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

In call with Jewish groups, Trump does not take questions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moral and intellectual state of the Jewish left


There is at least one thing about which my critics and I can agree: The very many responses — published in the Jewish Journal and elsewhere (The Forward, Huffington Post and various blogs) — to my Dec. 4 column titled “The Torah and the Transgendered” are an excellent measure of the moral and intellectual state of the American-Jewish left.

My critics and I recognize that all these rabbis, including the head of the Reform rabbinate, all these Jewish professors and all the Jewish laypeople who attacked me and my column represent the American-Jewish left, and are therefore a fine indicator of the moral and intellectual state of the American-Jewish left.

Let’s see what that state is.

Before doing so, however, one important caveat. Although many may call themselves liberals, I am discussing the left, not traditional liberals. It is vital to recall that there was a very long period when “liberal” and “left” were not only not synonymous, they were frequently at odds with each other. For example, liberals were fiercely anti-communist, and the left wasn’t (it was anti-anti-communist). Similarly, the left regarded America — as it does today — as essentially a racist, sexist, xenophobic and imperialistic country, while liberals thought America, though not perfect, was and is the greatest country ever created.

[RELATED: A response to Dennis Prager]

Here then are some of the characteristics of the American-Jewish left that stand out from the responses:

First, the low intellectual state.

Jews and the left generally pride themselves in valuing the life of the mind. But the left (with, of course, some individual exceptions) is actually anti-intellectual. The proof is the contemporary university where ideology has replaced intellectual inquiry. As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens (a secular Jew with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics) succinctly put it recently in his Wall Street Journal column, “American academia is, by and large, idiotic.”

Why? Because leftists, not traditional liberals, have taken over the universities. 

There are few intellectual arguments in the scores of responses to my column. The vast majority of the rhetoric is about how bigoted a person I am.

In fact, nearly all the responses actually betrayed an unwillingness (or perhaps even an inability) to dialogue intellectually. When not condemning me as an individual, they discussed accepting transgender individuals in Jewish life — which I happen to support, believe it or not. But my column had nothing to do with accepting transgender individuals either as people or as Jews. It was about the blurring of male-female distinction in society, and how much the Torah (and later Judaism) values distinctions, including the male-female distinction.

This blurring of the male-female distinction has me very worried about the future because I do not believe that the abolition of “he” and “she,” as more and more universities now recommend, is a healthy thing. I do not believe that it is good that boys are elected high school homecoming queens — because queens are female and kings are male; or that anatomical males should be naked in high school girls’ locker rooms. I do not believe it is healthy for children when parents raise them with no gender, leaving it to the children to determine their gender as they grow up. And I do not believe that the widespread progressive dismissal of the need for both a father and a mother — given how little the sexes differ, who needs a parent of each sex? — is good for society.

This societal denial of the significance of male and female, this blurring of genders, and Judaism’s opposition to such blurring was the subject of my column. Yet that subject was either missed or ignored by virtually every responder, who wrote as if in preprogrammed mode, “bigot,” “non-inclusive,” “intolerant,” “transphobic,” “hateful” and, one after another, described the Torah as saying essentially anything a person (on the left) wants it to say.

Which brings us to characteristic No. 2:

Instead of intellectual discourse, what we have is the dismissal of the decency of the left’s opponents. If you oppose the left, you are rarely debated. Instead you are dismissed as sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, racist, bigoted and spewing hatred. And that’s only a partial list. Instead of debating us, the left morally dismisses us as unworthy of debate.

For example, Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote that “Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy.” 

The idea that I deeply and sincerely care about people (including the transgendered), about Jews and Judaism, about children and about their future is one that Rabbi Brous cannot entertain. Because then my ideas would have to be responded to, whereas if I am just “a self-appointed community provocateur,” I don’t merit a reasoned response to a reasonable column.

FYI to Rabbi Brous: I was a leader in the fight to save Soviet Jewry, and I wrote, with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, one of the most widely read English-language introductions to Judaism ever published, before you were born. I have lectured to more Jews than almost any living Jew. I have brought innumerable Jews to Judaism, and innumerable non-Jews to an appreciation of Jews. And you demean these 40 years of service to Jews as those of “a self-appointed community provocateur.”

By dismissing opponents’ decency, those on the left feel no need to confront our arguments. At the end of my second column responding to my critics, I invited any or all of the responders to a public dialogue organized by the Jewish Journal with proceeds divided among the charities of our choice. No one thus far has accepted the invitation. The reason is that the left lives in an intellectual bubble, and therefore isn’t used to being intellectually challenged.

Third, and finally, there is a willingness to make up falsehoods in the service of progressive ideals. Thus, the head of the Reform rabbinate (the Central Conference of American Rabbis) wrote, “Sadly the Jewish Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis.” 

That is, as I wrote in my response column, a lie. There is no such history, let alone long history. My call for her to back up her charge or retract it has thus far been met with silence.

And yet another rabbi wrote:

“The first thing we learn about ourselves in Bereshit/Genesis is that we are created in the image of God and that zachar u’nikeva bara otam (male and female God created it (the human).”

To make her point, this rabbi simply decided to mistranslate one of the two words she cited from the Torah. Bara otam means “created them,” not “created it.” 

I have devoted all this time and effort to this subject for many reasons. One is, as I wrote above, my fears for the next generation. 

Another is that pre-adolescent children are now encouraged to adopt a transgender identity when in most cases, gender dysphoria is only a passing phase. 

As sex researcher Debra W. Soh wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal:

“Research has shown that most gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, and do so by adolescence: Most will grow up to be happy, gay adults, and some, like myself, to be happy, straight adults.

“Waiting until a child has reached cognitive maturity before making these sorts of decisions would make the most sense. But this is an unpopular stance, and scientists and clinicians who support it are vilified, not because science — which should be our guiding beacon — disproves it, but because it has been deemed insensitive and at odds with the current ideology.”

And my other reason for all this writing is to provide Jewish historians of the future a picture of the moral and intellectual state of progressive Judaism in the early 21st century — in the progressives’ own words.


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).

A response to Gerald Steinberg on the Prawer-Begin plan


In his recent column for the Jewish Journal, Gerald Steinberg of NGO monitor once again seeks to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition. He dismisses as anti-Semitic or misguided those of us—including 800 rabbis as well as the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements—who opposed an Israeli government plan that would have expelled some 30-40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev.

This characterization is insulting, dangerous, and wrong.

Steinberg attacks those of us concerned about the fate of the Bedouin as “present[ing] a highly complex issue in simplistic terms, rely[ing] on unreliable sources, distort[ing] data, and ignor[ing] historic facts.”

In fact, it is Steinberg who is guilty of these sins. He insinuates that the Bedouin lay claim to “half the country’s territory,” when, in fact, Bedouin land claims cover only five percent of the Negev. And he misleadingly criticizes Bedouin communities for “illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations” without bothering to mention that the Siyag, the area to which the Israeli government moved the Bedouin in the 1950s, was never zoned residential, nor were the villages added to official maps. Thus, the Bedouin find themselves caught in a tragic Catch-22, forced to live in a defined area, but told that any homes or stores they build there are illegal.

