Julia Moss with mohel Rabbi Shalom Denbo

Behind the bris: an interview with the mohel


As a 48-year-old father of seven, Rabbi Shalom Denbo isn’t your typical Orthodox rabbi. He zips through Southern California on a motorcycle with a medical bag in tow, performing brises on Jewish babies and making jokes about having six daughters.

“Now you know why I pray for mothers to have more boys.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Jokes? Denbo has heard them all. Years ago, as part of a marketing campaign, he ran an ad in the Jewish Journal that read, “Tell me a mohel joke I haven’t heard, and you’ll get a bris for free.” There were no winners. Not even: “Do you work for tips?”

Born in New Jersey, trained in Israel and now living in Pico-Robertson, Denbo is the author of “7 Traits: How to Change Your World” and has traveled as far as Tahiti, performing more than 1,000 brises, the ceremonial circumcision covenant that connects Jewish boys to their heritage on the eighth day of life.

Jewish Journal: So, why do we do brises?

Rabbi Shalom Denbo: There are all kinds of nice esoteric explanations, but the main reason is that the Torah tells us to, just like Abraham gave his son Isaac on the eighth day of his life. That’s why we do it and, really, the father is supposed to do it, like Abraham did it to his son.

 

JJ: My husband does a lot of things for us, but …

SD: And I’m not sure he would accept the challenge, either. But really it’s supposed to be their mitzvah. I’m there as a proxy because most parents either don’t know how or would not want to do it, anyway.

JJ: Why the eighth day?

SD: The eighth day is considered above the physical. This world we live in is considered the physical. Everything in this world is seven — seven continents, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven days of creation. Eight is that one step beyond — the step into the spiritual realm. There are exceptions. Most common is if the baby is sick. The other is not so commonly known but if the baby was born via C-section; that does not get done on Shabbos or Yom Tov.

JJ: Did you grow up wanting to be a mohel?

SD: I grew up with the stereotypical Jewish parents telling me, “You’re either going to be a doctor, a lawyer or, at worst, an accountant.” I had no desire to be a doctor or a lawyer; I had a desire to be famous. I wanted to be an actor; I wanted to go into show business. The irony is I’m in Hollywood as a rabbi. When my father found out I was deciding to become a rabbi, he said, “Well, so you won’t be a doctor but maybe you’ll become a mohel.” I used to laugh at him but an opportunity, pun intended, fell in my lap. My father-in-law found out that I had this indirect connection to Reb Yossel, a famous Jerusalem mohel who is estimated to have done over 100,000 brises. My father-in-law insisted that I learn from him. I said to my father-in-law, “I’ll learn under one condition: that you understand that I have no intention of being a mohel.”

JJ: What was it like to learn from Reb Yossel?

SD: Learning from Reb Yossel was like learning guitar from Prince or Jimi Hendrix. He was an artist. He imbued his personality into the showmanship of it, into the actual technique.

JJ: Can you tell us about the first bris you performed?

SD: Reb Yossel did a lot of brises for recent immigrants for free. They didn’t know the famous Reb Yossel; they only knew that their doctor or their rabbi had arranged for him to do the bris and they wouldn’t have to pay. One time, we were going to perform a bris in a suburb outside of Jerusalem and there was clearly not going to be anyone there. As we were walking in, he turned to me and said, “You’re Reb Yossel.” I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re going to do the bris.” We walked in the apartment and there were only three people there besides the baby. I really thought he was kidding but when we walked in, he didn’t say a word. He just stood there. It was obvious that I needed to start speaking because it was an awkward silence. And so I did the bris. It was a fascinating experience, the most life-changing experience except maybe the birth of my daughter. I realized at that moment, “I want to be a mohel.”

JJ: What was so life-changing about it?

SD: Every mitzvah is supposed to be a powerful, life-changing experience. There is only one mitzvah that we do today that you actually see on a physical level: a bris, where the child is different physically than he was one second earlier. As a rabbi, I know that the mitzvah changes the baby forever and I was the instrument. And that was a moving experience for me.

JJ: What is it like to deal with the families?

