy, the more a woman’s religious role is seen as shining inside the home rather than in public. This boundary may offend some people, but it’s not without merit or context.

As Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student wrote in Haaretz, “The synagogue is where we gather for a few hours each week, for some each day. Take away the synagogue and you can still have Judaism. Take away the Jewish home … and Judaism disappears in a generation.”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Rabbi Avi Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos.

I can tell you from personal experience that the most important link in my own Jewish journey has been the thousands of Shabbat and holiday tables that my mother lovingly prepared in our home, with all the rituals involved and the family joy that came with it. She didn’t teach me Torah, but she taught me to love Judaism.

Still, that doesn’t mean Orthodoxy is not broad enough to meet modern challenges. The traditionalist’s question is, always, “Where do we draw the line?”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy, is clearly in the camp of broadening the Orthodox tent to include a greater religious and public role for women.

“There is no question whatsoever that throughout the generations women have often provided halachic and spiritual leadership as is shown from Sarah the prophetess to Deborah the judge,” he said last week in an interview in the Jerusalem Post. Riskin also cited rulings from major halachic decisors, such as former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who, according to Riskin, “state that women can become the great religious leaders of the generation, the gedolei ha’dor, and that they can provide rulings for halachic direction.”

Respect for halachah is something you hear over and over again when you speak to an Open Orthodox rabbi, which is what makes the movement hard to dismiss.

Many years ago, I met with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., who founded the flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and is credited with inspiring the movement. Before leaving his office, I picked up a copy of one of his books, titled “Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups,” and read it on the flight back home. I got the point: The man takes Jewish law seriously, whether it’s about guidelines for women’s prayers or a yeshiva for women clergy. 

At the heart of the controversy is Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva for Orthodox women in Riverdale founded by Weiss and Sara Hurwitz, the first formally ordained “rabba” and the dean of the school. So far, the yeshiva has enrolled 20 women and ordained five. Maharat is an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader and is a title used by some of the ordained women, in addition to or in lieu of rabba.

It is this religious leadership role for women that most irks the RCA. In its recent statement, the RCA specified that its resolution does not apply to “non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha [advisers on Jewish law], community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS [Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study], and non-rabbinic school teachers.” But a clergy status for women? That crosses the line.

The RCA’s position against female clergy, which it has expressed several times in the past, is based on previous rulings by halachic heavyweights such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, according to an article in Cross Currents by RCA executive committee member Avrohom Gordimer.

Sara Hurwitz is the first formally ordained “rabba” and dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains Orthodox women clergy.

So, both sides claim Jewish law is on their side. Where does that leave us? Can both sides be right? What is the heart of the dispute?

“The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity,” Weiss wrote recently in Tablet, in a piece titled, “Defining Open Orthodoxy.” He asks: “Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women — encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership?”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos. For example:

• Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools?

• Do we respect, embrace and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological and ethical questions?

• Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halachic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding?

• Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions?

• Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

These questions may sound outdated to my liberal friends, but in the Orthodox world where I live, they are deeply disruptive and uncomfortable. When the world is changing so fast around us, when secularism and hedonism and commercialism are encroaching into religious communities like never before, there’s a tendency to circle the wagons and get overly protective.

Weiss is going in the other direction. He looks at the hurricane of social change and sees opportunities. Instead of building walls of protection, he wants to build bridges of connection. Instead of seeing the outside world as a threat, he sees a healthy engagement with it as enriching the Jewish experience.

“Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick — obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in — or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century?”

Because Modern Orthodoxy has moved to the right in recent years, the word “modern” has lost some of its relevance. As Weiss writes, “'Modern' issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.”

Weiss believes Open Orthodoxy can inject some vitality that will help Orthodox Judaism better address these issues and challenges. A number of institutions and organizations have emerged over the years that follow in that spirit. In addition to Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat and Amcha– The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, these include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Edah, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

Which brings me back to the question I mentioned earlier that I’m most interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

Let’s go back to my mother’s Shabbat table. One thing I’ve learned from decades of sitting around a joyful Shabbat table every week is that you can’t build a lasting Jewish identity with just words or ideas. You need action. Sacred action. 

Orthodoxy, more than any other denomination, is obsessed with sacred action. It doesn’t matter what you call it—halachah, rituals, commandments, rules — the net effect is an unbending dedication to the kinds of acts that connect you continuously to your Jewish identity. Chabad's success is very much based on this primacy of Jewish action.

I have this theory that the transformational ritual of Orthodoxy is the prohibition against driving on Shabbat. The simple act of walking on Shabbat, whether to a synagogue or a friend’s house, organically creates Jewish neighborhoods and tight-knit communities where Judaism becomes a way of life, not just an occasional episode.

The downside to this way of life, however, is that it can also make you more insular. When your Jewish experience is concentrated in one place, it sometimes feels safest just to hunker down and shut out the rest.

Open Orthodoxy is trying to balance two ideals: It wants to keep the neighborhood-like intimacy and rituals of Torah Judaism but make them more open and inclusive.     

“It’s the model of our forebears Sarah and Abraham,” Weiss writes. “Unlike Noah, who is best known for his ark — insulated and separated by high walls from the rest of society — Abraham and Sarah dwell in a tent. It is open on all sides, welcoming not only those who come in, but they are also prepared to run out of the tent and greet all passersby, encouraging them to drink from the waters of Torah.”

Of course, these waters of Torah will always be open to interpretation and criticism. Liberal Jews may criticize Open Orthodoxy because its interpretation of Torah is not egalitarian enough, and the Orthodox establishment will criticize it because it goes too far. There’s no way around that. It is the fate of the struggler.

In Weiss’ case, his struggle is to insist on the “foundational divinity of Torah and observance of Halachah,” while aiming for an Orthodoxy that “is not rigid” and “open to a wider spectrum.”

This effort to put a genuinely open face on Orthodoxy may be controversial, but it also presents opportunities. For one thing, it makes Open Orthodoxy an ideal movement for Jewish outreach.

Just as Chabad is the outreach arm for ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Open Orthodoxy can be the outreach arm for Orthodox Judaism. Open Orthodoxy could be especially appealing to a new generation that welcomes and expects a more open and inclusive Judaism, including, not least, a leadership role for women.

If the wise sages of the Orthodox world were able to pull back for a minute and look at the big picture, they would see Open Orthodoxy not as a threat but a potential asset.

They would see that the real threat to the Jewish future is a Jewish house that is on fire while we squabble inside about the rules of the household.

Every Saturday throughout America, the great majority of Jews prefers to do anything but visit a house of prayer, and every Friday night, that same majority prefers to do anything but sit around a Shabbat table. When Orthodox Jews complain about a slippery slope, that’s the slope they should worry about most — Jews slipping away from Jewish action and Jewish identity.

If a movement like Open Orthodoxy can come along and make sacred Jewish action more inclusive and attractive to a vanishing generation, what’s not to like? 

And if having Orthodox women as religious leaders means expanding the richness and breadth of Torah study in our community, what’s not to like?  

Our communal bond has eroded in recent years in part because we’re missing a genuine and respectful engagement between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism. This is a shame. Open Orthodox rabbis regularly engage with Jewish religious leaders with whom they may have ideological or theological differences, and they’ve taken a lot of heat for it. But if that kind of courageous bridge-building doesn’t promote diversity and Jewish unity, what will?

There’s no bigger mitzvah in the Torah than Kiddush Hashem — sanctifying the name of God. This happens when the world sees Jews doing good deeds in the name of their religion. Perhaps the most memorable example in America was the image of a pious Abraham Joshua Heschel walking alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1960s civil rights march. Rabbi Weiss, who for decades has been marching for human rights while proudly wearing his yarmulke, is the Orthodox embodiment of social justice and Kiddush Hashem. Doesn’t that reflect well on all of Orthodoxy?

Here’s what I would say to the big guns at the RCA and others who agree with them: Have different branches. You can call yourselves Traditional Orthodox and call this other group Open Orthodox. Embrace them as an asset. Let them wrestle with this crazy, changing world while you stick to your guns. It’ll make all of Orthodoxy look good.

I know, I’m dreaming. I don’t expect the RCA to do any of that. The RCA believes it must protect its turf and its standing, so it will probably dig in and double down, especially because it believes it has the truth, the whole truth, on its side.

The problem is that you can ostracize Open Orthodoxy, but the issues they’re dealing with won’t go away. If anything, issues such as changing women’s roles will become even more urgent with time. An Orthodoxy that ignores the most crucial social issues of our time is an Orthodoxy that becomes more narrow and less relevant. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that, according to the latest Pew Research Center study, only 48 percent of people raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox.)

Religious luminaries, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, like to say that their Torah is the only “authentic” one. But they’re overlooking something else that is exceedingly authentic: the societal changes Open Orthodoxy is fearlessly confronting within a Torah context. Instead of showing a little respect for this difficult and complex work, some prefer to smugly malign it under the guise of “inauthentic Torah.”

What I’ve always found admirable about Open Orthodox rabbis is that, no matter how alienated they feel or how poorly they’re treated, they refuse to leave Orthodoxy. They believe in it. They don't believe they're on a slippery slope to non-Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is their home. It’s their tent.

That’s why it’s worth noting that, from what I hear, one place where they feel more welcomed is at the Orthodox Union, a “big tent” global Orthodox organization that over the years has embraced a kind of Orthodox pluralism — refusing to alienate either the right or the left. Let it become a model for Orthodox tolerance.

Ultimately, all the arguments over religious labels and Jewish law, and the antagonism from the establishment, will matter a lot less than the facts on the ground. If Open Orthodoxy can grow from the painful birth pangs of its beginning and become a movement that significantly impacts Jewish identity in America, every Jewish institution in the country will take notice — even groups that refuse to call it Orthodox. 

They may even conclude that Open Orthodoxy is good for the Jews.