[Related: Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin]

The good news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew the Prawer-Begin plan this week, in response to widespread objections from rabbis and other Jewish community members in

North America and elsewhere, including the 800 rabbis and cantors who signed a letter organized by T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights and the T’ruah rabbis who met with staff at the Israeli Embassy and with General Doron Almog, who is charged with executing the plan.

Steinberg and his organization have a history of stifling discussion within Israel and the

Jewish community by maligning Jewish human rights organizations without engaging the specifics of the debate. This tactic is again evident in his sloppy attempt to classify those who opposed the Prawer-Begin plan out of love and concern for the state of Israel as intent on wiping out the state altogether.

Does he really believe that 800 rabbis and three of the major denominations oppose “Jewish self-determination and sovereignty”? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.

The state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the dream of a state in which the Jewish people can be safe, and that exemplifies the best of our Jewish values.  These values include viewing every human being as a creation in the divine image; opposing injustice; and engaging in open and inquisitive debate. Steinberg instead proposes an Israel that ignores the voices of those most vulnerable, and that shuts down healthy debate.

That doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.

White House, amid heating tensions with Israel, to brief Jewish leaders on Iran


Amid an escalation of signals that the Obama and Netanyahu governments are parting ways on Iran strategy, the White House called in American Jewish leaders for a briefing on short notice.

A small coterie of Jewish organizational leaders will meet Tuesday afternoon with top staff at the National Security Council to discuss Iran, according to the White House and officials of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The emphasis appears to be on groups that deal closely with Israel and its security concerns. A number of groups normally high on the list for White House briefings were not invited, including representatives of the Reform and Orthodox movements.

The invitation follows a tense, albeit coded, public exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the last two days over Iran, as well as persistent backing by pro-Israel groups for a congressional bid to enhance Iran sanctions despite White House pleas to put new sanctions on hold.

On Sunday, addressing his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided in unusually sharp terms the attempts to talk Iran down from 20 percent to 3.5 percent uranium enrichment.

“The Iranians are intentionally focusing the discussion on this issue. It is without importance,” said Netanyahu, who has insisted that Iran must dismantle all enrichment capabilities as part of a deal to end sanctions aimed at ending its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu did not specify Kerry as advancing the proposal, but made it clear his remarks were made in the context of talks he had with Kerry last week in Rome.

“This was the focus of the long and detailed talks I had with John Kerry,” he said.

Kerry appeared to return the jab in an address Monday evening to the Ploughshares Fund, a group that advocates nuclear disarmament.

“The president has charged me to be and has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world,” Kerry said.

“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” he said. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America is a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”

In recent days a number of leading Jewish groups, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America, have reiterated support for advancing through Congress new and enhanced Iran sanctions, although the Obama administration has made clear publicly that it would prefer Congress put off dealing with the legislation until after the next round of talks in mid-November.

Intermarriage Math


Jews the ever-dying people: A Reform perspective on the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans


The historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with our constant fear of extinction as the “ever-dying” people.  He wrote the essay 27 years ago, does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seem that every few years, a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community–Jewish continuity–in serious danger.

Such was the case this week with the publication of the

Rob Eshman: The Shutdown


What the $%#@ is happening?

I’m writing this 17 minutes after the Federal government shut down — for the first time in 17 years.  I remember clearly the last time this happened.  It was stupid and superfluous and self-destructive then.  It’s stupid, superfluous and self-destructive now.

The Tea Partier Republicans set this in motion — they actually planned its implementation months ago.   You can go online and hear them at rallies back in the Spring promising to close down Washington, D.C.  “Shut it down!” their  audiences chanted back.

More mainstream Republican leaders went along with the demands of the far right.   House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner knew it wouldn’t work, knew it was dumb, knew Cruz and his ilk will likely hurt Republicans in the next election cycle — but went along. 

If only they were the only victims. 

Prior to zero hour, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a letter on Capital Hill calling on lawmakers to support a federal budget agreement and avoid a government shutdown

“Spending cuts should not unfairly target the most vulnerable among us,” Jared Feldman, JCPA’s vice president and Washington director, wrote. “We urge you to strengthen anti-poverty efforts and restore opportunities for all Americans. It is critical that Congress come together cooperatively and civilly in this effort. Regardless of the outcome, a cantankerous and divisive process is unacceptable.”

The shutdown will hurt thousands of furloughed Federal workers.  It will disrupt numerous services, including research at the National Institute of Health, and it will likely suspend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provides food, health care referrals and nutrition education for pregnant women, new mothers and their children.

Because, you know, those heart disease researchers and low-income children are sucking this country dry.

[David Suissa: We should shut down the hysterics]

The shut down, which Tea Partiers and their enablers are promoting as a fiscally responsible way to thwart the implementation of Obamacare, will actually end up costing a couple billion dollars, not to mention a few points on the Dow.  If it continues for too long, the nation’s entire economy could backslide.

And if that’s not bad enough, the whole debacle may actually pay off for the people who cooked it up.

In recent polls, Sen. Ted Cruz shot ahead of his potential 2016 Presidential contenders.  Because of his Seussian 23-hour speech denouncing a funding bill the President could sign, Cruz “now has more credibility with the GOP base than the folks who have been leading the party for years,” according to outsidethebeltway.com.

This would all make sense if, at the end of this nightmare, Cruz would stare into our eyes, and say, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad” did to Skyler: “I did it for me!” At least that would be honest.  But like Walt’s alter ego, Heisenberg, Cruz has convinced himself he’s leading this charge for the greater good. Seriously, even in “Breaking Bad” the meth dealers respected the Feds.

It may sound petty, given the enormity of this debacle, to point out here that a Republican Party taken over by anti-government nihilists can kiss winning the Jewish vote goodbye.  Granted, it’s a small vote, but it comes with the added benefits of activism, donations and a couple of swing states.

Why do I say that? Because Jews, it turns out, like good government.  Stable government in democratic nations have enabled them to prosper and practice their faith freely.  Effective, accountable  government protects minority rights and property and creates the conditions for prosperity, including investment in and support of those less fortunate—which turns out to be good for all.

I’m assuming Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, knows this, which is why at press conferences he looks like a kid being dragged in front of the principal.

It’s why — little known fact — the Republican President who garnered the largest percentage of the Jewish vote in the modern era was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Yes, he was a bit dull and unconscionably complacent on civil rights, but consider his achievements, as Stephen Ambrose enumerates them in his biography:  Instead of dismantling the New Deal, as more strident Republicans wanted, the number of people receiving Social Security benefits doubled under Eisenhower’s administration. He balanced the budget, froze military spending and refused to lower taxes. He kept New Deal regulatory commissions in place. Public works expenditures exceeded those of Truman or FDR—projects that included the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He refused to sell off public lands or open wilderness areas to mineral development. He stopped nuclear testing in the atmosphere.  He avoided all military entanglements.

“The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration,” Eisenhower said. “We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.”

All that investment, all that government — and Eisenhower presided over the greatest decade of American prosperity in the twentieth century.

In 1956, Eisenhower received 40 percent of the Jewish vote—a number that hasn’t been topped since.  Even more telling, he campaigned and got that vote while delivering to Israel a series of punishing measures and blistering statements in response to its collusion with Britain and France in the Suez Campaign.

