Masorti rips bar mitzvah rite for autistic kids held in Orthodox synagogue

A foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel slammed a bar mitzvah ceremony held at an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox children with autism.

Sunday’s ceremony in Rehovot was presided over by an Orthodox rabbi that the nine children and their parents did not know, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel said in a statement.

Masorti professionals who have worked with the children toward their bar mitzvahs were not informed of the ceremony, the statement said. The Torah is not read during services on Sunday by any branch of Judaism.

“What happened, in essence, is that the children, who had all volunteered to be in our program were taken to an unfamiliar synagogue, propped up and posed for a photo-op instead of given a legitimate and respectful bar mitzvah,” said Rabbi Robert Slosberg, the chairman of the Masorti Foundation.

“We were neither invited nor informed of the ceremony. In a situation where all services for children with disabilities are provided by the municipality, Mayor [Rahamim] Malul coerced these parents and their children into participating in a sham bar mitzvah and spat in the face of Masorti Judaism.”

The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities has been taking place for 20 years in Rehovot under the auspices of the Masorti movement. The celebration was at first to be moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem after Malul, the central Israeli city’s mayor, canceled the ceremony in April because it would be held at a Conservative synagogue.

The ceremony at the president’s residence was supposed to be co-officiated by one Conservative rabbi, Mike Goldstein, and one Orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau, according to Conservative officials. But an invitation sent out by the President’s Office listed only an Orthodox rabbi.

“With this group of children from Rehovot, the shameful saga and game has ended,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel. “We were hoping for a better ending, but at least the children and their parents are not left ‘hanging’ in the air. We can’t do anything more for them.”

The Masorti movement said an emergency mission to Israel is being planned that will include high-level government meetings to discuss the marginalization of the movement.

Tough love for Israel: Outrage in Rehovot

With the Celebrate Israel Festival coming up this Sunday at Rancho Park, I thought it’d be an ideal time to write a love letter expressing my unabashed and unconditional attachment to Israel. But as much as I’d still like to do that, that column will have to wait for another week, because right now my mind is too upset about something that happened recently in the holy land.

It’s a little story that barely made the news, but it speaks to a growing cancer inside the Jewish state, the cancer of religious intolerance.

It was brought to my attention two weeks ago when I had lunch with Yizhar Hess, who runs the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel.

In a nutshell, this is what happened: A Charedi mayor of an Israeli town decided to cancel a planned bar mitzvah ceremony for four boys with autism because the ceremony would be taking place in a Conservative, rather than an Orthodox, synagogue.

This special program for boys and girls was launched about 20 years ago by the Masorti movement, and it was introduced last year to the Lotem School in Rehovot, a school run by the municipality that accepts special-needs children from all religious backgrounds. Masorti trains the kids for months in preparation for the big day when they are called to the Torah.

Most of the kids trained in the program have severe autism, so the program developed creative ways to help them recite blessings, such as by pressing buttons on a tablet that plays a recording of the individual blessings. Needless to say, being able to have such a ceremony is an incredibly moving experience for the kids and their families. 

But in Rehovot this year, just days before the ceremony was scheduled to take place, the mayor, Rahamim Malul, cancelled it by prohibiting the staff at the school from participating in the event. According to Hess, it was a chain reaction that began when a Charedi mother at the school (who did not have a child in the Bar-Bat Mitzvah program) complained to the Charedi head rabbi of Rehovot (Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook) who called Charedi MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) who then called Malul.

Suddenly, a program that has been running successfully for years across the country succumbed to the whims of a small group of Charedim. Now, the special-needs kids and their families, who were looking forward to their big day, are in simcha limbo.

My friend Rabbi Uri Regev, who runs Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance in Israel, wrote: “Even if acquiescing to a few parents who did not want to take part in a Masorti event were justified, this should have happened months earlier when the process of preparing for the bar/bat mitzvahs began, so that the simcha not be ruined only two days before the joyous event.”