Mayim Bialik: Let Orthodox Jewish women be called ‘rabbi’


Something is going on in the Jewish world that may be the most important thing to happen in a very long time. In a recent statement, a leading board of Orthodox rabbis reaffirmed that although they encourage many different professional opportunities for learned women, “due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” (Full statement is here.) For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism, this may seem bizarre and silly (and I will explain it all here, and we’ve included a number of resources below for those of you who want to read more on the subject); but for those of us who are Jewish, it’s incredibly important.

While the Reform and Conservative denominations of Judaism have been ordaining women as rabbis since 1972 and 1985 respectively, the most ‘stringent’ denomination, Orthodoxy, has not, largely because there are certain restrictions about women’s roles in traditional Judaism that have not before been challenged or changed since they came into being. As an example, a woman cannot serve as a witness in a court of Jewish law (other prohibited categories include imbeciles, children and professional gamblers). Why were women banned from being witnesses? Because thousands of years ago, women were typically either too busy rearing children – which they were solely responsible for — or deemed too unstable or emotional (as most every culture in the world has claimed women to be) to make legal decisions with consistency.

These kinds of stereotypes have led to an Orthodoxy that – despite historical shifts that have allowed Orthodox women to enter just about every other arena of society – remains largely devoted to maintaining the roles of women as caregivers and rulers of the home sphere rather than the public sphere. Today, an Orthodox woman can go to law school and become a lawyer and serve as a senior judge in a court, for example, but in her own Jewish community, she could not even serve as a witness or sign a legal document such as a marriage contract.

It doesn’t make us look good, I know. Especially considering the fact that other religions have made significant shifts in their representation of women. It doesn’t make us look good.

In the past decades, the number of Orthodox women who want to join the leadership of the Jewish people in ways that are consistent with Jewish law has been growing. There have been trailblazers in this world of female scholarship and leadership. Reb Mimi Feigelson is a scholar among scholars and a profoundly devoted religious leader here in Los Angeles. Rabba Sara Hurwitz in New York established Yeshivat Maharat, a Jewish seminary to train women who are learned in Torah and devoted to religious life who want to be a part of Jewish leadership in a formal and recognized way. Their titles point to their scholarship and their leadership, but are also a source of controversy. Only in the most modern Orthodox of circles are they seen as equal to the males who hold the “rabbi” title.

Like it or not, Jewish law does not preclude a female rabbi. And that’s not opinion, it’s fact. So what’s the issue here? Why are we having this discussion? As the joke goes: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. And lots of Jews have lots of opinions on this subject. Here are mine.

The way I see it, there are two issues at hand.

Cultural Relevance

In Judaism, men and women occupy distinct and important roles which are historically relevant and compelling. As a matter of fact, I happen to be a big fan of gradational roles for men and women. However, God did not ordain these roles — history and cultural bias did. When electricity was harnessed in creating the lightbulb, no one cried out, “We should not use lights because God did not put them in the Torah!” So, too, as history and culture have moved forward, the needs of men and women have changed and there is nothing about those shifts that is antithetical to the word of God nor our love for God and the Torah.

The God I believe in cares about the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. The God of Judaism seeks for us to make relationships with a Divine Being so that we can care for the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Does this God draw the line for compassion and care at gender equality? No, only humans can do that.

The people most in touch with the Torah and Judaism are made to be leaders. Period. If Judaism is a religion of ethics and justice, our commitment to tradition and to authentic Judaism should not preclude a fierce commitment to ethics and to justice in our leadership and in our communities.

Nomenclature/Whatchamacallit

The RCA seems particularly upset about what we call these women leaders. Are they Rabbis? Are they clergy? Are they Rebs or Rabbas, titles derived from the more familiar “rabbi” or “rav,” or – as one local Maharat-trained leader is known – are they Morateinus (meaning “our teacher”) or…? There is a tradition that Moses granted semicha (a conferring of leadership) from Sinai down to the Rabbis of the mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), but that semicha was lost. The title “rabbi’ isn’t even Biblical, and it isn’t God-given. In modern times, a rabbi derives authority not from the heavens, but from the people who recognize what a great master of Torah, spirituality and morality he is. That’s why Jews often call great rabbis “rav,” which is the word for master, or teacher.

A Jewish leader is someone we learn from. In the 21st century, why can’t we honor a woman who is a master by calling her a master? If she is a teacher, do we not call her a teacher? A rose by any other name would indeed smell just as sweet. The RCA’s fixation with nomenclature is a distraction tactic. (To learn more about the issue of naming Orthodox women leaders, see this article from the Jewish Journal.)

As it says in Psalms (19:8): The Torah of the Lord is perfect, satisfying to the soul; the Testament of the Lord is trustworthy, enlightening the simpleminded.

Men and women alike can enlighten us as masters of the Torah. Let them.

Seriously? I guess if this is what we are focusing on and spending our time and energy on, it must mean that we have successfully eliminated all suffering, immorality, injustice and hypocrisy in Judaism and in the world. It must mean that we have all of this time and energy to spend on dissecting what a group of learned women want to call themselves, and if they have a right to lead that is equal to the right that men have to lead? We are picking on women who are so in love with Judaism and Orthodoxy that they are enrolling in seminaries in order to become learned teachers, and we are spending our time placing them under a microscope and we are examining why they are thus devoted.

In Numbers 11:16-29, when Moses asked God for help bearing the weight of the fledgling Jews, 70 elders are made into prophets to help him. Moses’ second-in-line, Joshua, finds that two more than the 70 are prophesying and Joshua asked Moses to imprison them. Do you know what Moses says? “Would that all of God’s people be prophets, and that His spirit rest upon all of them.” Exactly.

Judaism is losing members in great numbers, assimilation is freaking everyone out because the number of Jews in the world is declining left, right and center, and the RCA is upset that there are women this devoted and committed to Judaism that they are devoting their lives to it?

The threat of punishing synagogues who hire these women is absurd, and it’s divisive, and it alone will be the thing that causes the splitting off from Jewish denominations, not hiring competent, learned, God-fearing observant women into our clergy offices.

This conversation also hits me on a personal level. I have already written about the recent hiring by the first Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles of a female leader named Alissa Thomas-Newborn to serve our community as a religious leader and expert of Jewish law and policy. I wrote about how, as a woman devoted to Torah living going through a divorce, I craved the guidance of a woman who was both able to understand me in a way all the male rabbis I spoke to could not, and able to understand Torah and the questions I had about Jewish tradition and how it would affect my life as a divorcee.

What’s more true for me than that is that I have wanted to be a rabbi since I was 15 years old. I told my rabbi in front of the ark at my Reform synagogue as he blessed me on the night of my Confirmation. We were both startled, and he reminds me of it whenever I see him. More than anything else, my desire to serve my people as a leader is the thing that has been consistently true about me since I was 15. I began learning more and more about Judaism from an Orthodox perspective when I was in college, and I have not stopped. My life path took me to marriage and a PhD in the years that – had my life path been slightly different – I might have been one of the women of Yeshivat Maharat who are blessed to spend their lives devoted to studying to become Jewish leaders. I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead. That’s why this issue hits so close to home.

I don’t want to be a Jewish leader because I am a woman. I want to be a Jewish leader because I am a Jew who has a deep and abiding faith in the Maker of this Universe, and I know for certain that the fire I have in me for Torah was meant for leadership somehow.

This fire is the fire God puts in people who are meant to touch others through God’s Torah.

And my fire is not the only one. That fire dates back thousands of years to the beginning of creation.

It is in the hearts and the souls of every woman who gives her life to study Torah. This fire is in the hand that held Adam’s as we were sent out of the garden of Eden, and it is in the cries of the women in Egypt we helped as they gave birth to the sons and daughters of the next generation. It is in the songs we have sung since we crossed the Sea of Reeds and it is in the reflections in the mirrors we made out of our jewelry, so we could look attractive to our men to encourage love, when we were slaves and we had nearly given up hope. It is in the judgments of Deborah and the tent-pin Yael used to slay an enemy general. It is in the sacrifice we make on Day 8 and it is in the immersion we make on Day 12*. It is in me and it is on me like black fire on white fire.

It is that it is.

We all believe in the same God. We revere the same Torah. We want a cohesive Jewish community. Let’s build that based on God and Torah, men and women alike. Let’s show the world that we are ready to enter a new time where the cultural customs of the past of keeping women in back rooms is not what we stand for.

One step at a time, gently, so gently, we can do this together. We – all of us – can lead.

*”Day 8” refers to the day on which ritual circumcision (a bris) is performed. In the laws of family purity, a woman is permitted to immerse in the ritual bath (mikvah) on the 12th day of her cycle, as a step toward resuming sexual relations with her husband.

Mayim Bialik plays neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she is the founder of the web community GrokNation.com, where this article originally appeared.

Terror in Jerusalem: The merry-go-round


It was in the middle of Sukkot, that loveliest of holidays in Israel, set aside for family time, when even the most devout and serious yeshiva men can be seen with their entire families visiting the zoo or traipsing through nature trails in Galilee. We had woken up that Friday morning to the shocking news that, the night before, young parents had been slain in their car on their way home from a festive reunion, shot in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists as their four terrified little boys sat watching from the back seat. 

It is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t live in Israel and travel these roads every day what such news brings: grief, fury, fear and a fierce desire for a response that will deter the next such heinous and inhuman act.

Along with everyone else in Israel, I grieved. But then I heard their names: Eitam and Naama Henkin.

Henkin, I thought, flooded by a sudden, terrible shock that was like a blow to my stomach.

Oh, no!

I remembered that lunch not so long ago with Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder and dean of Nishmat, a revolutionary advanced Torah study program. We sat in one of those comfortable little coffee houses that line German Colony, two Orthodox women who had come to Israel from America, discussing how Nishmat was changing the face of Orthodoxy by offering the first study program approved by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment to qualify women to become halachic advisers in the area of intimate women’s issues — issues that many religious women would be embarrassed to discuss with a male rabbi.