Call it ancient history.  Call it a distant fantasy.   But if Republicans want to come close to that accomplishment, it’s not the government they need to shut down, but Ted Cruz.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deaf rabbi who listens


Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you. 

For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.

“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks. 

Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.

“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”

The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.

“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”

After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional. 

“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.

The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates. 

Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student. 

“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”

Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.

Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.

“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said. 

Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one. 

“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”

And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.

“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.

Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing. 

While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.

She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.

“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said. 

Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.

“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”

As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.

Hebrew Union College names Rabbi Aaron Panken as new president


Rabbi Aaron Panken was elected president of The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.

HUC announced the decision of its board of governors on Wednesday.

Panken, 49, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature at HUC-JIR in New York since 1995. He has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students.

As president, Panken will serve as the chief executive officer of HUC’s four campuses — in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC’s 138-year history, succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who served from 2001 to 2013 and is becoming chancellor.

“I am greatly honored to be called to serve as the president of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” Panken said. “Our mission is to help our students grow into authentic Jewish thought leaders, able to articulate and advance their own visions of a rich Jewish life for a new and rapidly changing religious landscape.”

Panken was ordained by HUC in New York in 1991. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, where his research focused on legal change in rabbinic literature.

He currently serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, and has served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the birthright Education Committee, the CCAR Ethics Committee, and in other leadership roles within the Reform movement.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Irwin Engelman, board chairman, and Martin Cohen, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said in a joint statement.  “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform Movement for more than three decades.”

Getting ready for baby


Rabbi Julia Weisz found herself in a bit of a conundrum when she became an expectant mother.

On the one hand, the rabbi and director of education at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas was cautious about holding a baby shower. In the earlier stages of her pregnancy — she is due to have her first child in July — she said, “It seemed uncomfortable for me to celebrate something that wasn’t here.”

However, her Reform congregation wanted to honor her pregnancy. Ultimately, she agreed to have one in May. 

“A baby shower is a good way to bring the community together around something positive,” Weisz said. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do something to help.”

When it comes to Jewish laws and customs, there are many different opinions on every lifecycle event — from birth to marriage to death. Baby showers are no exception.

While some Jews and clergy have no problem with throwing baby showers, others won’t even select a name for a baby prior to birth. There are no textual laws banning celebrations before the baby is born, but in some circles, it’s customary not to hold them. 

“It’s a little bit arrogant to assume the baby is going to be born,” said Rabbi Chaim Bryski of Chabad of Thousand Oaks. “Traditionally, we don’t tell anybody about the pregnancy, not even until the third or fourth month. To make a party to honor the baby would be uncomfortable from a traditional perspective, but there is no law that says you can’t.”

Some believe that if a baby’s name is uttered or his or her life is celebrated before birth, the evil eye, or ayin harah, might harm it, according to Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative shul in Encino. 

“In our tradition, there is the theological and religious idea that a new life is very tenuous,” he said. “One of the superstitions is that the evil eye knows who to run after because they know the name of the person. If someone gets really sick, they can change their Hebrew name to escape the angel of death. We don’t do a lot to celebrate the baby in order to protect it from the possibility of its own demise.”

After a baby is born, more traditional Jewish families will celebrate by sponsoring Kiddush meals at their synagogues or hosting a shalom zachar, or a drop-in party for a baby boy, on the Friday night after he is born. 

Bryski suggests registering for gifts, and once the baby is born, they can be delivered. He said that if something happens to a baby, it adds to the pain the parents experience to be surrounded by presents.

Still, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish has no hesitation about having a baby shower, particularly because of modern medical advances.

“In today’s world, where you know a baby is healthy and you have such a high rate of successful pregnancies, a baby shower is totally acceptable,” said the rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills.

One of Hanish’s congregants, Sarah Knopf, a mother of three, had a baby shower for her first son. Although she grew up with a superstitious grandmother, she wasn’t convinced that there was anything negative about it. 

“I needed to have everything done and organized before he came,” she said. “I’m a planner, so that made me feel better. I would have gone crazy.”

Farkas said that at VBS, which has 5,000 members, traditions vary. 

“Most of the congregation does do baby showers of different types. In our community, it’s not homogeneous by any means,” he said. “Some in the community will give babies names, and then there are some who [won’t do anything before a baby is born]. Some are in between. That reflects the larger Jewish community.”

Like Knopf, VBS member Nikki Eigler chose to hold a shower because she wanted to plan before the baby arrived. She said, “I’m a person who needs to be prepared. I did not want to come home from the hospital without having anything in the house.”

Allison Lotterstein, a congregant at Kol Tikvah, had no concerns either. She, like many expectant mothers, just wanted a way to commemorate a new life coming into the world. 

“Every pregnancy should be celebrated,” she said. “In my mind and in the minds of the people who threw me a shower, my baby was a blessing.

Dinner table revelations: The unexamined life


You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation. 

This happens to me every other week, on Friday night, when my mother hosts a summit of friends and family members from both sides of the aisle — religious and Reform — throws in a smattering of people who really couldn’t care less either way but will go along with the majority for the sake of keeping the peace, and lets the games begin. Almost invariably there’s a new face in the crowd, and it’s usually a very beautiful one because his or her ancestry stretches back to my mother’s grandfather, the once-mighty and forever fruitful Solomon (the Man), famous for his good looks, many talents and many, many wives. Solomon was Jewish but did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even geographic location. He once went to India to find “the most beautiful woman in the world,” married her and brought her back to live in the same house with his first wife and her children. You can read about that in my first novel, but the point is we don’t know how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to him. We just know that my mother has a knack for finding these “cousins,” and she loves to introduce them to the rest of the family at Shabbat dinner. 

The other thing we know, if we’re paying attention right now, is that what I just said about Solomon the Man and his amorous activities violates one or more of the three deadly sins of speech — lashon harah (negative speech about another person that is true), hotzaat shem ra (negative speech about another person that is untrue) and rechilut (gossip). Lest you think I’m trying to appear especially knowledgeable about matters of moral rectitude, I’ll confess I only learned the subtle variations in prohibited speech because I looked it up on Wikipedia a few months ago, and only then after being challenged one too many times by my religious relatives about something I said. 

“How do you know this is true?” they would ask every time I made an assertion that involved other individuals. 

The banking system and the economic meltdown are why I think so many Wall Street CEOs should be in jail. 

Lashon hara. 

“Do you know for a fact they’re responsible?”

A distant cousin I didn’t know I had (she lives in Europe, so my mother hadn’t had a chance to discover her before she found me on Facebook), who wrote to tell me she’s read my books, and did I know that Aunt X, who died a hundred years ago, actually had a lover? 

Hotzaat shem ra.

“Did you see this aunt and her lover together in bed with your own eyes? If not, you can’t say it’s true.”  

The mayoral elections in Los Angeles and why the DWP union boss’ backing of Wendy Greuel hurt her chances. 

Rechilut.

“Did you go door to door and ask every voter how they feel about the DWP union boss? Is there any real benefit to be drawn from making this observation? Do you know the union boss personally?” 