Some stories are so preposterous, so cruel, that you just reach a breaking point and say, “OK, enough.”

I know, this whole story is preposterous, and yet somewhat familiar. It’s hardly the first time we’ve heard of religious intolerance in a country where a powerful Charedi-led Chief Rabbinate runs the show and imposes its will. But some stories are so preposterous, so cruel, that you just reach a breaking point and say, “OK, enough.”

Canceling a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for special needs kids – at the last minute – is one of those breaking points.

Every Orthodox person I’ve spoken to shares the outrage. When I asked my friend Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who runs an organization (ITIM) that confronts the rigid ways of the Chief Rabbinate, what he thought of the story, his reply was, “I’m horrified.”

So am I.

What is especially disheartening is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his desperation to build a governing coalition, has embraced and empowered this intolerant force by bringing two Charedi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, inside his new government.

Need I add that these two parties are squarely against recognizing the legitimacy of any other denominations of Judaism, such as Reform and Conservative?

In any event, the immediate question now is: What will happen to these four boys and their simcha?

Given how infuriating this story is, it’s starting to gain some public traction (including a report by Michelle Wolf, our blogger on special needs). On May 6, a group of prominent Conservative rabbis and leaders sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to “ensure the rights of every Israeli, especially those who are most vulnerable,” and “to stand up for what is just and fair for these children, and what is right for the Jewish people.”

Every rabbi and every Jew must endorse that letter. The dark image of rejecting a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for any child with special needs must haunt the conscience of Israel’s Charedi establishment.

A few months ago, I interviewed the Charedi Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Baruch Lau, at a public event in the San Fernando Valley. The rabbi spoke eloquently that night about the Jewish values of loving our fellow Jew, Jewish unity and Kiddush Hashem (honoring God’s name).

Well, if he’s reading this, I have an easy way for him to demonstrate all three values: Drive down to Rehovot immediately and make this simcha happen.

That is my love letter to Israel.

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

The future of Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Artson delivered this address as the keynote speaker of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism “Conversation of the Century” centennial conference in Baltimore, Md. on Oct. 13, 2013.

I will lift my eyes to the mountains from where my help comes.  My help comes from the Holy One who makes heaven and earth (Ps 121: 1-2).

We Conservative/Masorti Jews have forgotten to lift up our eyes. 

We have of late become a little too defensive, as if we could refute our challenges through debating points. 

We have become a bit too brittle, eager to shift the blame to each other or to some third party beyond our control. 

We have become too petty and too small, focusing on issues of denominations,  borders, and turf, as though those were our core missions as Jews. 

It is time to once again lift up our eyes above our limitations, above the statistics, above the unnecessary divisions.

When ancient and medieval Jews did their work, they asked grand, universal questions, and they mobilized Jewish tools to create the answers that could make meaning for their generation.  With the onset of modernity, we have reversed their course.  We, instead, ask parochial Jewish questions and then mobilize universal academic tools to try to address those questions.  Small wonder that so many turn away uninterested.  Once, in Biblical times, Judaism was bigger than religion.  It was the very life of the Jewish People.  Under Roman rule, in the searing heat of oppression, Judaism shrank to become a religio, a binding, a religion.  And so it was for almost two thousand years. But we now live after the onslaught of the Shoah, after the miracle of the reestablishment of the Jewish State in our Homeland.  Perhaps it is not too much to ask: are we not living in the dawning of a new era, a third Jewish age?  A time in which perhaps once again, being a religion is too small, too confining to express the fulness of our aspirations, our capacities, our hope.  Is it possible once again for Judaism to find its rightful and natural place as the life of the Jewish People? As our window into the light? As our portal onto the world?  Now, perhaps, with our challenges so clearly articulated and brandished before us, let us muster the courage to transcend our fears, to rise in vision, and to return to our own truest ways.

“I lift up my eyes.”  Let us all lift up our eyes once again to grandeur, to possibility, to daring to dream God's dreams. 

