Nefesh Immigrants Cite Smoother Aliyah


When Fairfax resident Yasmine Noury boarded an El Al flight late last year, she joined the growing ranks of North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005.

“I really believe in living in Israel, and I felt the best time to make aliyah was when I’m young, before I have too many things tying me down,” said Noury, 20, a Modern Orthodox graduate of Yavneh and YULA, who is already enrolled at a seminary, Michlelet Orot in Elkana, and plans to study early childhood education at Bar-Ilan University. “I luckily have ties otherwise in terms of friends, family and a school life but even before that, the connection to Israel was already there. The Jewish heritage links us without having to make any effort.”

Noury’s departure from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Dec. 27, linked her with the 3,200 North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005, including 84 Californians, 30 of them L.A. residents. They came through joint efforts of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh. This nonprofit organization has helped settle approximately 7,000 U.S. and Canadian immigrants since its launch in 2002. Several thousand more are expected in coming years.

Making aliyah through Nefesh helps reduce bureaucratic red tape. Immigrants fly on complimentary, one-way tickets and when they land in Tel Aviv, they receive the new identity cards that entitle them to a “sal klita,” a basket of benefits meant to ease their absorption into Israeli society. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages, living stipends, Hebrew-language classes and more.

The help is often greatly needed. The greatest challenge to a successful klita, or absorption, is finding work, a support system and a sense of belonging. In fact, approximately 80 percent of North American immigrants arrive through Nefesh. Those who arrive through the traditional channels of the Israeli government seek out Nefesh B’Nefesh services after they arrive.

The formula seems to be working. As of January 2005, 99 percent of those immigrants who have received aid have remained in Israel, 94 percent of families have at least one employed spouse, 110 children have been born and 36 immigrants have married, including two couples who met on Nefesh flights.

The program’s success is largely the result of the vision of its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the United States. They have attracted several other American Jewish philanthropists to contribute to Nefesh B’Nefesh efforts. Despite rumors to the contrary, only a small portion of funding comes from Christian evangelists.

“We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, right or left, religious or not,” Gelbart said. “If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”

American Jews of all stripes are moving to Israel for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations, hopes for raising a family in a Jewish state, a sense of kinship and a growing affinity for the country.

“North American aliyah is very different from what is happening in many other countries,” Fass said. “Ours is an aliyah strictly of choice and idealism, not of escape or refuge. We believe that a large reservoir of American and Canadian Jews have dreamt or considered aliyah as a possibility for themselves, and we know many of the reasons or obstacles in their way that have prevented them from realizing that dream.”

Nefesh recognizes that money is a major obstacle for many potential applicants. The expense of making pilot trips, finding a new home, acquiring or shipping household appliances and furnishings and the income lost during the process often discourages North Americans from making the move. Nefesh estimates a family of six will require $21,920. Applicants are awarded a loan, at first, but it turns into a grant if recipients remain in Israel for more than three years. Singles receive approximately $5,000 to $7,000; families get between $15,000 and $22,000.

For the marjority of olim, or immigrants, the first few years are the most difficult, even with financial assistance as well as workshops and social events sponsored by Nefesh throughout the country.

Shlomo Katz, 25, earned a master’s degree in computer science before moving to Haifa from Fairfield, Conn., with his widowed father more than a year ago. Originally, he felt very supported by Nefesh. But a year later, a job still hasn’t come through. Katz recently enrolled in a yearlong software engineering course to enhance his qualifications for a “high-level job.”

“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Luckily, I have enough to live on with savings from the U.S. and by living with my dad.”

Israeli rents can be quite low by U.S. standards. A bargain studio apartment near Rehavia in Jerusalem can go for as little as $300, but living at an American standard, with many other costs comparable to the United States, is nearly impossible on a typical Israeli paycheck. Hourly minimum wage, for instance, is less than $4. As a result, many Israelis live beyond their means. For Shlomo Katz’s father, Eliezer Katz, higher wages in America make brief stays there at the home of friends worthwhile. While in the United States, the elder Katz supplements his income as an electrician. But for now, the family is remaining in Israel.