The rivalry between the Orthodox Iranian rabbis in Los Angeles and their Conservative colleagues over the souls and leadership of the community, how the two factions have fought for years over whether to have a microphone in the synagogue on Shabbat.

Lashon hara, hotzaat shem ra, rechilut. You’ve just “killed” a whole bunch of people in one breath. 

My relatives weren’t always religious. They used to talk about their own ancestors from time to time, which is how I managed to gather a few good stories before prohibitions kicked in and my sources dried up. They did, of course, apply all the usual standards of censorship, erasing for all time any trace of mental illness, genetic flaws, alcohol or other addictions, bad behavior, poor manners or any other factor that, in a tightly knit society such as ours, might interfere with the children’s chances at a good marriage. But it wasn’t until some of them became seriously observant that I became conscious of what a terrible and devastating weapon negative speech can be. 

I’m deeply grateful to them for this. I really am. I’m ashamed and remorseful for all the times I’ve blurted out something about another person without weighing the consequences. I’m trying to do better. We all should. It will make the world a better place. The only thing is, this kind of awareness wreaks havoc on one’s storytelling — in print or orally — and it also leads to a great deal of unwelcome self-reflection, and these, in turn, kind of ruin your life anyway. 

Which brings me to my hair. 

Nowadays, our Shabbat dinner summits follow more or less the same pattern: The religious group sits politely and keeps mostly quiet while the Reform faction engages in prohibited speech until, sometime during the meal, one of the observant people steps in and issues a gag order. 

“The long plane ride between L.A. and Tel Aviv is hard on the elderly.” 

Unless you have scientific data to back this up, you’re hurting Israel’s tourism. 

“The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh makes you wonder about the humanity of buying cheap, foreign-made products.” 

Unless you did the building inspection yourself …

You really can’t talk about anyone who is not in the room except to say something positive, which is nice, but takes only two seconds because no one is allowed to disagree, and no further discussion is needed. Because it’s Shabbat, you’re not even allowed to talk about historical public figures with a bad reputation — Nebuchadnezzar, say, or Kim Il Sung — because the mere utterance of their name sullies the holiness of the table. So what you have are long stretches of silence that can be filled in one of two ways: either you start reciting prayers or you talk about yourself and each other, which is how I learned, exactly two Fridays ago, that my hair looks bad — really bad — and, they hope you don’t mind their being honest, they hate your hair, it looks awful, worse than it did last year this time, and it was pretty dismal then. They don’t know what it is — the color or the cut or just the fact that it’s there, on your head — but you should undo it immediately and stop wearing these dead, drab shades in clothing, you don’t look good in white, it makes you appear ashen, like you should be taking hormones, which of course will give you breast cancer …

A few minutes of this, and North Korea’s labor camps don’t sound like such a bad topic of conversation. 

“So,” I said after checking my hair a couple of times in the mirror and deciding it’s beyond saving, “Do you like Michelle Obama’s new hairstyle?” 

Oh what a relief it is when you hit the right note at just the right time! No sooner had the name “Obama” been released into the air than all the walls came down, the injunctions expired, and my entire family, religious or otherwise, launched into an all-out attack on the man’s character, abilities and intentions. They hate him all right and don’t mind saying so, and they can’t stand his wife or her new hairstyle, and if that doesn’t fill entire evenings with lively chatter, how about those Palestinians? What’s wrong with saying they’re bloodthirsty criminals when it’s true, already common knowledge, and meant to effect positive change? Oh, and do you know you’re not allowed to listen to the Persian-language radio run by Mr. X anymore because he’s an agent of Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah? 

I love my relatives, and I love my mother’s Friday night summits. I even like self-reflection once in a while. But it seems to me that our laws — all of them, even the holy ones — are subject to human interpretation. We pick and choose how to observe even when we believe we’ve stuck entirely to both the letter and the spirit, and I’m thankful for this, and so is my hair. And really, what’s history if not glorified gossip? And besides, that thing I said about Solomon the Man and his taste for beautiful women, that wasn’t hearsay or gossip, there’s DNA evidence to support my claim. Just look at this latest cousin my mother has discovered, her bronze-colored skin and agate eyes, the seven languages she speaks and 700 suitors she has already turned down. Did you know her mother once ran off with a …  

Co-op living, revisited


Philip De Wolff had it all: Two houses, expensive cars, several profitable businesses, money to pay his children’s way through college. 

But it wasn’t enough.

About 10 years ago, having sold off his last business as he approached retirement age, De Wolff, 69, realized the traditional definition of success as financial well-being no longer made sense to him. He wanted something more.

“All the material things, once you start achieving them, you’re either constantly striving to achieve them or you come to realize they are the least valuable thing in your life,” explained the Redondo Beach resident, a native of South Africa who grew up in the Reform Jewish tradition. “Where does it all lead to? It always leads to one thing: There’s never enough money.”

So, instead of looking for a retirement home, De Wolff set out on a different kind of quest. Accompanied by his partner, Margaret “Maxx” McKenzie, 54, he went in search of a place that would give his life new meaning, where he could live alongside others who shared his values of putting health and the planet above monetary concerns. He wanted to find a place where people worked together for the common good, shared food and other resources and supported each other instead of competing.

What De Wolff had in mind was an intentional community. These communal-type living arrangements, which range from urban housing cooperatives to communes, number thousands across the United States. Some revolve around specific religious, social or environmental beliefs. Some require the pooling of income or other assets. Some consist of just a few people, others of hundreds. But what they all have in common is a desire to break away from an individualistic approach to life and create a community based around shared values, shared resources and mutual support.

Typically, people in an intentional community own land together or control a long-term lease on a property where they live. Individuals or families usually have their own private space — a room, apartment or house — but there are also common facilities shared by the group (a living room, meeting space or recreational area, for example). Members are generally required to contribute to the group in some way by helping with chores such as farming, childcare or food preparation, and by participating in collective decision-making on how the community is run.

According to Laird Schaub, executive secretary and co-founder of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), a clearinghouse for information and resources related to this field, interest in intentional communities has been growing over the past eight years. More than 2,000 communities or communities-in-formation are listed in the FIC’s online directory at ic.org — which Schaub emphasizes is not all-inclusive because some communities don’t want to be listed — and the number of visitors to the Web site has been growing by 10 percent per year, he said. 

Schaub, 63, who lives in an income-sharing rural community in Missouri, said these types of living arrangements used to appeal mostly to young people in their 20s and 30s. That was particularly the case during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when intentional communities flourished in the United States. Now, older people are increasingly getting involved in the movement, he said.

Schaub attributes the change partly to “delayed curiosity” among progressive-minded baby boomers who may have been intrigued by communal living during the ’60s and ’70s and want to revisit the idea. Many are still healthy and active and don’t want to idle away on the sidelines of life waiting to be put in an assisted-living facility. By joining an intentional community, these older Americans can be a part of something, contributing their time, skills and experience to a group, he said. It’s also a great way for seniors to find companionship, particularly when a spouse has died, Schaub indicated. 

For De Wolff, the search for a community has taken him and McKenzie all over the country. They’ve spent time on a well-known collective called “The Farm” in Tennessee, visited communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia, helped at a friends’ homestead in Arkansas, and worked on a community garden while living in a shared house in Savannah, Ga. They said they haven’t found their ideal community yet but won’t give up searching.