The Challenge

Conservative Judaism is not alone in confronting this challenge.  All wisdom traditions struggle in an age in which the shifts in culture are so massive that they will not be met by merely a few institutional adjustments, as valuable as those may be.  Nor will they revive because of a changed name or the slick slogan, although those might also be helpful.  No, our challenge is to step beyond habit, to reach beyond fear, to return to a core vision that is worthy of our passion and our talents and our lives.

Our challenge is to provide wisdom, consolation, and courage, as people seek to live their lives and to fashion communities of inclusion and justice. 

Our challenge is to mobilize Torah and Jewish sources to heal those wounded by cultures of brutality and violence, by the crass commercialization of life's most sacred relationships, by the endless dehumanization of work and family and identity. 

Yet this is not merely a time of challenge, this is a time of unprecedented opportunity.  We are called, each of us individually, and all of us together, to be God's melachim, God's messengers, God's angels: to comfort the lonely, to hold the afflicted, to cherish the disdained. 

The Opportunity

I would like us to try, as a venerable and striving religious movement, to build on the remarkable energy of these past several days, this upwelling of Conservative/Masorti passion, depth, and authenticity, to meet these human challenges with Jewish tools.  That is our opportunity and that is our proper struggle.  It is for that purpose that we are here together, so permit me, on behalf of the One in whose service I labor, as do you, to return yet again, to consider four invitations that are really one. 

I will be your God and you shall be my people (Leviticus 26:12).  We are invited to a life of covenant, to be able to enter life not as “I” against the world, but as “we' together in service to the world.  We have been invited by the Oneness who sustains Creation, who brings the world into becoming and invites us to take God's side in the eternal struggle against chaos, to bring cosmos, order, where there was none before.  If you will be my people, says God, then I will be your God.  Let us recommit ourselves, beginning now, to lives of true covenant that radiate out from this room and this place, to embrace all of our people, all of humanity, all life and our entire planet. 

You shall teach these words to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 11:19).  We transmit our covenant through learning, and we always have. There is no instrument in the universe as complex and miraculous as the human mind.  Our ability to internalize the experiences of people we have never met, our capacity to think the thoughts of our sages, and to transmit those insights, to be able to think God's thoughts and to internalize and to translate them into life, this is a uniquely human gift.  Let us commit ourselves here, tonight, to reenter this kind of vibrant, open, aware living.  Such a deep and aware living is only possible through the cultivated and disciplined life of the mind, not of disinterested cognition, but of a mind engaged; learning for the sake of living; learning for the sake of transmission. In contribution to commitment I have a brief announcement to make.  I am happy to let you know that after two years of intense negotiations and extensive cooperation with the other arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement – Masorti Olami, The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue – I am proud to let you know that in November the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies will provide religious supervision for the world’s newest Conservative/Masorti rabbinical school, which will serve the entire continent of Europe.  In league with the University of Potsdam, this school will train students for the communities of the European Union in order to energize Masorti Europe and to bring greater glory to the continent where liberal Judaism was first born. The Zacharias Frankel College is yet the latest symbol of the continuing vitality, energy, and power of Conservative/Masorti Judaism unleashed.

Let my people go that they may serve me (Exodus 9:1).  Ours is a life of service, and we find our fullest expression as Jews and as human beings when we ask the question, not “what is in it for me,” but “how may I help?  What may I offer?  What may I do?” Burdens that are unbearable for the solitary soul become possible to manage when there are other shoulders that help us to lift.   Ours is a tradition of engagement and of service.  Let us pledge to think of each other before we act, to integrate each other’s needs and concerns into our own, to be able to act as one, in diversity, with pluralism, but with one heart as Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide.

Serve God in joy and come before God in gladness (Psalm 100:2).  Let us this night recommit ourselves to lives of passion and joy, not as distractions from a religious life, but indeed as God's greatest hope for us, just as we wish for our children that they should know life's delights, that they should know the beauty of love, that they should know a good laugh, sweet humor, a caring community.  Let us also know that the harvest of true spirit is joy and let us share that joy with each other and the world from this day forward.