I remember leaving that meeting feeling I had been granted a rare privilege. This petite, passionate woman in her head-covering and modest clothes was, in her own quiet, courageous way, making history improving the lives of countless Jewish women. 

Eitam and Naama were Chana Henkin’s son and daughter-in-law.

That her grandchildren had been spared was nothing less than a miracle. For a moment, my heart wanted to believe that even Palestinian killers and terrorists had some shred of decency and compassion. That they were, after all, descendants Abraham. 

A few days later, when the suspects were caught in a spectacular demonstration of amazing skill by the Israel Defense Forces, the truth was brutal. The suspects had been on their way to kill the children when one of them accidentally shot the other, forcing them to abandon their plans and rush to a hospital, where the injured suspect was picked up days later by an elite Israeli unit.

It made me feel much better that they had been so quickly apprehended. But before I could feel any real relief, terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Raanana and elsewhere followed at a rapid clip, thrusting me back into the terrible memories of an earlier homicidal rampage to strike Israel, when I experienced terrorism firsthand as I sat with my family on seder night in the Park Hotel in Netanya. 

Oddly, when I remembered those days of suicide bombers blowing up hotels, bar mitzvah ceremonies and buses, the current spate of stabbings and savage hit-and-runs seemed less threatening. After all, a bomb you couldn’t see coming, and you couldn’t defend yourself. With a knife attack, you had a chance to run, or, if you had a gun, to shoot. As devastating as these attacks were, they were small potatoes compared to the bad old days of Oslo, where there was no security fence to keep killers and their bombs out of the country. 

The bus attack in Armon Hanatziv was another matter altogether. Two passengers stood and started stabbing and shooting. It wasn’t a bomb, but it was close. But worst of all was the news that the suspects were Israeli Arabs, residents of East Jerusalem, citizens of Israel.

I have lived in Jerusalem for 45 years. This is something new. There is a delicate fabric of life in our city, interwoven threads of Arab and Jew that exist side by side. We shop in the same malls and supermarkets, sit together on the grass in our parks, watch our children playing in the same playgrounds. Palestinian Arabs have delivered my groceries, built and renovated my homes, and been my doctors and nurses in Hadassah Hospital.

One terrorist, who plowed his car into a crowd in the center of ultra-Orthodox Malchei Israel Street in Geula, then got out of the vehicle holding a meat cleaver and started cutting the injured, had worked for the Israeli phone company Bezeq for 20 years.

I wondered if our building cleaner, an Israeli Arab, would show up for work, and if the workers putting the finishing touches on my neighbor’s apartment would show up. And I wondered how I would feel about it.

When I encountered them in the following days, the answer became clear: Stronger than any propaganda, any isolated terror attack was the routine flow of normal life. I was not really surprised that I nodded hello to our maintenance man as he mopped the lobby floor, and that he nodded and smiled. Nor was I really surprised that the noises from the sixth-floor renovation were going on as usual, the Arabs congregating in front of the building. But what had changed was how we looked at each other, warily, searching each other’s faces for confirmation that all was well, and we would be exempt from the madness. Or not.

What did surprise me was my own reaction. With little or no fear, I took a public bus into the center of Jerusalem, walked calmly down Ben Yehuda Street and turned into the nearest army surplus store.

“We are all out of tear gas,” the owner said before I opened my mouth.

“That’s OK,” I answered. “I want a knife.”

He showed me a few. I tested the blade gingerly against my palm. “Something bigger,” I told him. “Something sharper.”

I walked out with it in my purse, feeling better. As ready as I was to smile at innocent workmen, I was also ready to defend myself and my loved ones from those whose religious fervor sent them out to kill people like me and my family. I thought of every thrust: One for the Jews killed in the Holocaust. One for the Jews killed in every terror attack. And one very personal one for me and the Park Hotel.

That Shabbat, sans knife, we took our usual walk along the path built over the old Turkish railroad. Ordinarily crowded with kids on bikes and skateboards, and with families pushing baby strollers, it was practically deserted, except for a group of French tourists. One of them wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Proud of Israel.”

I was disappointed. Surely, Jerusalemites were not that easily spooked? We felt better when we reached the First Station, a lively collection of stores, cafes and play areas for children. It was slightly less crowded than usual, but still bustling with young families. Would the same be true of Liberty Bell Park, which every Saturday throbbed with Arab families and their laughing children from East Jerusalem, whose picnics of barbecuing lamb scented the air for blocks?

Unlike the First Station, it was absolutely deserted, as was the Lion’s Fountain across the street, which normally on such a warm day, would be packed with Arab families watching their kids jump in and out of the water.

We walked back to the First Station and took a bench across from the newly imported merry-go-round. Its painted horses and lively music filled the air, mingling with the laughter of children. When we got up to go, a young woman pushing a double baby carriage approached us. 

“Did you see how empty Liberty Bell Park is? Good! Why should they take over the park every Saturday? Let them be afraid to come here. This is our country. Let them stay home. They teach their children to be murderers and then they cry when they get shot trying to murder our children! They have no business here!”

An old Arab walking nearby carrying a large bundle turned around, staring daggers at her.

“Let him stare!” she said loudly. “This is my country. Mine. I’m not going anywhere!”

As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder. The merry-go-round was still turning. It went around and around and around.


Naomi Ragen is the author of nine international best-sellers. Her latest book, “The Devil in Jerusalem” (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), is based on the true story of a kabbalah cult in Jerusalem that took over the lives of innocent American olim with horrific consequences. She has lived in Jerusalem since 1971.

Do Jewish organizations alienate young Jews?


We are told that Jewish organizations have to recalibrate their messages in order to appeal to young Jews. In particular, the argument goes, the opposition of most American-Jewish organizations to the Iran nuclear agreement has solidified the alienation of most younger Jews from Jewish life in America.

In Haaretz, Peter Beinart writes

“What imprint will the fight over the Iran deal leave on organized American Jewish life? Much is still not clear. But this much is: If you thought young American Jews were alienated from their communal elders before, just wait.”

And for the Jewish Journal, Michael Berenbaum writes:

“Today, Jewish organizations, who almost uniformly opposed the deal, have a credibility problem. … Have they alienated younger Jews, more liberal Jews? Many may have to recalibrate their message if not their programs.”

Beinart agrees: “The American Jewish establishment’s response to the Iran deal is a case study in the attitudes and behaviors that have been alienating young American Jews for years.”

And why are young Jews alienated?

“A 2007 study,” Beinart writes, “… found that [young American Jews] dwelled less on memories of Jewish victimhood, like the Holocaust, than on memories of Jewish moral obligation, like civil rights and labor movements. … A 2010 study of committed younger American Jews found that ‘they see supporting the state of Israel as obligatory only insofar as the state acts in accordance with highest principles of democracy, tolerance, human rights, and Jewish ethical values as they understand them.’ And most younger American Jews don’t think this Israeli government embodies those principles.”

Berenbaum explains it similarly:

For younger American Jews, “Support for Israel came to be followed by the question: ‘What type of Israel?’ ”

So, let’s clarify all this. According to these authors and many other American Jews:

1. Most American young Jews are on the left. The Holocaust is less meaningful to them than supporting labor and civil rights organizations.

2. Most American-Jewish organizations are not left enough to attract young American Jews.

3. American-Jewish organizations (further) alienated most young American Jews by opposing the Iran deal, which was supported by virtually all Americans on the left, and opposed by conservative Americans.

4. Young American Jews will only support Israel if Israel meets their high moral criteria.

Response to No. 1: This is entirely accurate. Most young American Jews are indeed on the left. How could they not be? Virtually every idea they have been exposed to at school, on television and at the movies has been on the left. With some exceptions, the only young Jews able to withstand this indoctrination have been Orthodox.

Why have young Orthodox Jews withstood the appeal of leftism? Because they are more committed to another religion, Judaism. They get their values from the Torah more than from secular professors and liberal media.

Response to No. 2: The problem with this argument — that American-Jewish organizations are not left enough — is that it means there is almost nothing mainstream Jewish organizations can do to attract these young, secular, left-wing Jews. The majority of them couldn’t care less about anything Jewish. They already have a religion — environmentalism, feminism, egalitarianism or some other form of leftism — so Judaism holds little appeal to them. And they regard Jewish national identity — even devoid of religion — as an embarrassment. They see Black nationalism as beautiful and Palestinian nationalism as worth fighting for. But not Jewish nationalism.

Outside of Orthodoxy, the Jewish organizations most appealing to young Jews are left-wing organizations that have some Jewish identity and which criticize Israel, such as J Street. The non-Orthodox organization that makes the most significant headway with large numbers of young non-Orthodox Jews is Birthright — the program that sends young Jews to Israel for free.

Response to No. 3: The argument that opposing the Iran deal further alienates young American Jews implies that many more young Jews would identify with Jewish life were it not for the fact that nine of the 10 largest Jewish Federations in America — Los Angeles; Dallas; Houston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Atlanta and Boston — opposed the deal. (The New York Jewish Federation took no position.)

Do any Jews, whatever their position on the deal, believe this? It is hard to imagine that one in 100 nonaffiliated young Jews even knows what position the Jewish Federation of his or her city took on the Iran deal.

Response to No. 4: If it is true that young Jews will only support Israel if it meets what they consider to be their elevated moral criteria, we have raised a generation of Jews whose naiveté is only matched by their arrogance. Compared to its neighbors (as well as much of the rest of the non-Western world), Israel dwells in a different moral universe. Once again, leftism has had its intended effect.

Moreover, if Israel had elected a left-wing government, it, too, would have vigorously opposed the Iran deal. See the comments made by Isaac Herzog, Israel’s left-wing opposition leader, in The Atlantic (cited in my last column).

Young American Jews don’t support Israel because they have no emotional, let alone religious, ties to Israel. Period.