For Deena and Aaron Singer, both 33, the first 12 months after their aliyah from New York in July 2003 required them to each return individually to the States for short term visits to help care for ill family members.

“I was nervous about leaving family, finding jobs, all the typical aliyah fears,” Deena Singer said. These days, Aaron Singer works in publication sales at the Shalem Center, a post-Zionist think tank, and Deena Singer finds meaning in her job as a behavioral consultant with autistic children. After two years in an Orthodox absorption center, the Singers moved to a “mixed” moshav near Gush Etzion where they feel they are giving their own children, Naama Shira, 5, and Ahuva, 3, the benefit of living among a variety of Jews.

Daniel Rebuck, 36, didn’t have a job lined up in advance of his aliyah this winter, but he remains hopeful while he studies in an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew-language course. A former professional soccer player, Rebuck would like to find a position coaching at a soccer club, working as he did before Hurricane Katrina wiped out his job in New Orleans.

“I’ve been to Israel six times and I always feel very much at home,” he said. “With the hurricane, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.'”

Yasmine Noury says she already lives a very normal life in Israel as a student, and feels very fortunate “every day to be part of a Jewish nation.” She looks forward to getting married and having children in the Holy Land.

“That’s something that is crucial in my aliyah,” she said. “I feel strongly it’s very important to raise a family in Israel.”

She is optimistic that one day, her two younger siblings, a 16-year-old brother and a 12-year-old sister, will follow. And if they make aliyah, she says, then her parents might consider it.

“It’s a scary thing because you, of course, want your family to follow,” she said. “It’s the ultimate goal that you should have everyone with you. Part of building your own family and being part of Am Yisrael [the People of Israel] and Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] is that you will have family to be around. You never know what the future holds.”

Letters


Focus Attention

“After reflecting for a few painful and difficult days, I feel I should address some mistatements I made (“Uncertain Time for Likud in America”, 1/13/06).” Rather than spending precious resources on the symptoms of intermarriage, I was trying to focus attention on support for Israel as a basis of instilling Jewish identity.

The Jewish lay leaders and rabbis I know wholeheartedly love and support Israel and are instilling Jewish identity in our entire diverse community. In addition, all Jews, no matter what their sexual orientation, as well as Jews by choice, are sincere and dedicated Jews and should be respected. I sincerely apologize for the comments reflecting otherwise.

Myles L. Berman
Los Angeles

Great Cover

I applaud your great cover of Jan. 6 (“L.A.’s Top 10 Menches). It does not matter to me if you call these outstanding examples “menchen” or “menches.” What I find very important is that your cover and inside story focused on people doing great things for others.

Many times I find that the covers reflect a sensational aspect more in keeping with a magazine at a market checkout stand, than a vibrant Jewish community. Keep covering positive issues. Thank you

Esther Tabak
Beverly Hills

Wow! What a great choice for your [Jan. 6] cover. The Orthodox Jewish community is grateful to you for highlighting Avi Leibovic and the extraordinary work he does. The other community lights were an inspiration, and choosing among these heroes for the cover must have been a challenge.

Nevertheless, your choice was much appreciated as the Aish Tamid program has truly established itself as a essential and effective community resource.

Rabbi Meyer H. May
Los Angeles

Orthodox Women

As Amy Klein reported, the Friday night panel of the OU convention indeed featured a robust exchange concerning the place of women within Orthodoxy (“Orthodox but Not Monolithic,” Jan. 6). Though my views on the issue were described by as being “far left,” I would imagine that many readers would find them to be quite consistent with mainstream ethical and Jewish religious thought.

These views (all of which have been translated into practice at B’nai David-Judea) are a rooted in the fundamental idea that women should be able to exercise all of the religious opportunities that the halacha provides them with.

These include the opportunity to carry, dance with and (in a women’s service) read from the Sefer Torah; to pray in a women’s section that is an exact mirror image of the men’s section; to study Talmud without restrictions or limitations; to recite Kaddish for a deceased parent, and to be chosen for any position of lay leadership for which they are qualified.