The Path Forward

Permit me to invite you to join with me in this passionate path and a worthy way of life.  I was not born a Conservative Jew:  I came to this Movement as an adult willingly, because I loved its peoples, I loved its practice, and I loved its value.  And now, 30 years later, I love these people more; I yet love this way of learning and living Torah.  Conservative/Masorti Judaism has provided a path of life for me as it has for hundreds of thousands of other Jews across the continent and around the world.  Let us share that good news.  Enough with handwringing; enough with despair. 

Let us lift our eyes to a path that eagerly seeks a spiritual quest, mining the writings of our sages and of the world's for ways to break our hearts open so that we feel each others' joys, so that nobody mourns alone. 

Let us walk again on a path that is the halacha – our peoples' way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a magnificent flourishing Etz Hayim, a Living Tree.

Let us join together in a path that reaches out to those previously marginalized; for the many who have not felt the embrace of our community in the past because of our own shortsightedness, perhaps because of our own fears.  Let us leave that fear behind and know that the only risk is passing by the possibility of love.  And let us reach out in love, to everyone who would have our love, because in the end they are us; because we need everyone's wisdom, everyone's passion, everyone's strength and everyone's distinctiveness. 

Let us walk the path that venerates learning as a portal to the wisdom of the Holy One, poured through our ancestors, our sages, prophets, and philosophers to us, their children's children, so that we in turn may harvest new insights and new teachings that add to the glory of our tradition leaving it stronger and more vital for our children.

Let us cherish a path that translates learning into life through Mitzvot, Judaism's sacred deeds; a learning that is engaged; a learning that is not dispassionate, but rather full of passion, full of energy, full of life. 

Let us walk a path that centers its heart proudly in the land of Israel, in the reborn State of Israel, and at the same time wraps its arm around the whole wide world. 

And let us walk a path of the ineffable, dynamic God whose truest name is Hayei ha-Olamim — the very life of life, the heartbeat of the universe, the breath of our breath.

The Blessing

Holy One, You who have invited us to this banquet of soul, to the feast of brotherhood and sisterhood, to this great and raucous mishpacha/family that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism, we know that the task is great, we know that the opportunities are worthy and that a world awaits our touch, Your love, our shared wisdom. 

Help us, Holy One, to embrace our most expansive humanity. Help us to breathe in your energy to renew our Conservative/Masorti family, so that we transcend fear, we leave behind rigidity, no longer look back in the smug self-righteousness that threatens to turn us into sulfurous pillars of salt, and instead, turn us to the Light. 

May we face the future that our choices create with courage, enlisting the same vibrant fusion of old and new as did our ancestors before us, so that then, joining hands with all humankind, we can say, as has your prophet,  On that day, God will be one and God's name will be one. 

And then, for God's sake, let us lift up our eyes!

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson ( holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union. A regular columnist for the Huffington Post, he is the author of 10 books and over 250 articles, most recently God of Becoming & Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights).

Conservative group prays in mixed minyan at Knesset

A recent trip of American Conservative (Masorti) Jews to Israel included a first for the country, cutting to the heart of an issue that poses a problem for many American Jews — a mixed minyan for Mincha at the Knesset synagogue.

Religious Jewish rituals in Israel are dictated by the Orthodox rabbinate from the cradle to the grave — they decide who can have a state-recognized Jewish wedding, who can convert to Judaism, how Jews are buried and even what foods are available on Passover. But for many in the American Jewish community, the vast majority of whom are non-Orthodox, this can be difficult to reconcile with their own faith.  

The prayer service was not scheduled ahead of time, said Barbara Berci, a Los Angeles resident who, with husband George and fellow Angelenos Marty and Golda Mendelsohn, was part of a recent four-day Masorti Leadership Mission to Israel.