As Beinart points out:

“In 2010, when the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer compared attitudes among older, establishment American Jewish leaders to the views of those younger leaders who had created new Jewish organizations, he found that the latter were 36 points less likely to see combating threats to Israeli security as central to their Jewish identity.”

If we want young American Jews to identify as Jews and to care about Israel’s survival, we should send them on Birthright, change their politics and/or convince them the Torah has more wisdom than The New York Times and UCLA. Any one of the three usually works.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Jewish children’s choir combines the power of youth with the magic of music


It’s Sunday afternoon at the Workmen’s Circle in Pico-Robertson. A group of Orthodox women sit chatting in a back room, while, a few feet away, a father in blue jeans talks with a mother who is clearly not as traditional. In the large social hall, several dozen children — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and everything in between — sit rail-straight in their seats as Michelle Green Willner shows them some music. This is a rehearsal of the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, a pan-denominational group of children who come together each week to sing and learn about Jewish music.

For Green Willner, it’s a longtime dream that’s finally come to fruition. Growing up in Toronto, at what she describes as a “very singing shul,” Green Willner was fascinated by music from an early age. “I would come home and try and figure out the music that I was hearing at shul,” she said recently at her home in Los Angeles.

That love of music led her to pursue conducting as a student at the University of Toronto, and when she moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, she dove into the Jewish music scene. Gigs conducting the Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish choir, creating a children’s chimes choir at Yeshivat Yavneh, and writing and arranging numerous musical works brought her to the attention of Noreen Green, founder and director of the L.A. Jewish Symphony. 

“We’re not related at all! Everybody asks that question,” Green Willner said, laughing.

Green wanted Green Willner to meet with Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z’l), who was interested in starting a Jewish children’s choir. Schulweis told Green Willner that “a community that sings together, stays together,” a quote she uses to this day to motivate her choir. The Schulweis Institute, a center for Jewish learning in the San Fernando Valley, provided an initial three-year grant, and in 2011, the Jewish Community Children’s Choir was born.

“We only had eight children our first rehearsal,” Green Willner said. “It’s taken off at the Workmen’s Circle.” Rehearsals regularly draw dozens of children, ages 8-13, from places as diverse as Harkham Hillel, VBS, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sinai Temple and a host of yeshivot.

“I think everybody’s getting something out of this,” Green Willner said. “We’re all coming for the same reason, we’re all rooting for our children. We all want the best for our children. We want the best education. … No matter where they come from, they all want to learn Torah values, and they want their children to see it in action.”

Green Willner is proud of how the kids interact — children from vastly different backgrounds working together, having fun and singing with joy. She described sitting in the audience at one of the choir’s concerts and watching that synergy in action. “I was sitting behind the children … and they had done some prayers for the soldiers, and one Orthodox boy was sitting next to another boy and answered, ‘Amen,’ and I noticed the other boy look at him, smile and go, ‘Amen.’ ”

The children have performed at venues around the city, from synagogues to the Museum of Tolerance to Israel festivals. According to Green Willner, they’ve enjoyed a very warm reception.  

“One of the parents brought an older man to the rehearsal,” Green Willner recalled. “He was sitting on the side while we were practicing … and after we finished one of the pieces, he came over to me. … He was so overwhelmed, he took out his credit card and said, ‘Here, take whatever you need for the choir.’ I said to him, ‘No I can’t take your credit card, but would you do me the honor of, during the break, telling us a little about [yourself].’ ” It turns out the man, Leslie Klein, was a Holocaust survivor. 

“He told the children, and started in tears, of how listening to the kids singing reminded him of his sister, who sang in the choir before his sister and parents perished in the Holocaust,” Green Willner said.

The experience also has been moving for the children. “There’s one little girl in the choir who, after every concert, makes me little cards,” Green Willner said. “I get amazing emails from parents.”

She’s particularly proud when she sees children gain confidence through singing. Green Willner described another young girl, who “was so shy, she would not leave her mom’s side. Now she’s my strongest, loudest singer.”

Green Willner hopes that with more exposure, the choir will gain even more participants. “I’d love it to grow and grow and grow,” she said. “I’d love the level of music making to increase and be heightened.

“Their potential is phenomenal, and their ears are phenomenal. … I think it can become even more than it is. It’s brought me a lot of joy,” she continued. “I go in sometimes on Sunday, like we all do when we’re tired from the whole week … and I come out thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ ”

Murder at Jerusalem gay parade triggers introspection and accusation


In the aftermath of the stabbing attack at last week’s Jerusalem Gay Pride parade that left a 16-year old Shiri Banki dead and five other marchers wounded, Israelis find themselves embroiled in an intense debate, the heart of which is the degree to which society is responsible for the actions of its individuals.  

One side of the debate sees the attacker, Yishai Schlissel, as a crazed lone wolf: the only individual to have acted violently towards the LGBT community in years, and therefore not representative of the wider ultra-Orthodox population of which he is part. Others argue that assailant Schlissel is a natural result of the homophobic rhetoric used by certain political and religious leaders which masquerades as religious discourse. So ingrained in Schlissel is his anti-gay vitriol that only weeks after his release from a ten-year jail sentence for stabbing spectators at the same parade in 2004, he repeated his act with lethal precision.

 “This individual (Schlissel), he is not detached from the society that we live in… you cannot detach what people are saying from what people will do in the end,” Tom Canning, director of development at the Open House LGBT community center in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. Canning was careful to say that he did not lay the blame on the Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox society as a whole, but on certain rabbis and community leaders whose words encourage violence. “I think that they are directly linked. Even after the attack by Schlissel there has been graffiti praising him and there have been protests praising him and taunting the (LGBT) community.”

Although Jerusalem is generally considered to be a safe city for the LGBT community, that assumption is beginning to be questioned following Banki’s death, Canning said. “Specifically after this attack we are worried about Lehava activists… and also copycats that might want to repeat what Yishai Schlissel did,” he said referring to the far-right wing nationalist organization that seeks to prevent Jewish women from dating non-Jews, particularly Arabs. The group was linked to the firebombing of a Hebrew-Arabic high school in November of last year and prior to the Gay Pride event announced that its members would demonstrate against the parade.  

Canning pointed to comments by parliamentarian Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the “Jewish Home” party, who once tried to lead a procession of donkeys through Jerusalem as a “parade of beasts” protest against the Gay Pride event, as an example of the arguably dangerous rhetoric made by some opinion leaders. Smotrich has been criticized for comments he made recently accusing leftwing and LGBT activists of conducting a witch hunt against any individuals who disagree with same-sex marriage.

Schlissel’s attack has left the ultra-Orthodox community in a troubled position, balancing its wish to denounce violence against maintaining its opposition to the Gay Pride parade. Dov Lipman, a member of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community and former lawmaker — albeit with the secular Yesh Atid party — told The Media Line, “There is confusion because this is one person in the last ten years who has attacked a gay parade twice – it is not a policy that is part of the community.” According to Lipman, “Some soul searching is going on where there is a recognition that using some terminology without an intent to lead to violence can lead to violence.”

The lack of vocal condemnation of Schlissel’s actions by ultra-Orthodox leaders should not be misunderstood as support for the attack, Lipman said. Although many people sympathized with the perpetrator’s beliefs, there has been no indication that there is support among the community for his use of violence, Lipman said. He explained that the problem is that homosexuality is such a taboo subject among the ultra-Orthodox that many rabbis are simply choosing not to talk about the subject.

Lipman believes that this refusal to even acknowledge homosexuality is changing slightly with the emergence of a younger generation of rabbis – a generation which is accepting that as in all societies some, ultra-Orthodox people were likely to be homosexual, and that by hiding from the fact other issues such as child abuse were occurring.

Part of the problem with trying to identify how prevalent violence towards the LGBT community is, is the fact that Israel does not compile complete statistics on hate-crimes. If a person assaults their neighbor and then sprays homophobic graffiti on the front of their house, this is not recorded as a hate crime, but simply as an assault stemming from a dispute between neighbors, Ayala Katz, whose gay son was shot dead in 2009, told The Media Line. In response to this lack of information, the Nir Katz Center, named after Ayala’s son who died in an attack on a Tel Aviv LGBT youth center, was founded with the aim to collect statistics on hate crimes against LGBT people.

When asked about attacks on LGBT people Luba Samri, a spokesperson for the Israeli Police, said that no specific unit was tasked with dealing with hate crimes directed towards homosexuals. Specialist taskforces are put together on an ad-hoc basis when an investigation into a serious crime is launched, she said.

“Politicians have a great responsibility and their statements have impact,” Michal Rozin, a member of Knesset (parliament) of the Meretz Party, told The Media Line. “While those who commit hate crimes are extremists from the fringes of society, these margins thrive in the discourse of hatred and exclusion of the other. Words have power, and it is important that Israeli politicians learn that lesson,” Rozin said, asserting that, “In order to prevent more Schlissels from developing, it is necessary to improve dialogue and encourage pluralism in society.”

By way of example, Rozin pointed to a scene she had witnessed in Jerusalem’s Zion Square in the days after Banki’s death. While a group of young people sat shiva – the traditional Jewish seven days of mourning — for the sixteen year old, some teens approached the gathering and cursed the mourners for being homosexual, “Like they haven't learned a thing.”

Father’s Day: The allure of fishing


My father and I were fishing a snowmelt lake in the High Sierra, and I was on the shore, deciding whether I should throw back the little trout I’d just caught. 

It was something my father and I had always wanted.

We had vacationed in the woods every summer since I was 3 years old, fishing in lakes accompanied by pine shade and a place to doze off. We weren’t as avid as the anglers who wore rubber waders and inner tubes and treaded into the middle of the lake where the big fish were, but we fantasized about catching a native trout, a breed natural to the lakes, something truly American. 