If indeed there are “far left” views, then I suppose I must humbly accept this label.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox but Not Monolithic.” While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union.

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the Orthodox Union, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the Orthodox Union’s board of governors.

David Luchins
National Vice President
Orthodox Union

Westchester’s Bright Future

While I thank The Jewish Journal for commenting on B’nai Tikvah’s commitment to the Westchester community, I have to take issue with the statement: “The expanding airport and white flight reduced the once-thriving synagogue to a skeletal congregation” (“Still Strong in Westchester,” Jan. 6).

Our congregation is tightly woven with 100-plus families. We have actually bucked the trend by increasing our membership by over 10 percent since Reb Jason joined us. Our award-winning nursery school is going strong, and our religious school boasts over 40 children. The future is very bright for this “skeletal congregation.”

Art Wexler
Westchester

Links

Thank you for your very brave and truthful article, “Too Jewish to Play Myself” (Dec. 16, 2005). Hollywood’s weak link to reality is driving Jewish and non-Jewish actresses nuts. There seems to be a general dislike of what is really female, even including female old age. So go forth and be a strong link and seek other strong links; create a new Hollywood. There are many of us on your side.

Theresa Merrin
Thousand Oaks

‘Singlehood’

Thank you. Each week when I take The Jewish Journal, I always begin by reading the back page singles section. The singles section is my corner, even when I don’t like what someone writes, it still gives me food for thought about my own experiences of “singlehood” in Los Angles. While I often relate to the experiences of the columnists, I don’t often relate to their philosophies.

How refreshing it was to read Mark Miller’s thought (“Unhappy New Year!” Jan. 6). No, I am not desperate. Yes, I am living. Dating is about feeling comfortable in our own skin, leading an active social life, which can include, but is not limited to, attending cultural events and volunteering opportunities and meeting people along the way.

So thank you for the fresh perspective. It’s nice knowing that I am not alone in how I live out my “singlehood.”

Deborah Graetz
via e-mail

Reaction to Rosove

Rabbi John Rosove in his opinion, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), commits an error of omission in not sharing with your readers how most of his congregants reacted to his extraordinary erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. Yes, undoubtedly a few congregants were alarmed that his “speaking truth to power” could threaten the temple’s 501(c)(3) status.

But the vast majority in the sanctuary responded very differently. They heard his prophetic reminder that Jewish values and traditions speak to our communal responsibility for caring for “those who are in the shadow of life.” They understood it to be a call to action, and they applauded!

Marjorie B. Green
Los Angeles

Sharon’s Legacy

Rob Eshman seems bewildered by the rehabilitation of Sharon’s legacy (“Scheinerman/Sharon,” Jan. 13). He doesn’t clarify that Sharon was truly despised by the Muslims and the European, as well as the Jewish left. History has proven that Sharon was ahead of the curve: He was the first true counterrorist leader, and worst of all, he was successful.

Though Eshman considers the Lebanon incursion to be a “disaster,” he is only viewing it from the point of view of Israeli public relations. The true reality was, in fact, a disaster for the PLO, whose murderous rampages in the Lebanese civil war against Christian, as well as Muslim Shiite Arabs, and cross-border rocket attacks against northern Israel came to a crashing halt as Sharon exiled Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to Tunisia.

It is no coincidence that bin Laden has repeatedly harped on this fact in his diatribes. Ariel Sharon was more accurate in his assessment of future threats to Israel than the Western world was to the threat of Islamo-fascism. He should be credited for this in his legacy,

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

 

Jewish to the Core


Over a year ago, my friend Ammiel Hirsch, a prominent Reform rabbi, and I co-authored "One People, Two Worlds," a debate-in-print about the issues that divide us. In the time that has gone by since its publication, the two worlds have not drawn any closer, but at least in my case, the book has engendered a heightened sensitivity to the people on the other side.

When we signed the contract, the book was not even half done. Although we had done battle on a number of sensitive issues, there were many that had yet to be addressed. After the signing, my co-author and I went out for coffee, and he gave me a heads-up about what was coming: "You’re going to have problems with the authenticity of non-Orthodox Jews."