“It was not something planned in advance,” Berci said in an e-mail correspondence with The Journal. “We davened Mincha each day. Given our schedule, this seemed the best time and place.”

Berci said that the decision to pray in the Knesset was intended “to make a clear statement about our right to pray without a separation of men and women,” but stresses that the 21-strong minyan “did not wish to provoke a confrontation.” As such, she said, the worshippers waited until after the last official posted time for Mincha at the Knesset synagogue before beginning their own service.

“The [Israeli] government spends at least $450 million annually for Orthodox education, congregations, support of ultra-Orthodox adult ‘students’ and gives under $50,000 to Masorti,” she said. “Those of us who buy bonds or give to Israeli groups and causes, and I do, may be unwittingly supporting pro-Orthodox policies with their funding. Maybe we should set as a standard for each gift whether it supports democratic and pluralistic values.”

The Masorti group met with lawmakers from a range of parties and, Berci said, “Every single one of them, from left to right, acknowledged that ultra-Orthodox behavior in trying to limit the religious freedom of many Jews in Israel was a major problem.”

Berci is extremely hopeful that change is on the way for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and lists the establishment of more than 60 Masorti communities in the country as proof of a turning tide.

“I think the dawn is finally breaking,” she said. “But we in America can no longer be silent.” 

Scottish burial society employee makes landmark bias claim

In a landmark case, a Jewish burial society employee in Scotland says he was fired for becoming involved with the Masorti movement.

It marked the first case of a Jewish individual claiming discrimination against a Jewish employer in Scotland, according to the Herald Scotland newspaper.

Warren Bader, 49, said in a preliminary discrimination hearing that he was dismissed by the Glasgow Hebrew Burial Society after he helped set up Masorti Scotland in a Jewish community that is largely Orthodox.

The case now moves to a full employment tribunal, the paper reported.

Bader said he was fired within weeks of helping to set up the Masorti organization, and after the creation of the organization was criticized by the rabbi of Glasgow’s largest Orthodox congregation.

About half of the country’s 9,000 Jews live in Glasgow, according to the Herald.

Angeleno pushes effort on recognizing conversions

When Lorin Fife converted to Judaism some 30 years ago, his experience with the Orthodox rabbis who presided over his year of study and conversion ceremony was one of warmth and acceptance.

Rabbi Shmuel Katz, who spent decades as the head of Los Angeles’ Orthodox bet din (rabbinic judicial panel), completed the ritual with a simple message. “Basically, my charge was to be the best Jew I could be,” Fife said.

Fife has done that.

The retired general counsel to SunAmerica, Fife currently chairs the Israel-Tel Aviv Partnership for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and co-chairs The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Pillar.

He and his wife, Linda, who serves as co-chair of LimmudLA, lived in Israel for three years, and the elder of their two sons, Yoni, 29, was born there. Yoni went back to Israel to serve in the Israel Defense Forces at the height of the Second Intifada.

And it was Fife who last week proposed that the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), where he sits on the board of governors, pass a resolution urging the Israeli government to bring the conversion process back to one that is as accepting and moderate as his own.

Representing The Los Angeles Federation at the JAFI meeting, Fife was moved to action by a recent escalation in Israel’s ongoing conversion crisis. The implications are societal, as well as personal, for Fife, a past president of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

Last May, Israeli rabbis retroactively annulled an Orthodox conversion where the convert did not observe all the mitzvot according to Orthodox interpretation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis have since annulled all conversions by Israel’s National Conversion Court — led by moderate Orthodox rabbis — going back to 1999, affecting thousands of people.

The move was condemned by moderate Orthodox rabbis and most of the Jewish world, warning it could wreak havoc on families who had been living under the assumption that they were Jewish, especially thousands of Russian immigrants.

Fife sought to channel the resulting outrage into a call for those who believe in a more expansive gate to Jewish peoplehood to speak up against religious coercion.

“It has become apparent that secular Israelis basically have no connection to Judaism at all, and it’s become more and more apparent to the great mass of Israelis that it is important to be able to recognize the pluralistic approach that exists in the Diaspora,” Fife said in a phone interview after the meeting in Jerusalem.