It was our 23rd summer in the woods. and we had only ever caught rainbow trout, the descendants of hatcheries. Although technically native to the West Coast, rainbows are now spawned in warehouses and reintroduced into lakes and streams to support the region’s sport-fishing economy. My father and I wanted to catch a brown, brook or golden trout, species that, although native to the Sierras, are rare catches. It would be a trophy whatever its size, though we would never have it mounted. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads.

We daydreamed about what it would taste like with slivered almonds and pats of butter. 

We were doing well this particular day, so well in fact that we didn’t have time to net every fish. We stood a few yards apart, reeling in rainbows simultaneously and yelling for the net only when we thought we’d hooked a big one. It was drizzling, and the fish thought each droplet was a resting fly. I pulled in a pan-sized one and gently flung it onto the dry shore, watching it bend and flop in the pumice (local fishermen call this technique “corndogging”). I unhooked it and washed it in the water’s edge, expecting a familiar rainbow flank, but instead found mottled gold with blooms of scarlet. Twisting, it gave me a sidelong glance, as if to size up someone who can’t see what’s right in front of them. 

I knew that, like a rainbow, this too was a trout. My father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and although he has become less observant, he instilled in me the most important philosophy of kashrut: that an animal should not feel the pain of its own death. He would never try hunting, but he also knew fishing was different: There are no rules in the Torah regarding the killing and eating of scaled fish. Thus my father, a thoughtful doctor, learned the sport and shared it with me, his only child. It has long been, and probably always will be, one of my favorite activities. 

On this particular day, however, I found myself regretting my cast. I was holding a thing that needed mercy. Although catching native trout was legal in that lake, I knew that this thing, whatever its species, was one of the last of its kind. I didn’t want my father to suffer the dissonance I was feeling, of choosing between a dream and a feeling, though I know he would have chosen the latter. 

I guided the fish’s snout into the water and felt it sidle out of my hands. 

My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads. My grandfather was a Polish Jew who charged Nazi tanks on his horse. He married my grandmother in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The war was raging, the shtetls were gone. No ligaments tied the couple to the bone. They chose Brooklyn. My bubbe worked a cash register, and my zayde sewed, though he was not a tailor; he made clothes in a room with no windows, but always wore a suit and tie. He took my father to Fourth of July and union parades, and although he didn’t have the time or the means to take his kids on vacations in the woods, he wanted his sons to know that he was equal parts Jewish and American. Although he wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver, he strived to be what he believed was the “all-American dad.” 

My father had been a bookish and queasy kid, but he eventually taught himself to love fishing, camping, wrestling and grilling. He wanted to be the father his father had wanted to be. I now realize that their concept of American fatherhood had something to do with self-reliance, with teaching one’s children that the world was truly theirs. My father and I devoted our summers to the High Sierra, listening to bluegrass and finding bliss in the glacial sting of early mountain mornings. He cleaned the trout himself, slicing open the fish bellies and scooping out their innards with his bare hands. He reminded me that, not too long ago, humans survived this way, and that I should know where my food comes from.

Once, he found a sac of orange caviar inside a female trout. The eggs slid out of his hands and popped and frothed down the drain. With his eyebrows furrowed, he wrapped the fish in foil and put it in the freezer, separate from the rest. He had to lie down and listen to the pines creak in the late afternoon. 

My father could never separate the self from the act. If American fatherhood is about self-reliance, Jewish fatherhood is about reliance of the self, of teaching one’s kids to remember that feelings, not dreams, make a successful person.

Design a tallit as unique as they are


Prayer shawls, or tallitot, have long been an important part of Jewish ritual tradition. Although the date of their first appearance is unknown, Torah dictates that we wear fringes (tzitzit) on the four corners of a garment (Numbers 15:37-41) to remind us of God’s commandments. Traditionally, tallitot were worn only by men and there was not much variation in design and color — they were white or off-white, with black or blue stripes. 

Since the 1970s, however, many women in non-Orthodox communities have been choosing to wear tallitot, and liberal shuls that had for many years shunned the practice for men now embrace it. As the donning of tallitot has become more widespread, the variety also has increased: Tallitot are available in a wide array of colors and designs, incorporating everything from historic themes to pop culture. Today, a quick Internet search yields thousands of purveyors of handmade and custom prayer shawls. 

Cathy Perlmutter, 58, has been quilting for 22 years and making tallitot, along with other Judaica items, for 15 years.

“I came to [tallitot] through quilting,” said the Pasadena resident, who works from her home sewing room. “I learned sewing in home economics in middle school, [but] I didn’t do it for years. I learned about quilting and got addicted. Then, I discovered [fabric with images of matzah on it]. … I started getting very interested in making Judaica.” 

The inspiration for creating tallitot came when she ran across a fabric she loved.

“I went into this fabric store and saw this beautiful striped fabric … and I thought, ‘This is a tallis.’ So, I made a tallis for myself.” Later, when it came time for her son’s bar mitzvah, she decided to make one for him.

“My son was very interested in science and space,” Perlmutter said. “He wanted the Hubble Space Telescope photo, so I put Hubble photos on it. I did a piecing of a cosmos and a quote from his Torah portion.”

Charles Harris surprised his son, Jason, who had his bar mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino last August, with a custom rock ‘n’ roll tallit. After looking around and not finding what he wanted, Harris searched online for custom tallitot and came across Perlmutter’s website (judaiquilt.com).

“I knew I wanted something that was unique and was a reflection of Jason and his interests,” the Tarzana resident said. “He is a talented musician, and he’s really into rock ‘n’ roll. We both share a love of the Beatles and the Who and the Rolling Stones. He’s infatuated with guitars. I wanted something that reflects his favorite things.”

Unable to find a suitable music-themed tallit, Harris decided to look into having one made. “I emailed Cathy and told her what I was thinking. 

“What we ended up creating is unique,” Harris said. “It’s absolutely one of a kind and it’s personal. It reflects my son and what he’s all about. And I hope it’s something he’ll have for his entire life and pass on to his own kids one day,” said Harris, who still has his own tallit from his bar mitzvah.

“It’s absolutely one of a kind … And I hope it’s something he’ll have for his entire life and pass on to his own kids one day.” — Charles Harris, father

Perlmutter said it takes her anywhere from a few days to more than a month to create a tallit. Every step of the process is customized according to what the person wants, from the length and width of the tallit to the type of fabric, designs and colors. She also makes matching bags for each tallit and considers them an extension of her artwork. Prices for her custom tallitot start at $400.

“I draw mock-ups and I draw sketches, which I send back and forth in emails,” Perlmutter said. “I want to get as much input as I can. I want them to be happy.

“It’s a tremendous privilege and a mitzvah,” she said about designing custom tallitot. “A bar or bat mitzvah is a huge, meaningful event in a family’s life. It’s so fun to get a sense of who the kid is, who the parents are, how he or she relates to their Jewish heritage, what they’re thinking about at 13. It’s just a super amount of fun.”

Linda Rourman, 66, made her first tallit 20 years ago. Three years later, she went into business after people at her temple, the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), saw her wearing her creation. 

The inspiration for her personal designs comes from the Torah and, for custom tallitot, from whatever customers want. 

“One of the first samples I made was made out of a cocoa-colored, silk burlap. [For] the atarah [a decorative neckband sewn along the top of the tallit], I made a long, burning bush and at the end of it in small letters to the right said, ‘Hineni,’ which Moses said when God called to him.

“Another one of the samples I made I called ‘B’reishit,’ because I made it a patchwork of when God created the heavens and the stars, the sea and the dry land.” 

Custom designs are carefully planned out, with Rourman drawing pictures of the ideas people give her. All of the embroidery, including names and dates as well as most of the photos, is done by hand, except for machine applique. Rourman’s matching tallit bags are lined and have a zipper closure.

Aside from designing new tallitot, Rourman also restores and repairs old tallitot, and she can incorporate family heirlooms into a new tallit. One of her first “historical” tallitot took seven months to complete, though she asks for six weeks’ notice for most orders.

Prices begin at $150 for cotton and $185 for silk, with total price averaging from $250 to $550 based on complexity of the piece. 

Smadar Knobler, who is in her mid-’60s, was born in Israel and moved to California with her family as a teenager. She has been creating tallitot for 30 years, starting with the one she made for her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“I wove it on a loom,” Knobler said. “After that, my tallitot were painted.

“Weaving is a lot simpler. The nature of the weave has beautiful patterns. But you cannot get as elaborate as you can with painting,” she added.

After taking a workshop for silk painting, Knobler said, she was hooked. 

“I bought my first little kit and went home and painted and painted on silk.”

She paints on a variety of silk fabrics, using textile or silk paints. She also teaches silk painting from her workshop in Calabasas.

For people who want a hands-on experience creating their tallitot, Knobler said, “People order and design [the tallit] with me. Sometimes, if they really like to paint, they can paint with me. … It’s a long process. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s something I like to share with people.

“We start with their ideas of what they’d like to see on a tallit,” she said. “[It can be] something special from their lives, something unique that they wouldn’t see anywhere else, and they show me either pictures or I draw for them what I think that they mean by a custom tallit. I show them different kinds of fabrics and different fringes that they can use.” 

For those unsure about what they want, Knobler shows them photos of her previous work, which includes traditional designs such as the Tree of Life and depictions of Jerusalem or Noah’s Ark, as well as more modern designs such as a rainforest or trumpets and saxophones. Some of these designs also can be seen on her website (smadarsdesigns.com). 

Knobler makes matching tallit bags and also can paint a matching design on a silk kippah. Her prices range from $400 to $600 and the process takes about four to six weeks. And when the time comes for the tzitzit, the family can experience tying them together.

“People feel really good in having a say about what they’re going to be wearing and enjoying,” Knobler said.

Father says 7 children who died in NYC fire were ‘so pure’


The father of seven Orthodox Jewish children killed in a Brooklyn house fire told hundreds of mourners at their funeral on Sunday that the only way he can survive the tragedy was “complete, utter and total surrender” to his religious beliefs.