SD: Everyone is nervous. Everyone is anxious. I always tell parents who are nervous and apprehensive that it would be more concerning if they weren’t because this is your baby and it doesn’t matter that this is a good thing for them; it’s still something scary. Interestingly enough, though, the more emotional of the two [parents] is usually the father. I have had more fathers cry at a bris, far more, than mothers.

JJ: How do people respond at a dinner party when you say you’re a mohel?

SD: I don’t know if it’s us or lawyers that get the brunt of more jokes. Immediately they start with the jokes.

JJ: Why do all mohels make jokes at brises?

SD: There does need to be an element of comedy. Not that it should be a roast. This is a tremendously holy mitzvah. You’re talking about a very delicate procedure, which is very primal to a man. There is definitely tension in the room. You don’t want it to be a tense experience; you want it to be a holy, meaningful experience.

JJ: What is the advantage of hiring a mohel?   

SD: A lot of people want a doctor, or they want it done in a hospital because they think that’s safer or better. They think they are getting someone that is an expert in circumcision, but the truth is that they’re not. [In a teaching hospital], most likely the person that is doing the circumcision is a resident or an intern and it might very well be their first circumcision. In a non-teaching hospital, people think that they are getting a urologist, but that’s not true, either. Most circumcisions in hospitals are done by O.B.s. — that’s not to say they are not proficient, but it is not their specialty. A mohel, this is our specialty. This is all we know.

JJ: How many times have you been peed on?

SD: Too many. Ask the other question.

JJ: How many times have you been pooped on?

SD: Also too many. Pee is actually more controllable —  you can point it away.

Charedi Orthodox men praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

American Orthodox rabbis are ambivalent about Western Wall controversy


American Orthodox leaders have a message for their non-Orthodox friends: Take a deep breath.

When Israel’s cabinet voted twice to further empower the country’s Charedi Orthodox religious establishment last month, Reform, Conservative and non-Orthodox Zionist leaders were outraged. They cancelled meetings with Israel’s prime minister. They gave an on-camera statement with an Israeli opposition figure. They launched lobbying efforts in Jerusalem. They accused Israel’s government of “betrayal.” They threatened legal action. One lay-leader said she’d stop flying El Al, Israel’s national airline.

These leaders have decried the June 25 votes to suspend the agreement to expand the Western Wall’s non-Orthodox prayer area and to advance a bill that gave Israel’s Chief Rabbinate more power over Jewish conversions. This week, leaders have also criticized the rabbinate’s so-called “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis it does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants to Israel.

But when it comes to the supposed crisis swirling between Israel and U.S. Jewry, America’s most prominent Orthodox organizations have remained mostly quiet. The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, two umbrella American Orthodox bodies, both told JTA they are not commenting on the matter. The RCA will be meeting with the rabbinate next week regarding the list of rabbis, having received assurances that the “blacklist” may have been misconstrued.

And while some modern Orthodox rabbis have criticized Israel’s actions, they have not called for retaliatory action against the Israeli government. Others sympathize with what they see as the Chief Rabbinate’s defense of traditional Jewish law.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox leader, was sympathetic with his non-Orthodox colleagues — up to a point.  “I’m disappointed in the modern Orthodox for not responding strongly, because of the divisive effect that this has on the Jewish people,” said Lookstein, the rabbi emeritus of Kehilath Jeshurun, a modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “And I am concerned about some of the overreactions of liberal groups who are calling for all kinds of boycotts and actions on the part of American Jewry to punish Israel for these decisions. That kind of response will be more dangerous than the actions of the Israeli government itself.”

Haredi Orthodox Americans, meanwhile, insist that the Jewish communal organizations criticizing the rabbinate do not speak for them. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, told JTA that the Chief Rabbinate is a “bulwark” against eroding and multiplying standards for Jewish observance and identity. Shafran views the rabbinate as a regulatory agency for Jewish matters along the lines of the Food and Drug Administration.

“If Israel is to retain a Jewish identity, it is essential for her to have a single set of standards determining who is a Jew and what is a Jewish marriage or divorce,” Shafran wrote to JTA in an email. “Were a constitution to impose multiple standards for such things, it would lead to plethora of ‘Jewish peoples’ – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and others. That would spell disaster for both Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.”