He put forward a motion at JAFI’s annual assembly calling on the Israeli government to recognize conversions from any stream of Judaism and to establish a conversion authority separate from the chief rabbinate.

While his motion received a near-unanimous approval at the plenary on “The Conversion Crisis,” by the time it reached the resolutions plenary later that evening, it had already been revised and the dissent had organized.

Some of the dissenters opposed the motion on the grounds that the status quo is acceptable and should not be tampered with. Others, including JAFI Chair Richard Pearlstone, felt the wording needed to be more nuanced, so as not to derail ongoing efforts to establish an independent conversion authority.

Yaakov Ne’eman, a former government minister who has been overseeing that effort since the 1990s, threatened to resign if Fife’s resolution were passed.

Fife’s resolution was ultimately defeated, and more moderate twin resolutions were passed.

The resolutions call on the Israeli government to establish courts of “Jewish law which will base themselves on appropriate, moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The resolutions also call for the establishment of an independent conversion authority. The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, meeting just after the JAFI conference, passed a similar resolution.

The Jewish Agency, which was the government in prestate Palestine and now runs auxiliary agencies mostly in the social realm, still holds some sway over the Israeli government, but its resolutions are nonbinding.

Still, Fife is encouraged that the resolution, even in its toned-down form, made it into the daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, and that the discussion had people paying attention.

“My hope is that by continuing to pursue this issue with sensitivity and dignity and thoughtfulness, we can transform this from something ugly into something beautiful and a good thing for the Jewish people,” Fife said.

Rabbi Funnye battles to open the gates of Judaism [VIDEO]

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. is a kippah-wearing black rabbi who leads a multiethnic congregation in Chicago.

But if you happen to run into him, don’t let your curiosity come across the wrong way.

Speaking last week in Los Angeles to an interdenominational group of rabbis who perform conversions, Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) described one of many unsettling encounters he’s had in his 30-plus years as a Jew.

While visiting Florida about 10 years ago, Funnye attended morning prayers, donning his prayer shawl and tefillin. At the end of prayers, a man approached him.

“Are you Jewish?”

Funnye, with good-natured sarcasm, responded:

“Jewish? Nooooo. I was just walking by, and I saw this stuff just sitting there outside, and I wanted to see how it worked.”

Funnye, 56, has dedicated his life to chiseling away at the conventional, but increasingly inaccurate, conception of who is a Jew. Whether by reaching out to Chicago’s rabbis to allow him to serve on the board of rabbis or traveling to Nigeria to help the Ibo tribes explore their Jewish reawakening, Funnye is laying the groundwork for a time when the wider Jewish community can without questioning accommodate Jews of all ethnicities.

“I have to have one pair of glasses for all Jews and not see that because Jews are of a different ethnicity, that makes a difference in my approach to them,” Funnye said. “I am working for the day that Jews are simply Jews.”

That message resonated with the 35 rabbis gathered at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino for a daylong seminar of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, sponsored jointly with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The Sandra Caplan Bet Din is a cooperative effort by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis to make the conversion process unified, warm and spiritually and psychologically meaningful.

Since it opened in 2002, the bet din has converted 122 people.

Funnye embodies in one person’s journey all that these rabbis are working toward and struggling with: the need to break down false barriers in how “Jew” is defined; the challenge to wholeheartedly integrate those who convert; and the questions of self-definition that inevitably come up for born Jews, who are so often less knowledgeable and spiritually committed than apparent “foreigners” who choose to be Jewish.

“How we relate to the Jew-by-choice, the unchurched, the seekers, tells me more about myself than anything else,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, who followed Funnye’s keynote with a response. “When I look into the eyes of a Jew-by-choice, I see myself reflected.”

In the past several decades, the topic of conversion has pitted liberal rabbis against their Orthodox counterparts, who don’t recognize non-Orthodox conversions as legitimate. The issue is especially heated in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate holds legal status in civil affairs, such as marriage, divorce and burial.