The grieving man, Gabriel Sassoon, spoke at a packed funeral chapel where white curtains separated hundreds of men wearing black hats and yarmulkes from women in modest dress.

His eulogy for the seven children, ages 5 to 16, was broadcast to an even bigger crowd outside. Many of the mourners rocked back and forth in reverence as he spoke.

“My children, they were so pure,” said Sassoon, looking at the seven small, wooden coffins at the Shomrei Hadas Chapels. The coffins were to be loaded into seven hearses headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport, then flown to Israel for burial.

Only an eighth child, 15-year-old Siporah, and Sassoon's wife, Gayle Sassoon, 45, survived the blaze, which the Fire Department blamed on a malfunctioning hot plate that observant Jews use to heat food without violating the Sabbath rules. Both are hospitalized in critical condition.

“I don't know how I could have everything and now I have nothing,” said Sassoon, who was at a religious conference when the flames broke out at his home around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday.

“There's only one way to survive this: It's complete, utter and total surrender,” he wailed.

Around the corner from the charred home, the Fire Department handed out pamphlets titled “Fire Safety for Jewish Observances” as well as smoke alarms and batteries.

Orthodox Jews closely adhere to strict rules that define rest and work on the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Prohibitions include turning on and off electric appliances, said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the heavily Jewish district.

“A lot of people use these hot plates to keep food warm for the next day,” Hikind said. “They put them on Friday and they are left on for the entire Sabbath, 25 hours.”

An online version of the Fire Department pamphlet about dangers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays tops the list with the warning: “Stay in the kitchen – don't leave cooking food unattended.”

Hikind said he uses a water-filled urn that he heats up before the Sabbath starts.

“I called my own daughter, who has six kids, to tell her to stop using that hot plate,” he said.

It was the city's fourth deadly fire in 15 years sparked by hot plates or use of ritual candles, according to the Jewish Forward newspaper, including a 2000 fire in Williamsburg that killed the granddaugther of the Satmar Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum and her 5-month old baby.

Hikind said that scam artists immediately launched a phony fundraising scheme in the Sassoon family's name, and he warned followers on Twitter not to contribute.

“People's heart aches – Jew and non-Jew alike. They want to help. We don't want you to waste your money,” he later told Reuters.

Although smoke alarms are required on every floor of a home, according to a Fire Department spokesman, the New York Times reported the Sassoon home only had a smoke alarm in the basement.

The Fire Department did not immediately respond to questions about the home's smoke alarms or about previous deadly fires tied to religious observances

Brooklyn house fire kills 7 from Orthodox Jewish family


Seven children from an Orthodox Jewish family died early on Saturday when flames ripped through their Brooklyn home in one of New York City's deadliest fires in years, officials said.

Their 45-year-old mother and a teenage sister survived after jumping from an upper floor. The two were taken to a local hospital and were in critical condition, New York Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella said.

The blaze erupted in the single-family dwelling around 12:30 a.m. It apparently was started accidentally by a hot plate, used by many Orthodox families to warm food on the Sabbath, said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

It was the highest death toll in a fire in the city in seven years, Nigro said.

“This is an unbelievable tragedy,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters after seeing the devastation at the site of the blaze. “Every New Yorker is feeling this pain right now.”

De Blasio described the interior of the house, located in Brooklyn's middle-class Midwood neighborhood, as completely charred.

“You can literally see what was a home for a large and strong family and now it is wiped out, every room empty and burned,” he said.

De Blasio asked for the surrounding community to support the family's grieving father, who was apparently away for a conference overnight.

Responding to reports of flames inside the home, firefighters forced their way in and extinguished the fire, which had started in the kitchen, Nigro said. They then found the children, aged 5 to 16, in their bedrooms near the back of the home, he said, after the mother and another daughter jumped.

“I heard the mother yelling, 'My kids are in there! My kids are in there! Get them out! Get them out!'” neighbor Nate Weber told the New York Daily News. “The mother was outside. She was burned.”

Police have identified the children who died as Yaakob Sassoon, 5, Sara, 6, Moshe, 8, Yeshua, 10, Rivkah, 11, David, 12, and Eliane, 16. Authorities initially said the oldest child was 15 years old.

More than 100 firefighters turned out to battle the blaze and brought it under control within an hour, Parrella said.

Midwood has a large population of Orthodox Jewish residents. Nigro said the hot plate was likely left switched on because of religious restrictions on lighting fires during the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday.

At a breaking point in Turkey: Should Jews stay or should we go?


The gold and gray city of Istanbul spent Valentine’s Day bracing for snow. Under angry clouds, Turkish couples huddled around tabletops in the cafe quarter of Ortakoy, a historically posh neighborhood along the Bosphorus Strait. Jewelry-makers had set up stands along the alleyways to sell gleaming valentine trinkets. Crowning the scene — visible from nearly every spot in the neighborhood — were the ornate minarets of the Ortakoy Mosque, one of the city’s proudest monuments. When the mosque’s loudspeakers blasted a Saturday morning call to prayer throughout Ortakoy, all cafe chatter paused for a moment; one got the feeling its holy vibrations could split ice.

If any of Ortakoy’s lovers noticed the line of well-dressed men and women who, meanwhile, were ducking through a miniature green door in a stone wall on the quarter’s edge — just across from the Shakespeare Cafe and Bar — they didn’t let it show. 

A guard at the green door checked IDs before ushering those men and women into a dark, airtight hallway. A keypad on the wall inside unlocked a second armored gate.

A small, armored door at the edge of Istanbul's Ortakoy neighborhood leads to a hidden synagogue.

Beyond the high-security passageway, the group entered a separate world invisible to neighbors — a grand courtyard and synagogue painted a fresh, Mediterannean white and dotted with stained-glass Stars of David. Inside the shul, Ortakoy’s resident rabbi, Nafi Haleva, belted the week’s Shabbat sermon in Turkish, tailoring it to the Western holiday that had captured Istanbul’s consciousness. 

“We’re not against Valentine’s Day,” the rabbi told the 100 or so Turkish Jews in attendance, seated separately by gender, as required by Turkey’s Orthodox rabbinate. “But it can’t just be one day of gifts.”

Haleva spoke on lasting love and marriage and the roles of a Jewish man and wife. “Women are superior to men,” he said. “Women and men have to be the same, so men have to study the Torah.”

Seated in the front row of the women’s balcony was a special guest: Amira Oron, 48, the newly appointed chargé d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. Oron is the latest diplomat to stand in for a true Israeli ambassador since the position was recalled in 2010 following the infamous Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in which Israeli soldiers attacked a Turkish aid and activist ship heading toward Gaza, killing 10.

Oron had traveled hundreds of miles Feb. 14 to spend Shabbat in Istanbul — no doubt to mingle as much as to pray — and, looking poised in a pretty scarf and pixie cut, she listened patiently to the sermon, though she couldn’t understand the parts in Turkish.

The rest of the crowd was less attentive. Friends whispered noisily; children monkeyed across empty chairs. Men in robes at the front of the shul had to constantly shush the congregation back to attention.

“The new generation in Turkey doesn’t know anything about Judaism,” Abraham Haim, an Israeli-Turkish rabbi who makes biweekly trips to Istanbul, would later tell the Journal. “In Tel Aviv, you can take someone from Dizengoff Street, and he’s ultra-Orthodox by comparison.”

When the Torah had been tucked back into its cupboard, Ortakoy’s Jews spilled gratefully into their synagogue’s leafy courtyard. They picked from heaps of Turkish pastries, fruits and cheeses laid out on banquet tables. A few also indulged in a late-morning glass of raki — Turkey’s national anise spirit, served with a splash of cold water. Warmed by all those bodies and the breath from their conversation, Ortakoy’s sealed-off synagogue complex felt at least a few degrees more welcoming than the outside world. 

Denis Ojalvo, 64, a stout Turkish-Jewish businessman who lives in the hills above the synagogue, chose to skip Shabbat services Feb. 14. (“I’m more of a cultural Jew,” he explained.) Ojalvo instead waited along Ortakoy’s shoreline, in the glacial breeze that was whipping off the Bosphorous, for services to end — and for a close friend and a reporter to emerge through the green door and join him for an afternoon chat.

Ojalvo chose a restaurant so far down on the docks, it behaved like a houseboat. He ordered hot salep, a Turkish drink made from rosewater and ground orchid tubers. As he sipped, a Chinese freighter chugged by; the view felt huge, historic.

“You see how nice?” Ojalvo asked. “Can you leave such a country?”

A few nights earlier, though, speaking in his friend’s living room, Ojalvo described the dark isolation he often felt living as a Jew in Turkey. “Here, you are like somebody who watches,” he said. “You are not in the stream. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, here, we live in a Muslim country, and we are somehow second-class citizens.

“I mean, we have rights,” he continued. “But we are unable to take real advantage of those rights because we feel like we are under a … glass ceiling.” 

‘Hope is fading’

Turkish Jews often speak of the warm welcome the Ottoman Empire gave their ancestors when they were expelled from Spain some 500 years ago. But in the century since the strict secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern-day Turkey, Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities have been subject to waves of severe discrimination — in terms of property rights, freedom of language and education, upward mobility and more. “Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire [in the 1920s], the transformation to a nation-state created a dynamic where non-Muslims were not welcome and couldn’t fit into this model of Turkish nationalism,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and Middle East analyst who splits his time among the U.S., Israel and Turkey.

When the Republican People’s Party (CHP) passed a discriminatory “wealth tax” in 1942, about 30,000 Jews reportedly fled the country. The creation of the State of Israel a few years later encouraged tens of thousands more to leave, and anti-Semitic riots and attacks in the following decades drew out the trend.

Today, only about 17,000 Jews live in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul — a sad sliver of the 500,000 welcomed from Spain by
Ottoman rulers and the 200,000 that remained at the turn of the 20th century.

Their numbers continue to shrink. Although no one is keeping an official tally of annual departures, community members estimated that their net loss is now up to 300 people per year, in large part because more Jews are dying than are being born.