“I like being on the land. I like eating food that I’ve grown. It’s so strange to go to the supermarket now,” McKenzie said. “I’m not looking for a safe place to retire. I’m looking to be the most active I’ve been in my life. I want to bloom.”

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, one of the city’s most successful intentional communities is celebrating its 20th year in the Wilshire Center/Koreatown area. The Los Angeles Eco-Village Intentional Community is a two-block neighborhood, where about 40 residents dedicate themselves to living in a way that demonstrates the art of sustainable, healthy, community-oriented urban living. This includes cooperatively owned housing — where members enjoy rents well below market rate — community gardens, an organic food co-op and a volunteer-run bicycle repair space.

Among the members are several seniors, including co-founder Lois Arkin, 76, who says an intentional community is a place to which people of any age can bring value.

“There’s always a need for people to share in communities, for work to be done in the community, for truth to be told — which is sometimes easier for older people than for younger people — and certainly a sense of belonging,” Arkin said. “We read about the problems older people have in our societies, [but] we don’t think of them here. … I still work way more than full time and can’t imagine not doing it.”

Arkin, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and considers herself culturally Jewish, noted that Jews are well represented in intentional communities. In fact, she estimated as many as a quarter of the people she interacts with in these groups are Jewish. 

“I think Jews like to think of themselves as very community-oriented and they’re drawn to community,” she said. “And of course we have this great history of the kibbutzim in Israel.”

But ultimately, Arkin believes, intentional communities can appeal to anyone wanting to make a difference in the world.

“There are so many people who want to change and don’t know what to do,” she said.  “Living in community, you have mutual support for change. Living alone, you may change, but it’s hard to do without that support.”

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine months after Israeli court ruling, non-Orthodox rabbis still fighting for equal pay


In a precedent-setting decision, Israel's Supreme Court ruled last May that a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold, should be paid a state salary, just like her Orthodox colleagues.

The Reform and Conservative movements hailed the decision as a step closer to full equality for non-Orthodox religious denominations.

But Gold, who works as a rabbi at Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, still has yet to see her first government paycheck.

The government says Gold has not fulfilled the criteria set by the state for non-Orthodox rabbis. Gold and her allies say the criteria are onerous and unfairly set different conditions for Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis.

In a bid to challenge the rules, Gold, another non-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, and the Conservative and Reform movements filed a new court petition last week.

“I can’t tell you how aggravating it is,” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, told JTA. “We thought this was a victory, and then it started to be a rigmarole. It’s a real insult.”


Last year’s Supreme Court ruling determined that Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities could be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and receive wages equal to those granted by the state to Orthodox rabbis.

Several caveats, however, set special conditions for non-Orthodox clergy. The decision applied only to Israel’s regional councils — large districts of rural communities — but not Israeli cities. The rabbis would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry, which pays Orthodox rabbis. The non-Orthodox rabbis would not have religious legal authority over such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion.

Two months ago, the Ministry of Culture and Sport released its new criteria for non-Orthodox rabbis to collect state salaries. To be eligible, the rabbis must work full-time and be present at their congregation for at least 40 Sabbaths per year. Only rabbis of congregations with at least 250 members can receive full-time pay; those leading congregations of 50-250 members may receive half a salary even though they’d be required to work full-time.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis do not need to work a certain number of hours, and there is no minimum size requirement for their congregations to qualify for salaries.

Aside from the obvious inequalities, the new rules put Gold in something of a Catch-22 in 2012: Unable to raise a full-time salary on her own last year, she worked only half-time. As a result, she won't be paid at all for her work in 2012.

“Part of the reason our rabbis are part-time is that there isn’t enough funding,” Gold told JTA. “The idea is to have more of an even playing field. The more we can be available to people, the richer Jewish life will be in this country.”


A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Or Doron, said non-Orthodox rabbis are paid according to “set criteria” and that the ministry uses the same pay scale as those for Orthodox rabbis. Just two non-Orthodox rabbis currently meet the criteria for state wages: Rabbis Yoav Ende of Kibbutz Hannaton and Shai Zarchi of Nigun Halev, a congregation in the town of Nahalal, near Haifa.

Doron said that in light of complaints submitted by the Reform and Conservative movements, the ministry is considering changing its criteria for 2013 to allow for part-time salaries. Reform and Conservative advocates say the change is coming too slowly; last week’s court petition is an attempt to push things along.

“It’s hard to move these things without the courts,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, the lawyer who submitted the petition. Aside from Gold, the other rabbi named in the petition is Benjie Gruber, a Conservative rabbi from Kibbutz Yahel in southern Israel.

Gold says she sees one potential glimmer of hope: the makeup of the new Knesset.

The Yesh Atid party, which controls 19 seats, includes advocates for religious pluralism such as the liberal Jewish scholar Ruth Calderon. In her inaugural Knesset speech, Calderon called for equal state support for secular and pluralistic institutions on par with Orthodox ones. Gold hopes that means a wider push for the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis.


“Meaningful change can happen in the Knesset,” Gold said. “It would be healthier if some of these decisions were coming out of the government and we wouldn’t have to run to the court.”

Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe


An Advocate for Divine Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

There was a man and he is no more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

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

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

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein


A Mensch

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

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

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple


Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

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

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


A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full text of this reflection.

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


Remembering David Hartman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform corrals broad array of groups into gun call-in


The Reform movement corralled a broad array of religious denominations to call into Congress on Monday and demand action on gun violence.

Participant organizations in the “Faiths Calling” event organized by Reform's Religious Action Center include the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist streams, as well as mainline and evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Sikh and Muslim groups.

Also included are a number of Jewish public affairs groups.

Callers-in, who may access Congress through the Faiths.org website, are asked to advocate for one or several of four policies: Universal background checks, a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, making gun trafficking a federal crime and improving access to mental health services.

The breadth of the participation is rare, encompassing liberal and conservative groups.

One of the more conservative groups, the Southern Baptist Convention, sounded a qualified and almost apologetic note in its emailed appeal.

“We believe our representatives do need to hear from people around the country,” said the email from Richard Land, the body's president of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “We encourage you to call as well to tell your congressman and senators what you think should be done. Do you want universal background checks? A ban on semi-automatic guns? A ban on high-capacity magazines? More attention to mental health issues? Or something else?”

Donors struggling to defray the rising costs of Jewish camp


Spending the summer at Jewish overnight camp once was a spartan affair, often little more than a collection of ramshackle buildings scattered in the woods by a placid lake.

Those were the days.

“Today it's all about the toys,” said Rabbi Allan Smith, the former head of the Reform movement’s camp network and a 46-year veteran of the summer camp business. “You have a go-kart track, a climbing wall, a swing, a Burma bridge.

“When I was a kid, 90 percent of the camps were by a lake. Today if you don't have a pool you're a loser. Kids don't like lakes, they're dirty.”

Such amenities may make camps more appealing, but they don’t come cheap.

Parents can expect to shell out anywhere from $800 per week per child at one of the less expensive nonprofit camps to $2,000 per week at some of the pricier options. For families already struggling to cover the costs of Jewish education during the school year, sending a child to camp might be one expense too many.