Shafran feels warnings of an Israel-Diaspora crisis are overblown. Non-Orthodox Jews, he wrote, are largely disengaged from Israel, while Orthodox Jews — who frequently visit, agitate for and study in Israel — are generally not bothered by the recent decisions on the Western Wall and conversion.

“The Rabbinate’s policies have alienated some non-Orthodox Jewish leaders and some of their followers, to be sure, but the American Jewish community, if seen in aggregate is not greatly concerned about Israel,” Shafran wrote. “The vast majority of American Jews who care deeply about Israel (and visit and send their children there) are the Orthodox, who are not alienated at all by things like the recent controversial decisions.”

All three elements of the controversy — the Western Wall, conversion and the rabbis’ list — do affect Orthodox Jews. The conversion bill — which has been shelved for six months — sought to strip legitimacy from private Orthodox conversions in Israel. The list of rabbis included a range of Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox leaders. And under the Western Wall deal, the Women of the Wall prayer group agreed to move its services from its current meeting place in the Orthodox women’s section of the site — a frequent flash point between feminists and haredi Orthodox — to the expanded non-Orthodox prayer space.

Even so, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida criticized Jewish federations for opposing the Israeli government’s actions so vocally. By weighing in on the debates, he said, the federations are supporting Reform and Conservative Jews at the expense of the Orthodox.

His local federation, in South Palm Beach County, shared on its website a statement from its national umbrella group criticizing Israel’s actions on conversion and the Western Wall.

“I’ve been very disappointed by the federations’ reaction,” he said. “I understand why Reform and Conservative would be using their organizations for advocacy on this issue, but federation is supposed to speak for all of the community. They’ve become an advocacy arm for the Reform and Conservative by taking up this issue of conversion.”

Goldberg added that non-Orthodox leaders should be cautious in criticizing the Israeli government, especially when some admonish J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, for criticizing Israel’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians.

“It’s a dangerous precedent for Jewish organizations in America to be protesting the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel,” he said. “Many of the same people who have no tolerance for J Street trying to interfere in the government of Israel are trying to do so themselves.”

Some Orthodox clergy do sympathize with non-Orthodox leaders. Maharat Ruth Friedman, who serves as vice president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox rabbis’ organization, said she felt the Chief Rabbinate’s actions were exclusionary and harmful to the Jewish people. She said, however, that her organization was not planning any protest beyond a statement of disapproval.

“I do not see the Rabbinate as a partner in furthering the spiritual growth of the Jewish people,” said Friedman, who emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not in an official capacity. “This sends the message that religious authority is about control and exclusion. That’s the opposite [of the] message we want to send to the Jewish people.”

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter of the law

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

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

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

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

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

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

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

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

Walking a fine line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every problem begs a solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Eitan Arom

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

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

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

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

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

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

Taking a pledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

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

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

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

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

A movement in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inching forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“IT'S A DESERT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli religious court goes off the deep end


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

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

This is taking chutzpah and arrogance to another level.

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

How could they be so tone deaf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Jews have no Jewish message to the world


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

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

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

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

Then ask any Jew the same questions. 

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

Here are likely responses:

Response 1: “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Kotel decision: A Sephardic Jew responds


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

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

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

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


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

Mixed emotions about the Kotel compromise


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Can Open Orthodoxy help revive Judaism?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Relevance

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

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

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

Nomenclature/Whatchamacallit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is that it is.

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

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

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

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

New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds


Just as Charedi Jews in the United States are likely to enroll their kids in a yeshiva, attend synagogue every week and vote Republican, so too are Modern Orthodox Jews.

But also, just as non-Orthodox Jews in the United States tend not to marry before the age of 25, earn at least a bachelor’s degree and have a significant number of non-Jewish friends, so, too, do the Modern Orthodox.

And unique among Jewish Americans, the majority of Modern Orthodox households earn at least $150,000 per year, and a large majority believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79 percent), and that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (64 percent).

In a ” target=”_blank”>groundbreaking 2013 study of U.S. Jews. The new data reveal what was already widely, yet anecdotally, known — that while Charedi Jews differ greatly from non-Orthodox Jews in virtually every demographic, political, economic and religious category (and, in fact, align more closely with Evangelical Christians by most religious, social and political measures), Modern Orthodox Jews, by contrast, straddle two worlds.