Nearly 40 percent of the community’s college-aged demographic chose to study abroad last year — a figure twice as high as the year prior. 

“Since this summer, there has been more and more talking in the community about living in another country, mostly between the young Jews,” said 31-year-old Mois Gabay, who writes for Salom, Turkey’s Jewish newspaper. M. Namer, a 33-year-old Istanbul entrepreneur active in the Turkish Union of Jewish Students, said in meetings, “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ ”

Both young men said economic opportunities abroad — coupled with the difficulty of starting a Jewish family in Turkey — are helping drive migration. “One issue is finding a partner, the other is feeling comfortable about your future,” Namer said.

Pervasive anti-Semitism in the public sphere also has played an undeniable role.

A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) last year showed that around 70 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. A grand majority of the respondents believed Turkish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Turkey, that Jews have “too much power in the business world” and that Jews “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

“Most Turkish people will never ever meet a Jew in their life,” Fishman said. “That’s where their conspiracy theories can really take hold.”

In September, a cellphone store in downtown Istanbul hung a sign in its window that read, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” In November, unknown activists posted a mock demolition notice on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

In December, 31-year-old Sabay wrote in an op-ed for Salom: “We face threats, attacks and harassment every day. Hope is fading. Is it necessary for a ‘Hrant among us’,” he asked, referring to Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, “to be shot in order for the government, the opposition, civil society, our neighbors and jurists to see this?”

Various other members of the Jewish-Turkish community told the Journal that within the past decade, and especially the past few years, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from Turkish politicians and media personalities has become so constant and overblown — and vague in its distinction between Israelis and Jews — that they no longer feel comfortable in their home country.

“It’s so flagrant, it’s so visible, and we are not idiots,” Ojalvo said. “We can see it. We can feel it.”

Ojalvo is the rare member of the community who keeps close tabs on these remarks and criticizes them publicly: He writes an occasional column for ŞSalom, and leaves lengthy comments on anti-Semitic articles in pro-government papers he reads on the Internet. Sometimes he contacts the authors directly. 

“I don’t care; I say my name,” he told the Journal. “I don’t believe in anonymous people shooting from behind a wall.”

But among his peers, Ojalvo is the exception.

For 10 days in February, this reporter traveled between Istanbul and Ankara in search of rage and panic among the country’s remaining Jews. What was there instead was a profound and private sadness — one that Turkey’s last Jews dutifully carry among themselves but were hesitant to share with an outsider.

Most members of the Jewish-Turkish community contacted by the Journal did not wish to talk to the press. “We have enough people trying to exploit us,” one man wrote in an email, suggesting the Journal visit France instead. Another expressed frustration that foreign Jewish organizations such as the ADL have gotten involved in their affairs and subjected them to added danger.

Most community members who did agree to be interviewed didn’t want their names in print. They gave various reasons for this: A few said they didn’t want to stir internal drama within Istanbul’s tight-knit Jewish circle; others said they’d rather stay off the government’s radar.

“I don’t want to think I should be afraid,” a 55-year-old Jewish-Turkish textile manufacturer said, “but maybe I should.”

The man’s son and daughter, both in their 20s, are currently living abroad. “Young people at that age, they study in U.S. or in Israel, and many of them don’t come back,” he said. “As [the population] goes down, people are moving faster. The youth have less chance of meeting each other. Nowadays, it’s much easier to go to the States for studies, and they find good jobs, and they stay for two years, three years, 10 years — and then they just stay.”

In Bursa, an old green building across from Turkey's oldest synagogue was once the site of a thriving Jewish school.

‘Good luck’

A report published last year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, a Turkish nonprofit tracking anti-democratic sentiment in the media, showed that during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza last year, a full half of media reports were flagged for “hate speech” specifically targeted Jews — up from around 25 percent in 2012. 

The foundation found that when discussing the war, pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Akit and Milli Gazete often used the words “Jews” or “Israelis” in place of “State of Israel” or “Israel Defense Forces.”

Just last year, in the span of a few months, Yeni Akit, the conservative and Islamist newspaper closely aligned with Turkey’s ruling political party, ran: 1) a column demanding Turkish Jews to publicly condemn Israel for its assault on Gaza or risk facing a pogrom like those against Greeks in the 1950s; 2) a crossword-style puzzle linking a portrait of Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you”; 3) an op-ed calling on Turkey’s Jews to be taxed for Gaza reconstruction; and 4) a headline blaming a deadly mine collapse in Turkey’s Soma province on the mine owner’s Jewish ties.

Burak Bekdil, a non-Jewish journalist and restaurant owner in Turkey who often reports on injustices against minorities for the left-wing Hurriyet Daily News, told the Journal: “For the government or for the average Turk, when I write the same things about [minorities such as] Alevis or Christians, they say, ‘You’re a stupid liberal.’ But if it’s about Jews, I’m a Zionist.”

Bekdil said that in the 12 years since the Justice and Development Party (known locally as AK Parti or AKP) came into power, he has watched anti-Semitic rhetoric edge into the mainstream.

Bekdil spoke to the Journal over a bottle of red wine in his Ankara restaurant, which he modeled after taverns on the Greek island where he now spends six months of every year laying low. Just before the AKP took parliament, Bekdil was handed an 18-month suspended prison term by Turkey’s then-powerful court system for “insulting the judiciary.” Although he has yet to be arrested by the AKP, the fear is always with him.

Bekdil said that compared to past decades, “This is a more dangerous thing that we go through today,” because all state power is in one set of hands: the AKP’s.

None of the myriad AKP politicians and pro-AKP newspaper columnists responded to emails and voicemails from the Journal requesting comment — with one exception.

Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, invited the Journal to his stately office, located on a top floor of the new AKP skyscraper in Ankara, for a face-to-face interview. From the window in his hallway, visitors have a grand view of the president’s new, 3-million-square-foot palace.

“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey,” Aktay told the Journal over Turkish tea and chocolates. “And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”

Aktay stressed his party has in many ways improved life for Turkey’s minorities since taking power of parliament in 2002 with a sweeping two-thirds majority.


“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey. And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”
— Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, Turkey's ruling party

For example, Aktay said, the AKP recently returned $2 billon in previously confiscated property to minority groups. “We are proud of this — and nobody can criticize us compared with the past,” Aktay said. “[Some say] we took steps backward. Just on the contrary: In all aspects, in all domains, in all feats, we advanced.”

The Turkish public’s sense of security at street level, too, is at a significant high. The AKP has managed to stave off another of the country’s infamous military coups, and has overseen an ebbing in the mass-casualty terror attacks that roiled Turkey in the early 2000s (including two horrific bombings outside Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues in 2003, in which 27 were killed and hundreds injured).

Many Turkish Jews who spoke to the Journal agreed with Aktay on this point. “We might not like [AKP] views, but stability is good, and there is no terror on the streets,” said the 55-year-old Turkish-Jewish textile maker and father who wished to remain anonymous.

However, to maintain this stability and to ensure the AKP’s own lasting power, party leaders, in the eyes of many, also have begun transforming Turkey from a true democracy into a shadowy police state. Party insiders told the Journal they’ve watched the AKP’s founding promise of nationwide reform slowly melt under the ambitions of one man: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

New Turkey

Since rising from a small-town football star to mayor of Istanbul to Turkish prime minister and now president, Erdoganğhas earned a reputation among his adversaries as an aspiring “sultan” of his own Ottoman Empire.

Or, as he calls it, New Turkey.

More journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2012 and 2013 than in any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdoganğhas repeatedly blocked civilian access to sites such as Twitter and YouTube whenever he’s felt threatened by anti-AKP content. Dozens of anti-government rioters have been killed and thousands more injured by police under Erdogan’s watch. And now, a new “internal security” bill — currently making its way through parliament piece by piece — will give police the right to detain citizens “incommunicado” for 48 hours without a court-issued warrant, among a slew of other powers.

Erdogan also has achieved global fame for his increasingly wild rhetoric — which he more often than not aims at the nearby Jewish State of Israel, once a strong military ally.

“They curse Hitler day and night, but they have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” Erdogan said of Israel at a July campaign rally. On a Latin American tour in February, the Turkish media reported him as saying: “As long as Israeli oppression and Israeli terror continue, the bleeding in the Middle East and the entire human conscience will never stop.”

Aktay insisted that his party’s anger is directed at Israel and Zionism, not Jews. 

“I am criticizing Israel because I am suffering from Zionism,” Aktay said. “I will safely and comfortably criticize jihadism. What is jihadism, and what is Zionism? In some terms, Zionism is the equivalent of jihadism. If jihadism is not good, why is Zionism good? And Zionism … really, it is murder.”

Can Özgön, head of the 30-person Jewish community in Ankara, Turkey, holds the only key to his childhood synagogue, now almost completely out of use.

Anti-Semitic social-media activity by AKP members drew global ire during the war in Gaza. Notably, Ankara mayor and AKP member Melih Gökçek, who has amassed almost 2.5 million followers on Twitter, responded, “I applaud you!” to a Turkish singer who declared, “May God bless Hitler.”

The local Jewish community also was shocked when, at a Holocaust Memorial Day event Jan. 27 in Ankara, parliament speaker Cemil Çiçek went off script to scold Israel for, among other crimes, committing a modern Holocaust in Gaza. 

Karel Valansi, a political columnist and former world news editor at Şalom newspaper, witnessed the speech. She wrote: “Don’t we have 364 other days and other platforms to discuss and try to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East, Gaza, Israel, Palestine and the Mavi Marmara incident that torpedoed Turkish-Israeli relations?” Meanwhile, on the same day in Prague, following a roundtable discussion with 30 parliamentary speakers from European countries, Turkey was the sole country that refused to sign a joint declaration demanding “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”

Presented with these examples, Aktay called them justified emotional responses to seeing “2,300 civilian people” killed by Israel. 