In a bid to help defray the cost, the Foundation for Jewish Camp has awarded more than 43,000 grants to attend a nonprofit summer camp. The grants can be up to $1,000 per family .

“We believe summers at Jewish camp are an important component in one's Jewish identity,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the foundation’s CEO. “Camp teaches a joyful Judaism and becomes an important building block for a Jewish future. We believe families challenged economically should not be penalized.”

The high tuition at Jewish camps, which directors at the camps agree is considerably costlier than at their Christian counterparts, is cause for concern among those who fear that a potent identity-building opportunity is slipping away from middle-income families.

For Debra Hollander of Shaker Heights, Ohio, sending her children to Jewish camp is a top priority, despite the costs.

“Our three kids go to secular education schools, so for us Jewish camping became even more important,” she said. 

A 2011 study commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Camp lends credence to Hollander's view of Jewish camps as important shapers of Jewish identity. According to the study, Jewish camp alumni are 30 percent more likely to donate to a Jewish charity; 37 percent more likely to light Sabbath candles; and 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue.

“The analysis indicates that [camps] bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat lighting candles to using Jewish websites and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” the study concluded. “Secondly, they bring an inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

The FJC, which has a mission to increase the number of Jewish campers, is working to identify ways for camps to slash costs. In recent years it has coordinated the sharing of resources, encouraged the development of alternative revenue sources and helped camp directors improve their managerial skills through a program the organization likens to “an MBA in camping.”

Ultimately, the foundation wants to see camps profitable enough to be self-sustaining.

“Camps that are full are profitable and reinvest back in scholarships,” Fingerman said. “So there is a power in numbers, and we're working hard to get them full.”

Other organizations also have taken steps to make camp more affordable, particularly for less-affiliated families and first-time campers who might be less sold on the value of the camp experience. The Avi Chai and Zell foundations jointly made a $600,000 donation to Ramah to help the Conservative movement’s camp network attract first-timers.

“We're calling it the Ramah Open Door Program, where we're opening up to less Jewish-affiliated families,” said Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, Ramah’s national director.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camp and Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, said a significant number of children attending his movement's summer programs also receive scholarships.

While camp directors agree that the costs of Jewish overnight camps are high, they offer varying explanations as to the reasons. Some say it’s the relative abundance of staff — a ratio of one supervisor for every two campers, according to Cohen. Others point to the salaries of directors, which average about $125,000 per year at nonprofit camps, according to public tax filings. Directors at Jewish for-profits can make even more.

Perhaps the biggest factor driving costs, however, is the Jewish community's relative affluence and the resulting expectations.

“What [Jewish camps] provide may be higher with regard to facility, to program options, with regard to staff structure,” Reichenbach said. “And we are dealing with a community that has a certain expectation for quality.”

Despite a growing recognition of the importance of making tuition affordable, Reichenbach predicted costs would continue to appreciate at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent each year.

“We live in the real world,” he said. “In the last few years our practices have reflected the rise in the cost-of-living index, the cost of energy, of food, of transportation. Right now we are doing the best we can to stay even.”

Broad Jewish support for Obama’s gun proposals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish groups stake out opposing positions on penalizing Palestinians


Two major Jewish groups are at odds over the prospect of penalties for the Palestinians in the wake of their enhanced U.N. status.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee in recent weeks has backed two congressional bids to at least shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington in the wake of the Nov. 29 United Nations General Assembly’s overwhelming vote that granted Palestinians non-member observer state status.

Conversely, the Reform movement has emphatically urged President Obama not to retaliate against the Palestinians, JTA has learned. The Reform movement also has resolved to oppose the shuttering of the PLO office.

The lines dividing the two organizations are not necessarily set in stone. The Reform movement has suggested it might back penalties should the Palestinians use their new status to charge Israel in international courts. An AIPAC official suggested to JTA that the organization would wait and see whether the Palestinians go to international courts before it decides its next legislative moves.

Still, the markedly different tone in AIPAC’s call to its activists to back the proposed congressional penalties and the Reform movement’s plea to the president to ignore such calls could portend a split within the pro-Israel community’s center.

An AIPAC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not directly address differences with the Reform movement. But the official noted that the congressional letter to Obama that AIPAC backed this month urges a resumption of peace talks in addition to calling for the closing of the PLO office and a suspension of funding to U.N. affiliates that similarly enhance the Palestinians’ status.

“Everyone in the pro-Israel community should be pleased that a solid bipartisan majority signed a pro-peace talks letter in support of direct talks and opposed to attempts to delegitimize Israel,” said the official.

Israel has made clear that the Palestinian’ U.N. moves should have consequences. It has announced a flurry of new building projects in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, and diverted millions of dollars in taxes earmarked for the Palestinian Authority to Israeli utilities providers that have been dunning the Palestinians for payment.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was asked in an interview with Jewish media during the Chanukah holiday his view on congressional proposals to penalize the Palestinians. His answer suggested pique not just at the Palestinians’ enhanced U.N. status but also at the speech by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas that preceded the vote.

“We think that the Palestinians when they violate agreements, when they declare that Israel is a war criminal or when they describe Israel as a war criminal for defending itself against thousands of terrorist rockets without ever condemning those rockets, we think they should be held to task for that,” he said. “We do not think they should be given a free pass.”

But the leaders of the largest American Jewish denomination have called for restraint from the U.S. in responding to the Palestinians' U.N. bid.

In a Dec. 14 letter to Obama, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and the CEO of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Steve Fox, noted a Dec. 3 resolution jointly approved by the boards of a number of Reform organizations.

The statement, the rabbis note in the letter, condemns the Palestinians for moving ahead with the advanced status but also “urges Congress to eschew any action that would serve as an impediment” to resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The letter from the Reform leaders to Obama attaches the Dec. 3 resolution, which opposes funding cuts to the Palestinians, to the United Nations and “any reduction in the currently recognized Palestinian diplomatic presence.”

The resolution also “opposes” Israel’s retaliatory plans to build Jewish homes in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, and supports “appropriate measures if the Palestinians use their new status at the U.N. to initiate formal action against Israel via the International Criminal Court or other agency.”

The Reform movement made public the Dec. 3 resolution, but the Dec. 14 letter to Obama was released by mistake to a JTA reporter. A spokesman for the group said the failure to publicize the letter to the president was an oversight, noting that it was sent when the nation was preoccupied with the massacre of first-graders the same day in Newtown, Conn.

Some dovish Jewish groups also have made clear their opposition to penalties for the Palestinians, among them J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

In a fundraising letter, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, counted the 239 signatures on the AIPAC-backed congressional letter sent Dec. 21 as a victory for his movement, noting particularly that only 67 Democrats signed.

“We're seeing the impact in Congress where two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus refused to sign AIPAC’s latest letter calling for closing the PLO’s diplomatic mission in Washington,” Ben-Ami said in the letter. “Such letters used to be signed by 4 out of every 5 Members of Congress. Not any more.”

A slate of recent AIPAC-backed letters indeed have scored signatures in the mid-300s, but letters scoring in the mid-200s are not exceptional, and the new letter was still signed by a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The AIPAC official acknowledged that the organization had hoped for more signatures but added that the letter was circulated toward the end of a congressional session — one that was preoccupied with a compromise on spending and taxes.