"What do you mean?" I said. "I love all Jews. Regardless of what they believe or their level of observance, they are as Jewish as I am. As long as they have a Jewish mother, of course."

"If you acknowledge their Jewishness only as a legal technicality," he said, "you will alienate them. If your whole purpose in writing this book is to reach out to all Jews, you really don’t want to do that. Somehow, you have to validate their expressions of Jewishness as well."

Ammi had backed me into a corner. He wanted me to admit that all attempts at serving the Almighty are equally acceptable expressions of our ancient tradition. But how could I?

In the Orthodox view, some elements of the Jewish belief system define the very essence of Jewish life and are beyond compromise: the divine authorship of the Torah, revelation at Sinai, the divine selection of the Jewish people, the everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people, the binding nature of halacha.

Clearly, I could not in all honesty acknowledge Ammi’s beliefs as just another variation on a common theme. Yet if I didn’t do so, would the non-Orthodox readers, for whom I was writing this book, angrily rebuff the hand I extended in friendship? Basically, Ammi was telling me that I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What was I supposed to do? In my heart, I consider all Jews my beloved brothers and sisters. I have a deep affinity for them and bond with them easily, despite the ideological chasms that often divide us, just as I bonded with my co-author, who is at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from me.

I know this is not the result of a legal technicality but rather the kinship of authentic mutual Jewishness. But how could I articulate these thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way? How could I convince my nonobservant brethren that I consider them authentically Jewish but not the ideologies to which they have pledged their allegiance?

I have to admit that I did not do myself proud.

I wrote that to be authentically Jewish is to seek truth, to be kind, considerate, charitable and hospitable, to have a sense of duty to the world, to feel deeply that all Jews are responsible for each other, to care about justice, to make a positive impact on the values of the world. Finally, to be Jewish is to have an explicitly articulated covenant with God, a contract binding both Him and us. Reform Jews express themselves Jewishly at every step of the way, except for the critical issue of the covenant.

Interacting with my readers over the last year, however, has left me wiser, even inspired. I have met and received e-mails from many hundreds of Jewish people from all walks of life. What I have encountered is far more than a generic yearning for justice and freedom. Some people have opened to me a little, others a lot, and in all of them I have perceived an intense pride in their Jewishness and a deep yearning for connection with the Almighty, His teachings and the ancient traditions of our people.

Just today, I received an e-mail from a student at Brandeis who wrote, "I wanted you to know that many Reform Jews feel like I do, and while they may not have the ability or drive to change their religious lives, large numbers of them are actively seeking the Almighty and spirituality."

What, I wondered, was driving all this eager searching? And something else also puzzled me, something very profound. Why did these people care so much about declaring their Jewish identity?

It is a dangerous thing to be visibly Jewish, especially today, when our people are under attack all over the world. Is it worthwhile to risk your life and the lives of your small children to be identified with ancient ancestors, who were liberal and progressive ahead of their times?

I could understand it if you believe in the divine covenant, if you believe that the Jewish people have a divinely articulated mission to be a light unto the nations, if you believe that we are truly chosen in the deepest meaning of the word. Something so spectacular and so transcendent could justify the risk. But what of those who believe it is all just a beautiful myth?

And then it struck me.

Deep in their consciousness, all these Jews carry the memory of that magical moment when we encountered the Almighty and became a people. This moment is defined in the memory of traditional Jews as revelation at Mount Sinai. Others don’t have it clearly defined in their consciousness.

Nonetheless, that moment was so intense and so powerful that it still commands attention, interest and commitment more than 3,000 years later; it is etched into their Jewish chromosomes. Somewhere along the line they connected with the chain of the Jewish national memory, be it from a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a friend. The knowledge is ablaze deep in their souls, crying out for expression.

This is what makes them authentic Jews. Their very desire to declare their Jewish identity to the hostile world bears witness to the ancient and eternal bond between the Almighty and His chosen people. This fervent desire, this core of pure Jewishness, makes it possible and perhaps even plausible that the two worlds may someday once again become one.