“All these reactions come after Israel killed the children in the beach,” he said, raising his voice. “They kill children. They are committing crimes against humanity.”

Asked whether Turkey has a responsibility to make its own Jewish population feel safe despite Israel’s actions, he said: “Actually, we are the guarantee of their life. And there is no problem about that. … The problem of anti-Islamism is more real. The problem of anti-Semitism is not real. Even in Turkey, there is none. It comes out as some reactions to [Israeli crimes].”

Aktay blamed Israel for the sense of insecurity among Turkish Jews.

“The policy of Israel is putting the Jewish people in danger everywhere,” he said. “That is a sort of provocation, and it puts the uninvolved Jewish people in danger because Jewish people become targets. Hopefully not in Turkey, of course. But nobody can protect them afterward.”

Aktay told the Journal that as long as Israel is oppressing Palestinians, the AKP will stay in attack mode. 

“When a city is being kept under a siege like a concentration camp, it is not different than the Holocaust,” Aktay said. “Someone should criticize very loudly, and we don’t see anybody [do this] out of Turkey. We are proud in the Turkish role in this — somebody should of course articulate the voice of justice.”

‘Words can be dangerous’

According to left-wing Turkish journalist Bekdil, anti-Israel rhetoric is an easy “vote catcher” in Turkey. “At AKP rallies, there are two flags — one Turkish, one Palestinian,” he said. “It’s not just Turkish Islamism. Even the Turkish left wing feels connected.”

But as Erdogan has swept the popular vote, he has simultaneously alienated many of the country’s secularists, intellectuals and free thinkers — including the last of Turkey’s Jews.

In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of young Turks flocked to Istanbul’s central Gezi Park to save it from Erdogan’s development plans, the riots soon grew into a larger, symbolic fight against the AKP’s authoritarian and Islamist grip on Turkish life. Responding to the protesters on Turkish TV, Erdogan shook with fury — and in the heat of the moment, he and other party members’ red-faced tirades devolved into Jew-bashing.

Erdogan’s deputy prime minister at the time was quoted by local media as blaming Gezi Park protests on the “Jewish diaspora.” And in a videotaped outburst, Erdogan apparently shouted at a protester, although his exact words were hard to make out: “Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?”

Both officials later denied making these statements. 

Brooklyn College’s Fishman stressed the importance, as an analyst, of “separating the anti-Israelness from the anti-Jewishness” in AKP rhetoric. However, he added, “Having said that, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the two.”

Israel’s embassy in Ankara, the target of a mob attack and flag-burning during last summer’s war in Gaza, closely monitors Turkish political speech and media reports, including for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias. But in public statements and on-the-record interviews, embassy officials, as well as officials at the Turkish Jewish Community foundation, tend to walk on eggshells — careful not to damage the already fragile ties between Turkish Jews and their government.

“We don’t believe in microphone diplomacy,” said chargé d’affaires Oron from her office within the tightly guarded embassy compound.

However, warned the embassy’s spokesman and deputy chief of mission, Nizar Amer: “Words can be dangerous, especially words that come from high officials.” And, he added, “Turkish Jews should feel secure and comfortable in their country, regardless of relations between Israel and Turkey.”

Down the hill from the embassy in Turkey’s parliament building, a single politician from the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made it his core platform to fight for minority rights in Turkey.

In an interview in his cramped corner office, Aykan Erdemir, 40, an upbeat and outgoing parliamentarian who barely made the cut last election, told the Journal that the dangers of the AKP’s anti-Semitic rhetoric cannot be understated. “Reducing anti-Semitism to simple anti-Israeli sentiment is trivializing the extent of the problem we have,” he said. Erdemir called Erdogan an “anti-Semite, full stop” with “intentional, systematic, anti-Semitic core values that he built his whole career on.”

In recent months, Jews in Paris and Copenhagen faced the worst-case end result of growing anti-Semitism in Europe: deadly terror attacks by Islamist radicals against Jewish shops and synagogues.

In Turkey, on the other hand, Erdemir believes “state complicity” is the real danger. “The more an average citizen reproduces this anti-Semitic rhetoric in everyday encounters, the higher the likelihood of, let’s say, an attack against a synagogue or a Jewish citizen of Turkey,” he said.

“I’m concerned about the mainstream individual who is very reasonable in most of her outlook in life, but then has this strange set of core values that are full of hate, prejudice, discrimination, conspiracies,” Erdemir said. “Because, ultimately, I think it’s never the lunatic but always that average Joe who opens the floodgates for pogroms, mass killings and attacks. … They will support the climate that fuels hate.”

During his time in office, Erdemir has relentlessly denounced AKP actions that alienate minorities and has attempted to pass legislation to protect them, including a law against hate crimes.

“We have a half-baked hate-crimes law, which was AKP’s way of responding to pressure by the public — but it’s not comprehensive,” Erdemir said. “So we don’t have comprehensive institutional and legal protection [for minorities].”

Other sources in the Turkish parliament cited a recent surge of violence against women, including the widely protested murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, as proof that sexist rhetoric from Erdogan is now taking itself out in the streets.

“Erdogan has sown so many seeds of hate in Turkish society,” Erdemir said. “It will be difficult to unmake it.”

‘If I were Jewish, I would hide’

There’s a word in Turkish used to describe the deep, stabbing — and quintessentially Turkish — type of nostalgia that overcomes an Istanbuli when he reflects on his life and his city: hüzün.

Hüzün is a descendent of huzn, the ancient Arabic word used in the Quran to mean “melancholy” or “sorrow over a loss.” In the present day, Turkey’s most well-known author, Orhan Pamuk, has attempted to redefine hüzün as it applies to his people. In Pamuk’s historical memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” the author devotes an entire chapter to hüzün, which he calls, in part, a “cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering.”

Pamuk notes, however, that the country bears this special melancholy “with honor” — and that, for a Turk, experiencing a wave of hüzün can be as “life affirming” and insulating as it is painful.

“Now we begin to understand hüzün not as the melancholy of a solitary person,” writes Pamuk, “but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hüzün of an entire city: of Istanbul.”

A Westerner unfamiliar with Turkish hüzün, and that of its Jews, might mistake the mood for blank despair. But spend enough time within Turkey’s Jewish community and it slowly reveals itself as a communal, almost peaceful kind of resignation — the collective nostalgia of a community that has already begun to mourn its own demise. 

Leon Elnekave, 70, is the shul keeper and head of the remaining Jewish community in Bursa, the small port city on the Sea of Marmara where Sephardic Jews first arrived in Ottoman times. Only about 60 of them, all elderly, remain. In his office across the alley from Bursa’s 521-year-old synagogue, Elnekave used an index finger to trace the final remaining clusters of Turkish Jews on his wall map of the country. “Thirty in Antalya, 20 in Antakya, two in Çanakkale,” he said, matter-of-factly. Elnekave said the entire Jewish community has died off in many other towns, leaving their synagogues and cemeteries behind to rot. “Nobody is left,” he said.

Amid this soft fade, AKP’s insults are just salt in the wound.

“For the last maybe six months, whenever there’s news, I close the television, because I know what they are talking about, I know what they will say,” said Can Özgön, president of the Jewish community in Ankara, at his office in the center of town. Özgön had dressed his tall build in denim and corduroy, lumberjack style, and gelled his brown curls as best he could into an unruly pyramid. “Also, I will not take a newspaper,” he said. “Because I am nervous — that’s the reason. And I cannot do anything about it.” 

Last November, the AKP-appointed governor of Turkey’s far-north Edirne Province, near Bulgaria, announced that the historic Edirne synagogue, currently undergoing renovations, would be turned into a museum as revenge for Israel blocking Palestinian worshipers from Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. (In response to widespread condemnation, the governor later retracted his statement and clarified the did not have the power to make this decision.)

When asked about the incident in Edirne, Özgön showed no signs of anger.

“What difference does it make? This synagogue is also a museum,” he said as he ducked beneath the hedge of brambles that obscures the entrance to Ankara’s abandoned shul. Once inside, Özgön, who holds the synagogue’s only key, proudly lit an electric Star of David, made of retro neon tubing, that hangs above the Torah’s ark. “Every chair used to be full,” he said, remembering the Shabbat services of his boyhood. Today, Özgön said, he has neither the resources nor the manpower to care for the building, whose roof leaks in winter and whose bathrooms are often trashed by the local homeless population. Surrounding homes, stately mansions once owned by Ankara’s well-to-do Jews, are now empty, their windows cracked.

When Özgön was small, his parents told him stories about growing up in a mixed community in Ankara. They said their Muslim and Christian neighbors would hand out matzah and sweets to Jewish children on Shabbat.

“But now,” Özgön said, “you cannot see anything like this. It’s finished.”

Turkish Jews are not alone in their hüzün for this small-town “mosaic” Turkey of old. On the tray tables of a new high-speed train from Istanbul to Ankara, inside a complimentary copy of the line’s official magazine, Rail Life, was an extended interview with Turkish movie star Cem Davran, in which he mourned the Istanbul of his childhood.

“Maybe we were the last happy children who had lived within the neighborhood culture,” he told the magazine.

And “the most important thing in the neighborhoods of ancient Istanbul,” Davran said, “was that many people from different faiths and culture were all together. Everyone respected each other’s faith. Moreover, they used to put extra effort in it so everyone could live their religion freely.”

Cihan Karayagiz, 25, a young Kurdish man on the train, read the passage. He gazed out the window for a spell — watching small, snow-covered villages dart past — before admitting to this reporter that he’d never met a Turkish Jew before in his life. His grandfather, though, had told him stories about this same “neighborhood culture” discussed by the movie star.

“If we have many colors, Turkey will be more interesting, it will be better,” he said. “If we only have one color, it will be dangerous. Now you can’t see any other religions. Or if they’re there, they hide themselves.”

Karayagiz thought some more, then added: “If I were Jewish, I would hide.”