“There’s a confidence that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Howard Berman would have gotten more signatures had there been time,” the official said, referring respectively to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Republican chairwoman and Democratic ranking member who together initiated the letter. Both are leaving their top committee posts, Berman after having lost an intraparty reelection battle in his home district and Ros-Lehtinen as a result of Republican caucus rules limiting the tenures of committee heads.

On its website, AIPAC touted the congressional letter as a key element of its legislative agenda.

“The Palestinians must face consequences,” AIPAC said. “The United States should continue to press the Palestinians to refrain from such harmful actions and outline repercussions if they move ahead, such as closing the PLO office in Washington.”

The letter proposes the immediate closing of the office “to send the message that such actions are not cost-free and that, at a minimum, they result in setbacks to U.S.-Palestinian relations.”

AIPAC is also backing a Senate amendment that would shut the PLO office and, if the Palestinians proceed to the International Criminal Court, cut P.A. funding.

AIPAC’s professional leadership circulated a letter to senators urging its passage.

“The amendment does two things,” said the letter, signed by Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, and Marvin Feuer and Brad Gordon, its joint directors of policy and government affairs. “1) It would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority should it successfully pursue anti-Israel efforts at the International Criminal Court and 2) it would close down all PLO offices in the United States unless the Palestinians reenter meaningful peace negotiations with Israel.”

AIPAC, however, has not alerted its activists to the Senate amendment.

The amendment, proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) on the same day as the U.N. vote, never made it to the Senate floor; it's not clear why.

Also not clear is why the House letter did not include a recommendation to Obama to cut funding to the Palestinians, although it has been the centerpiece of warnings over the last year to Palestinians should they press ahead with efforts to upgrade their status at the United Nations. The offices of Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and Berman, a California Democrat, did not return requests for comment.

Israel in the past has quietly opposed cutting off funding to the Palestinians, and even after the U.N. vote, with the exception of the diversion of some $180 million in taxes earmarked for the Palestinian Authority to Israel’s electricity provider, it has refrained from imposing its own penalties.

Despite diplomatic tensions, Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces continue to cooperate to keep the West Bank quiet, and Israeli security officials in the past have been vocal in their opposition to funding cuts for the Palestinians.

Pro-Obama video by Sarah Silverman’s sister to begin airing in Florida


A video in support of President Obama produced by the sister of comedian Sarah Silverman will begin airing in Florida.

The video by Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, posted last week on Facebook shows Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an interview and Israelis throughout the country praising Obama's support for Israel's security.

A 30-second version is scheduled to run in Florida television markets on Monday during the foreign policy debate between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Susan Silverman, who lives in Israel with her husband, Arava Power CEO Yosef Abramowitz, and their five children, became involved in making the video after asking her famous sister to make a video about Israelis' support for Obama.

Sarah Silverman made “The Great Schlep” video in support of Obama four years ago to convince her grandparents and other grandparents to vote for Obama. Earlier this year she made a video asking casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to switch his support to Obama.

The video comes on the heels of an Op-Ed published in the Jewish Press in which Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt criticizes Sarah Silverman for being “crude” and “vulgar.” He suggested that she channel her energy into marrying and having children. The Silvermans' father, Donald, responded with a vulgar statement of his own.

Reform leaders call for probe into Israeli colleague’s arrest, police treatment


Reform Jewish leaders are calling for an investigation following reports that an Israeli colleague was roughed up by police after leading a women’s prayer group at the Western Wall.

Reform leaders in the United States said Thursday that they have spoken with Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, about the incident involving Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and chair of the Women of the Wall.

Hoffman on Tuesday night was leading a service with more than 200 women marking the start of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan and celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, which is holding its convention in Jerusalem.

She told reporters that as she began singing the Shema prayer, police told her that if she did not stop she would be arrested. When she failed to halt, Hoffman said she was handcuffed and taken into custody for wearing a tallit and disturbing public order.

At the police station, she told the Forward, “They checked me naked, completely without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised.” Hoffman added that she was put in a cell without a bed with three prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. She lay down and covered herself with her tallit.

Following a court appearance early Wednesday afternoon, Hoffman was released from custody and issued a restraining order from going to the Wall for 30 days.

Israeli police have not commented on the reports.

Calling Hoffman “a courageous champion of social justice,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Hoffman's treatment “is deplorable and degrading.” He called on Israel’s police minister to investigate the matter and “ensure that the right of women to pray at the Wall is protected.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, added that “There is no denominational monopoly on the spirituality” of the Western Wall and “it is intolerable that any woman should be arrested for praying at one of Judaism’s most cherished sites.”

Barbara Kavadias, acting executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America said, “Anat Hoffman has been arrested for doing what Jewish women all over the world do on a regular basis: pray as Jews.”

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall. Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the Wall’s section for women almost each month for the last 20 years on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Hebrew month.

In August, Jerusalem police arrested four women at the Wall for “behavior that endangers the public peace” and wearing prayer shawls. They were forbidden to enter the Western Wall Plaza for the next 50 days, according to the organization. In June, Israeli police detained a woman wearing a tallit at the Wall and later questioned her for four hours after asking her to wear her prayer shawl as a scarf.

Editorial Cartoon: Cutting the cake


Israeli weddings

Amar: Better to pray alone than with Reform


Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said in a Rosh Hashanah message that it is better for a Jew to pray by himself than with Reform Jews.

Amar made the comment in a pre-holiday interview with the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that was published Sunday.

Amar called Reform Judaism more of a threat to the religion than secular Jews. He also called Reform marriages invalid.

He called on the Orthodox community to reach out to secular Israelis while they are still in school, saying that if they are not reached, the Reform movement “will find them.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a statement responded to Amar' s allegations.

“It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views,” Regev said in the statement. “Rabbi Amar’s misguided insights generate a schism and worse yet, so long as he occupies the seat of Chief Rabbi, he is driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

“Rather than seek fault with fellow Jews, he would better delve into his own soul and realize that most Israeli and world Jews want to align Judaism with modernity and democracy. It is pluralism and diversity which Israel and Judaism need today, not religious coercion and sectarianism.”

Reform, Conservative rabbis: step up gun control


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Lew meets with Reform, Reconstructionist leaders


President Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, met with leaders of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Lew’s meeting last week follows on similar meetings he has had in recent months with leaders of the Conservative and Orthodox movements.

“Particular emphasis was placed on efforts to enhance Israel’s security, and expand sanctions and other forms of economic and political pressure on Iran to curtail its development of nuclear weapons,” said a statement issued by the Reform movement leaders in attendance. “Much of the discussion addressed the Movement’s concerns about protecting the civil rights of women and minorities and economic plight of the poor and vulnerable.”

Also discussed were health care, food assistance for the poor, immigration law and gay rights.

Among the 17 leaders attending were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Steve Fox, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Lynn Lazar, the president of Women of Reform Judaism; Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform’s Religious Action Center; and Carol Feder, a member of the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. 

The meetings with Conservative and Orthodox leaders featured “drop-ins” by Obama. Such a drop-in was not seen as necessary in this case, insiders said, because the president had addressed the URJ biennial last December.