Rabbi Yosef Reinman will be scholar-in-residence , on Friday, Dec. 6 at the Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, 9350 Civic Center Drive. He will also speak there on Saturday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. on “Privileges and Obligations: Classical Judaism for the Modern Age.”

Humanistic Service Entices the Secular


At Temple Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley, the High Holiday services make no reference to a supernatural God. Adat Chaverim — and members of a sister group in Los Angeles — will join some 40,000 secular Jews throughout the world in Humanistic services.

“A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emancipates us from the beliefs and rites of those who prostrate themselves before an all-powerful deity,” Adat Chaverim reader Joe Steinberg will say when explaining the meaning of the observance to the congregation. “They offer self-forgiveness and the occasion to restate our belief in personal and human responsibility for our lives, our behavior and our destiny. For us, the High Holidays are not a punishment or a threat, but an opportunity to gain ongoing insights into our being.”

The numbers of Humanistic Judaism are small — especially given the millions of Jews in the world who identify themselves as nonreligious — but Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of Detroit, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, remains optimistic.

He notes, for one, that Sivan Malkin Haas, the first Israeli to complete the five-year rabbinical course at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is returning to Jerusalem to lead the Humanistic congregation in the Jewish State.

In North America, some 40 Humanistic “communities” will observe the High Holidays, mostly guided by madrichim (trained lay leaders). Only in eight cities — New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and the Miami area — will ordained Humanistic rabbis be available to conduct the services.

At Adat Chaverim, the Valley Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the resident madrich is Steinberg, who organized the group with three other people two years ago.

“Now we have 53 members,” Steinberg said, “and we rent space from a Methodist church in Tarzana. The next step is to get our own storefront place.”

Adat Chaverim broke away from the older Los Angeles chapter, partially to shorten driving distances, but mainly because “we wanted more music and ritual,” Steinberg said.

A vigorous 82, Steinberg worries about the aging membership of Adat Chaverim, a general concern among many Humanistic communities, as among Jewish organizations and synagogues in general. To attract younger families, Steinberg doubles as director of the congregation’s Children’s Jewish Cultural School. Its goal, notes a brochure, is to teach children “the real history of a real people in all its diversity” and to allow them “to develop their own convictions honestly on the basis of knowledge.”

Attorney Shirley Monson serves as treasurer of the Los Angeles Society for Humanistic Judaism, with some 60 members.

Her grandfather was Orthodox, her parents Conservative and Monson attended a Reform temple, “until I grew out of it and became a Humanistic Jew,” she said. “I also didn’t want my kids to get a [religious] education they didn’t believe in.”

As a secular woman, Monson rarely encounters antagonism when meeting members of more conventional Jewish denominations. But occasionally, when the conversation turns to religion and she mentions that she doesn’t pray to God, “they’ll treat me like I had leprosy” Monson said.

A third center of secular Judaism in the Los Angeles area is The Sholem Community, which consists of 120 families and operates a Sunday school, from kindergarten through ninth grade, for 75 students. The center’s credo is encapsulated in the words, “To the best of our abilities, we are the authors and publishers of our Book of Life.”

Hershl Hartman, Sholem’s vegvayser, Yiddish for guide, recalled that the first secular Yom Kippur was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1973. In preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, Hartman said, “Some traditions change, so we don’t sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs. Some traditions don’t change, so we blow the shofar.”

It is difficult to ascertain the number and percentage of secular Jews in the United States, with Wine putting the figure at a high of 47 percent.

The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, cited 1.7 million self-identified Jews who described their households as atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or having no religion.

Whatever the precise number, given the large pool of like-minded Jews, why is membership in the Society of Humanistic Jews, and similar groups in 11 other countries, so low?

According to Wine, some 15,000 to 20,000 North American Jews are “fully connected” to the Society, up from 10,000 a decade ago, while an additional 20,000 attend lectures and other activities, or get married under Humanistic auspices.

Wine believes that the future growth of his movement is linked directly to the number of trained rabbis it can produce, saying that Humanistic congregations led by rabbis, rather than lay leaders, are expanding and attracting young families.

Currently, there are six candidates studying in the rabbinical program, but, “If I had 50 rabbis to send out, the movement would grow rapidly,” Wine said.