Chicago TV profiled Funnye’s congregation

But the rabbis at the seminar also expressed frustration at their own liberal members who refer to peers as “converts,” even years after they’ve become Jewish.

Funnye himself converted three times. The first two times were with communities of black Jews — also called Israelites or Black Hebrews.

Funnye’s spiritual search began when his African Methodist Episcopalian minister advised him to think about going into the service of God. Christian tenets — and especially the demands on its leaders — didn’t sit well with him. He explored Islam and evangelical Christianity while a student at Howard University, then a few years later, while working at Arthur Anderson consulting, he ran into a group of African Americans who wore kippahs. He began studying with them and attending their Chicago synagogue and converted to Judaism with that congregation in 1972, immersing in a pool.

It was a few years later that he attended a synagogue in Harlem, where he saw a fuller expression of Judaism and ritual, and the leader there encouraged him to become a religious leader for black Jews. In 1979 he re-immersed in a lake, since conversion requires immersion in a natural body of water or a mikvah, ritual bath. In 1985, after studying for four years, he was ordained by the New York-based Israelite Board of Rabbis. During that time, he also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies in Chicago.

And it was that year that he also decided he wanted a full, halachic conversion, one that would meet most mainstream Jewish legal standards. He put together a bet din of two Orthodox rabbis and two Conservative rabbis, including his mentor, Rabbi Morris Fishman. Funnye, his wife, Mary, and their four children — who were already in Conservative day school at the time — immersed in a mikvah.

Throughout his journey in the Jewish community, Funnye has recognized the need to make his community part of the fabric of the larger Jewish community.

Funnye is the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which serves a multiethnic population. Founded in 1918 and now with 220 members, the synagogue moved from Chicago’s South Side to Marquette Park six years ago. Marquette Park is infamous as a center of activity for the American Nazi Party and site of a Martin Luther King Jr. march that ended after just a few blocks because bricks and bottles were being thrown.

Funnye has been at Beth Shalom since 1984, when he started as assistant rabbi. In 1991, he succeeded Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben, who had led the congregation from 1947. While respecting Reuben’s traditions and teachings, Funnye sought to give Judaism fuller expression in the services and rituals and to make the conversion process more oriented toward halachah, Jewish law.

At Funnye’s congregation, Shabbat is an all-day event. Congregants come Friday night and then return Saturday for morning prayers, mostly in Hebrew, a reading of the entire Torah portion and an interactive sermon. A gospel-style choir brings congregants to their feet, and after a Kiddush lunch, about 70 percent of attendees stay for afternoon services and informal Torah study, followed by Havdalah.

Most of his congregants keep kosher, avoiding shellfish and pork, and buying kosher meat. Most of his members can’t afford the high tuition of the day school but attend the congregation’s Hebrew school.

Two of Funnye’s sisters have also converted to Judaism, and his late mother regularly made sure her minister invited her son-the-rabbi to speak at church. Even his in-laws, religious evangelicals, are open to what they see as a way to draw closer to God. His two married children have both married Jews-by-choice. He and his wife have one granddaughter and six grandsons.

“I’ve told my children, ‘If you don’t marry someone who is Jewish, it is my prayer that they become Jewish. It doesn’t matter to me what they look like. What matters to me is that they are Jewish, and their children are going to be Jewish, and that you instill in them and imbue in them the principals and values I have tried to instill and imbue in you,'” Funnye said, adding, “baruch Hashem (thank God) they’ve been listening to their old man.”

He has many congregants who, like his family, have three generations or more at Beth Shalom. He also sees many spiritual seekers, among them white Jews. He is in the process of converting an extended Mexican family of anusim, Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity 500 years ago. The family was attracted to the synagogue because the worship space hidden in their family’s Mexico City basement was also called Beth Shalom.