Diversity is good for Jewish college students


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

More Reform rabbis performing interfaith weddings


Danny Richter and his fiancée, Lauren Perkins, have never been to a Jewish wedding, yet this fall, the interfaith couple is planning to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event marks other significant firsts: It also will be the first time that Rabbi Jill Perlman, assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., has ever officiated at an interfaith wedding. In fact, it will be the first time that any clergy from the Reform congregation — Richter’s family synagogue for three generations — will have done so.

While the congregation has approved Perlman’s participation, it has yet to decide if intermarriages may take place within the synagogue itself.

The changes under way at Temple Isaiah are part of the new norm in the Reform movement as it continues to explore how best to respond to such unions, shifting its approach on the sensitive issue of its rabbis officiating at intermarriages.

The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It’s part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said.

CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it’s about half.

The organization “believes it is not an appropriate way to judge someone as a rabbi,” Person said of performing the ceremonies.

While Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Howard Jaffe, describes the change since he was ordained in 1983 as seismic, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says the change has been evolutionary. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it has become much more common in the past decade for Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages.

In fact, next month CCAR will publish a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, the first such manual prepared for the organization, according to Person.

Written by Paula Brody, director of the URJ’s Outreach Training Institute, the manual is intended for use with all couples but includes a separate section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples. The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody said.

Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she said. 

The manual also includes suggestions for follow-up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.

Some rabbis set conditions before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage, such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews.

Rabbi Lev Baesh worries such conditions turn off couples. “It matters so much for a rabbi to say ‘yes,’ ” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for Interfaithfamily.com, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.

That’s why Isaiah’s Perlman agreed to do Richter’s wedding ceremony.

As a rabbinical student, Perlman said, she was not comfortable with the idea. But she has shifted her views since her 2010 ordination. “It’s a blessing, in my opinion, to be there in that moment,” she said.

Isaiah’s Jaffe remains deeply committed to the view that Jewish marriage can only take place between two Jews, and that the rabbi’s role is to facilitate this marriage. But, after a year of a year of study and discussion of the subject with Perlman and Cantor Lisa Doob, he says he is comfortable under certain circumstances with his associate rabbi officiating at intermarriages.

He also said he is no longer so certain that his personal opposition outweighs the potential loss of a couple from Jewish life.

As more congregants, like Richter, approach him as their family rabbi, he said he recognizes his view of Jewish marriage is seen as a rejection. “I am aware of the impact of my saying, ‘I love you, I want to welcome you into the Jewish community, but I am not able to officiate.’ I know that in most cases, the words, ‘I am not able,’ are heard as, ‘I am rejecting you,’ even though that is not the message I am intending,” Jaffe said. 

Jewish population studies have found that as many as 50 percent of Jewish households include a non-Jewish partner. Observers suggest that the number is even higher when one looks at the dating population.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate at interfaith marriages. The Conservative movement does, however, engage in outreach work with interfaith couples at all stages of their lives, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Amid the ravages of wildfires, Colorado Jews band together


The Sidmans are among the lucky ones: Their Colorado Springs home is still standing, nearly untouched by the flames that left many of their neighbors’ houses in ashes.

“I was just sobbing uncontrollably, even though my house was perfect,” Renee Sidman told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

For the past week Sidman and her family—among some 30,000 Colorado residents who were evacuated from their homes as wildfires spread—have found refuge with fellow congregants from Temple Shalom, which was not in the evacuation area.

As of Tuesday, the fire in Waldo Canyon, which sits on the western edge of Colorado Springs, had destroyed at least 347 homes and claimed two lives, according to the Denver Post.

Temple Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements, had about 20 member families evacuated, according to the Sidmans’ host, Julie Richman.

“It’s been kind of a blur,” Richman told JTA about having her family of four now sharing their home with the four Sidmans.

Ironically, Richman’s younger son, Adam, 13, and the Sidmans’ son, Daniel, 12, had just spent two weeks together as bunk mates at summer camp.

The temple’s Facebook page helped to ensure that everyone was accounted for, Richman said, noting that “Everybody in the congregation was kind of tracked down within about 24 hours.”

She said the synagogue also served as a temporary home to the Alpine Autism Center for a few days.

The communal sense was widespread, both in and out of the Jewish community, Richman added. The Jewish-owned Poor Richard’s restaurant gave out free meals to evacuees, individuals picked up restaurant tabs for police and residents put up signs thanking firefighters for keeping them safe.

“Everybody here has been struck by the extremely strong sense of community,” Richman said, reporting that the shelters set in place for evacuees never reached capacity because most people found home hospitality.

Temple Shalom held a healing service Friday night.

“When we Jews suffer pain and tragedy, we come together to strengthen one another. That is how we begin to heal,” said a notice sent to congregants by Rabbi Mel Glazer.

Unlike Temple Shalom and the city’s other synagogue, Temple Beit Torah, Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs was in the evacuation area.

Chabad’s Rabbi Moshe Liberow and his family evacuated ahead of the flames on June 26, finding refuge in Denver. He returned two days later with rabbinical student Zalman Popack to volunteer at one of the shelters.

Police escorted them to his home and synagogue, so they could retrieve some items. The rabbi was relieved to see that there was no damage to his home or synagogue, or his community’s mikvah.

At his home he picked up a cotton candy machine, which he and Popack took along with beverages and other snacks to one of the Red Cross-run shelters.

“People so enjoyed it; adults and children were lining up for the cotton candy,” he said.

Popack has established a relief fund, as has the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, in conjunction with local synagogues, community organizations and national partners.

Jewish federations throughout the United States have been directing donors to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund online or to send checks with the notation “Colorado Fire Relief Fund” to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, 300 S. Dahlia, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80246.

The donations to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund will go to directly combat the fire and help victims. There will be no administrative fees taken out, said Melissa Gelfand, the federation’s marketing and public relations director.

“We’re working locally with the local VOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster] to help victims, firefighters and any other first responders,” she said.

As of Monday, she was not certain how much money the federation fund had raised nationally, but said $30,000 had been raised locally.

The Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center is serving as a Red Cross drop-off location for supplies.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs is also is collecting relief funds.

“Our heart goes out to those affected,” Liberow said. “We want those people to feel uplifted. Hopefully their lives will be on the mend.”

Reform, Orthodox campers to join for Fourth of July celebration


Orthodox and Reform Jewish campers will hold a joint Fourth of July celebration.

The Americafest celebration next week, which will bring campers from the Orthodox Camp Darom in Grenada, Miss., to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., was made possible by a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

The celebration will mark the first time the two camps have come together for an intercamp program day, and will include a Fourth of July parade featuring campers from both camps, an afternoon carnival, an outdoor concert by Jewish musician Dan Nichols and fireworks.

“While the two camps practice their Judaism differently, their missions are very much the same: to strengthen the Jewish identity of young people from small and isolated Southern Jewish communities by providing them with outstanding programs and powerful Jewish memories,” Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen, the Jacobs camp director, said in a statement. “Jacobs Camp’s motto, ‘A Jewish Place at a Southern Pace,’ will surely ring true during this one-of-a-kind celebration.”