He is convinced that secular Jews must get together and organize, especially in the face of the growing fervor of religious fundamentalists.

“Unless we are organized, we have no voice,” Wine observed. “And ours is a voice that needs to be heard.”

For information on the Society for Humanistic Judaism,visit www.shj.org .

Don’t Judge aBook by Its Cover


The media has been busy for months with “One People, Two
Worlds” (Schocken Books, 2002), the book I co-authored with Ammie
Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after
two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust
has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my
own.

A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now-solo
appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote an article (“Two Authors, One Book Tour,”
Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had
met “thousands of Jews. Precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach —
mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world.”

It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated
well with the people during the first two appearances — in the “State of World
Jewry” forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis —
despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people
approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also
connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the
tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A
great loss.

So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this
opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare
phenomenon?

Ammi offers the answer. “The Jewish world needs you,” he
calls out to the Orthodox, “to bring your love of Torah, discipline,
commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world…. The enemy is not
Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see
ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish
continuity.”

You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful
opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis?
Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It
is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the
Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he
can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.

But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of
perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism,
denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies
the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our
ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so
eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don’t
display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just
different flavors of the liberal stream.

During these last few months, I have met and heard from
numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I
wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society.
Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their
ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their
chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator
and His people is real.

Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a
firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding
any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing
common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our
ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They
placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.

Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of
communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down.
Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider
them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and they have stood guard over the people
to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.

So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered
sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away
and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.

There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox
community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling
that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized
and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it
was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since
I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate,
my participation was considered “individual” rather than “official” contact; I
mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus
circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.

We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit
distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the
Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even
bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror,
painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see
one serious, in-depth review of the book.

The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed
what we already knew — that the distinctions had failed to register with all
those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better.
Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.

What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew.
Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed
ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication
against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.

The members of the council are wise, intelligent, highly
principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their
respects when I was sitting shiva for my father recently. The sages just set
policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened
me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and
respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from
the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary
statement. I have only good things to say about them.

In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but
what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and
pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as
convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and
compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our
expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.

In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not
to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet
Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the afterword. If you need more
guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.

As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the
moderator asked me, “If someone has a choice between watching ‘The Sopranos’
and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?”

Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to
wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do?

So I took a deep breath and said, “He should watch ‘The
Sopranos.'”

There was an audible gasp from the audience.

I was mortified.

Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told
me, “Don’t worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides,
many people will go home wondering, ‘What is so bad about learning Talmud with
a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?'”

Why, indeed.

Article reprinted courtesy The New York Jewish Week. Â


Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J.

A Homeland Paves the Way for Lieberman


I was pulling on my socks in a San Francisco hotel room when
Sen. Joe Lieberman, in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., announced he was
running for president, live on CNN.

I don’t know about you, but I found this mighty moving.
Whether or not you identify with his political positions or his Orthodox
religiosity, it’s hard not to feel a rush of satisfaction. Yes, there are Jews
who fret that he’s too conservative, or that his crusade against Hollywood sex
and violence will hurt Democratic fundraising, or that he might divert Jewish
donors whose dollars would be better spent ensuring an Israel-friendly
Congress. There are those who cringe every time he utters the word “God,” which
sometimes seems like every third sentence, and those who worry that if he’s
elected, and the economy really tanks, that the Jews will get blamed. But
c’mon, how can you not kvell over a man with a wife named Hadassah? And that
sharp Jewish sense of humor, and a mother who serves rugelach to reporters?
Lieberman is the real thing, and he’s got a real shot. Heck, the man was
elected vice president in 2000 by half a million votes, but then, of course,
some (ahem) technical difficulties got in the way.

It struck me as significant that a day earlier, flying out
to the West Coast, I had read the New York Times obituary of another Jew in
American politics, or more correctly an ex-Jew, twice removed. Readers my age
or older may also have taken special notice of the passing, at age 93, of C.
Douglas Dillon, the distinguished Wall Street financier who served as John F.
Kennedy’s treasury secretary.