He teaches many seeking conversion and brings them before a bet din of Conservative rabbis — one of the changes he made in an effort to up the quality of Jewish observance in his congregation. Potential converts must study for at least a year and attend services regularly.

“I often like to tell new people that when you start studying Judaism, every time you get a new book, every time you learn something new, it should feel like dipping a spoon into a bucket of fresh well water. If you ever had well water, it stimulates the whole being — this is what Judaism does when we learn. It stimulates the being,” Funnye said. “It’s never stopped doing that for me. The more I learn, the richer it tastes; the better it tastes.”

Jewish Agency wants changes in Israel conversion policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nessah Young Professionals party like Paris Hilton; New VP for Masorti women

Nessah Young Professionals Party Like Paris Hilton

Dubbed the “Glamour Summer Night,” the Nessah Young Professionals’ Aug. 26 annual gala drew more than 600 local Iranian Jewish young professionals and college students to the Area nightclub in West Hollywood, where they danced the night away to live music while also raising money on behalf of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).

Funds generated by the event this year were set aside for the creation of a mobile recreation facility — a place to relax, socialize, exercise and check their e-mail — for Israeli commandos, who aren’t given enough time off from assignments along the Israel-Lebanon border to visit permanent FIDF recreational facilities.

“It is so very meaningful and heartwarming to realize that although we live in Beverly Hills, we are still able to have fun, mingle and raise enough money to build a mobile club for our brothers and sisters who are defending and protecting our homeland in Israel,” said Simon Etehad, head of the young professionals group based out of Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “Some of those Israeli soldiers have just completed high school and are not even old enough to drink.”

As in years past, the fundraiser’s ultra-hip venue was donated by SBE Entertainment, which is owned by Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian.

Nessah Young Professionals members said the recreational facility in Israel will also be dedicated in memory of Daniel Levian, a local Iranian Jew in his 20s who died last month in an automobile accident. In past years, the young professionals group has raised funds for other FIDF projects, including the LEGACY Program, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to attend summer camp in the United States for bar and bat mitzvah-age children who had a family member killed in action.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Brandes’ ‘Quarrel’ Opens Off-Broadway

Pico-Robertson playwright/producer David Brandes has turned his 1991 film “The Quarrel” into an off-Broadway play.

Co-authored by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “The Quarrel” tells the story of two estranged friends — a pious rabbi and a secular writer — who reconnect in an accidental meeting after years of being separated by betrayal and war. What ensues is “a fierce battle of wits and a raw test of friendship, faith and tolerance,” according to publicity materials.

The play opened last week at the DR2 Theatre in New York, where it will run through Sept. 28.

New Veep for Women’s Masorti Movement

ALTTEXTTobie Rosenberg is in line to become vice president of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Among her many leadership positions in the Jewish community, Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Valley Beth Shalom, as well as on the International Board and Torah Fund Cabinet of the Women’s League.

Rosenberg will be installed at the 2008 biennial convention on Nov. 9 in Dearborn, Mich.

Founded in 1918, the Women’s League is the umbrella organization overseeing 600 affiliated women’s groups in Conservative/Masorti synagogues in the country.

ADL Reunion Brings Together Scattered Graduates

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reunited 100 graduates from its Glass Leadership Institute, a program established 10 years ago that grooms young professionals for leadership in the ADL. The purpose of the event was to reconnect graduates with the ADL, some of who have gone on to leadership positions within the organization and others who have become lay leaders in other areas of the Jewish community.

Each year, 20 to 25 young professionals in their late 20s to early 40s are nominated to the 10-month institute (formerly known as the Salvin Leadership Institute), which provides education on hate crimes, terrorism, Holocaust education and Israel advocacy. The institute has become a significant talent pool for the ADL, giving rise to new generations of lay leaders.

Current ADL regional board chair Nicole Muchnik is a graduate of the program, along with board officer Seth Gerber and former regional chair Murray Levin.

The ADL is currently accepting nominations for next year’s class. For more information, call (310) 446-4243 or visit