When I saw his name in the headline, I recalled at once —
Jews (and I suppose anti-Semites, too) automatically remember such things —
that C. Douglas Dillon’s father, Clarence Dillon, founder of the investment
bank now known as Warburg Dillon Read, was the son of a Polish Jew. The Times
confirmed my recollection: The immigrant grandfather was named Samuel Lapowski,
who, according to the obit, settled in Texas, changed his name, and “began …
propelling his children to higher social strata through education.”

The Harvard University Gazette also marked Dillon’s demise —
he was Class of ’31, his father ’05 — citing his service as president of
Harvard’s Board of Overseers and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York, but omitting to mention the long-irrelevant Lapowski connection.

Is America a great country, or what? By the time Joe
Lieberman (Yale ’64, Yale Law ’67) had propelled himself upward by means of
first-class education, the country had changed dramatically. Kennedy had succeeded
where his Roman Catholic predecessor, Al Smith, had failed.

In contradistinction to Edward G. Robinson and Lauren
Bacall, Barbra Streisand had retained her Jewish name and became a superstar,
nevertheless. And now — drumroll please — we have the serious possibility of a
man in the Oval Office who is not only called Lieberman but is shomer Shabbat.
What has made the difference?

Call me a Zionist, but I think it has everything to do with
the existence of the State of Israel. Back in 1936 — another era in Jewish
history — the editors of Fortune published a short book called “Jews in
America,” a reprint of a long essay that had appeared in that highly respected
magazine.

Hitler had come to power, and the winds of anti-Semitism
blew disturbingly in the United States, as well. Henry Ford and the Rev.
Charles Coughlin after him saw the tentacles of Jewish control everywhere, and
Fortune undertook to prove such bigots wrong. Still, the editors’
well-intentioned words betrayed the scent of patrician condescension: “The
outstanding fact about the Jewish people,” according to Fortune, “is the fact
that they have preserved, though scattered among the nations of the earth,
their national identity. They are unique among the peoples of the world not
because they have bold noses — only a small percentage of Jews have the Jewish
nose — but because they alone, of all peoples known to history, have retained
in exile and dispersion and over periods of thousands of years their
distinction from the peoples among whom they live.”

“The Jew is everywhere, and everywhere the Jew is strange,”
the magazine said. “Japanese are strangers in California but not in Japan.
Scotsmen are outlanders in Paris but not in Edinburgh. The Jews are outlanders
everywhere. The country of the Jew, as Schopenhauer puts it, is other Jews.”

With the founding of the Jewish State, Fortune’s claim went
out the window. The strange and omnipresent “Jew” now had a country, where,
like Frenchmen in France, he was the balebos, the landlord, the host — a country
of Hebrew-speaking cops, cab drivers and cardiovascular surgeons.

And this meant that Jews the world over could stand taller
than ever, rising to new social and professional heights, proudly asserting
their identity as never before. In other words, David Ben-Gurion enabled Joe
Lieberman.

Here in Israel, we, too, will be electing a new government —
much sooner, of course, than back in the Old Country. By the time you read
these words, the results may be in, and the pundits will be pumping out gallons
of explanatory ink.

Will the new government be inclined to enhance this
country’s democratic credentials — our most valuable strategic asset? How long
will the prestige of the Jewish state continue to reflect beneficially on Jews
in Texas and Connecticut and Illinois? Will the rising global tide of renewed
anti-Semitism abate anytime soon?

These are weighty questions for another day. In the
meantime, with Iraq on our fevered brain, we in Israel thank our stars for our
close ties to the United States — a recognition that came home to me yet again
as my taxi, climbing back from the airport to Jerusalem, passed a convoy of
American military trucks bearing Patriot missile launchers into the Jewish
heartland.


Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His e-mail address is stuart@netvision.net.il.

Hidden Sensuality


Earlier this month, visitors to the Grand Hyatt in New York City might have spotted an unusually stern warning sign on one wall: “The hair of a woman is considered ervah.” Lewd, shameful, naked, unchaste. This inscription, from the Babylonian Talmud, was part of a photographic exhibit by the artist Na’ama Batya Lewin, on display on the occasion of the fourth international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Nov. 9-11.

In characteristic Talmudic dialectic, Lewin’s exhibit presented an alternative interpretation of the ancient verse, summed up in the exhibit’s title, “Ervah: Hidden Sensuality.” The photographs show Lewin visiting modern and ultra-orthodox communities around New York in all manner of head coverings: synthetic wigs, hats riding on top of wigs, schpitzlim (knit caps covered with twisted twine), even a long, luscious red sheitel (a wig) dramatically different from her own.

The JOFA conference brought together some 700 women and 300 men for a weekend of religious activism and scholarly lectures on the question of tzeniut, a mix of modesty and dignity, and other aspects of communal life, all gathered under the rubric “Discovering/Uncovering/Recovering Women in Judaism.” The group, most of whose members identify as modern Orthodox, pursues small victories — mother’s names on tombstones, bat mitzvahs for girls, more equitable synagogue seating plans — while also pressing for a feminist reworking of the entire 3,000-year-old patriarchy that is Orthodox Judaism.

Emotions were noticeably more raw at last year’s conference, where one speaker broke down in tears over whether she should encourage her daughter to wear tzizit (traditional fringed ritual garments reserved for men and boys). This time, participants made bolder assertions: “Just do it, and the rabbis will follow,” one woman said. Indeed, conference-goers heard talks by several prominent men — rabbis and scholars — who’ve found imaginative legal precedent in the Talmudic and rabbinic texts for still-controversial practices, like women’s prayer groups and mixed-gender public prayer.

But many men have not followed. Consider the comments of a highly regarded doctor and father of five daughters who attended the conference with his wife. “Look, let’s face it, women are a complete distraction in shul,” he said to me.

“What are you going to do, lay someone on the bimah?” his wife shot back, referring to the platform at the front of the synagogue. “Control yourself, like at work.”

He responded, “I can get a lot of work done while looking down a women’s shirt. Davening [praying] is different.”

Dr. Tova Hartman-Halbertal, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s School of Education and author of “Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions” (Harvard University Press, 2003), is one woman who is trying to make things even more different. She’s one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, a new, inclusive Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem where women have leadership roles in services, which begin only after 10 women, in addition to the traditional 10 men, have gathered.

The most dramatic moment of the conference came during Hartman-Halbertal’s hour-long talk, which challenged one of the biggest sources of Orthodoxy’s neofeminist pride: the modesty of women. Rather than offering an alternative to secular Western culture’s objectification of women, she said, Orthodox practices effectively “cover women with spiritual and psychic anxiety not their own.”

She told the story of a young male teacher at an Orthodox girls’ high school who placed a bowl of buttery rugelach on the table before the evening lesson. At the end of the lesson, he said dramatically, “Remember how distracted you were by those rugelach? That is exactly how I feel when you do not dress tzanua.”

This parable — likening girls to pastry — caused a commotion, as whispered conversations erupted across the room. At the end of her talk, part of the audience gave Hartman-Halbertal a standing ovation.

I approached Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the head of Judaic schools of higher learning and professor of Talmudic research at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who is sympathetic to fuller participation of women in ritual life. “She used big words,” he said, a bit cagily. “When you exaggerate so much, you produce a caricature and it begins to sound like demagoguery.” But judging from the hallway talk, many listeners understood Hartman-Halbertal’s point: Much of tzeniut, as it is currently practiced, is a recapitulation of the same hypersexualization of both men and women, at the expense of their human dignity, that Orthodoxy condemns in mainstream culture.

So why do feminist Orthodox women — and men — endure the pain and stay in the fold? The answer may lie as much in fundamental identity as in the richness of communal life and religious belief itself. For JOFA, change is difficult but possible; in fact, adaptability may be the secret strength that has preserved tradition for thousands of years.

“I come to this from a place of choice,” said Cherie Koller-Fox, a Conservative rabbi from Boston who supports JOFA. “I am not so angry. Besides, no one ever called me a rugelach.”


Tamar Miller is former executive director of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy at Harvard University.

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