For example, in their views on Israel, American politics and religious observance, the Modern Orthodox and Charedi communities are closely aligned. But when it comes to levels of household income or education or immersion in the non-Jewish world, the Charedim are on one side, and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are on the other.

Pew’s 2013 report raised alarm among Jewish professionals in the U.S., particularly non-Orthodox ones, about the high rate of intermarriage among Conservative, Reform and nonaffiliated Jews, and about the percentage of Jews raised in Conservative and Reform households who became unaffiliated later in life. And although this report is simply looking deeper at data collected two years ago, Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research, predicted the Jewish-American community could look very different in the future if the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews of comparably high birthrates and young marriages continue.

“There’s a possibility over time that Orthodox Jews, as they grow as a share of all American Jews, we’ll have an American-Jewish community that may actually be more cohesive [close-knit] than it is today, more observant than it is today, more socially and politically conservative than it is today,” Cooperman said, adding, though, that “one man’s cohesion is another man’s insularity.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at , University, said “Anyone interested in the future of Jewish life has to pay attention to the Orthodox,” a point made in the wake of the Pew report two years ago. Sarna added that this new report highlights “where Modern Orthodox Jews are indeed more similar to American Jews generally, or to Conservative Jews, and where they are not.”

Although the information about the dividing lines between Charedi and Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is not groundbreaking, this report is revealing in that it shows how split the Modern Orthodox are between following Charedi trends versus non-Orthodox trends — not a surprise, given that Modern Orthodox Judaism emphasizes strict religious observance while remaining actively engaged with the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world.

For example, while the Modern Orthodox, like the Charedim, overwhelmingly keep kosher, observe Shabbat and believe in God, they, like non-Orthodox Jews, are highly educated and have more liberal views toward homosexuality. Further, while 75 percent of currently married Charedi Jews married before their 25th birthday, only 48 percent of married Modern Orthodox Jews can say the same, putting them closer to non-Orthodox Jews. And while 32 percent of Charedi adults are ages 18 to 29, and only 6 percent are 65 or older, only 9 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are 18 to 29, and 25 percent are 65 are older, making the Modern Orthodox more like the non-Orthodox than Charedim in terms of average age.

But although Modern Orthodox Jews differ in significant ways from non-Orthodox Jews, the real driver behind Orthodox Jewry’s competitive demographic advantage are Charedi Jews, who, Pew says, comprise 62 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population.

“When it comes to demographic things like family sizes and age of marriage, the Charedim really stand out. And, in fact, the Modern Orthodox, in terms of family sizes, don’t look that different from Conservative and Reform Jews,” Cooperman said. “The data suggests it’s really the Charedim, through natural growth, who are growing particularly fast.”

He also pointed out that it’s natural growth — not conversion or movement among denominations — that sets apart the Orthodox. For although 30 percent of Orthodox Jews weren’t raised Orthodox, 43 percent of Conservative Jews, 45 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent of nondenominational Jews moved into those religious streams later in life.

“This is not the group that has the most converts or Jews by Choice,” Cooperman said of Orthodox Jewry. “This is not the group that’s growing because people are coming from other streams of Judaism. This is the group that has the most organic, the most natural growth through large families.”

Sarna said he wishes Pew would look deeper into the Charedi community and at the impact that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has had on American Jewry. In terms of demographic growth and religious observance, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews are very similar to non-Chabad Charedim, but in terms of outreach to the non-Orthodox world and engagement with the non-Jewish world, the Chabad movement is more similar to the Modern Orthodox. “It would be interesting to get more of a sense of the spectrum,” Sarna said.

Cooperman said he’d love to be able to more deeply analyze the Charedi community, which he would further divide among Chasidic Jews and “yeshivish” Jews, but added that the difficulty of studying such a small group of the U.S. population would be very expensive and difficult. “We’re looking into subdivisions that are two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population,” Cooperman said.

The next major Pew survey of American Jewry likely won’t be for several years, Cooperman said, explaining that the cost and complexity of the survey makes doing it annually impractical. And while this report certainly indicates where American Jewry may be headed, Cooperman cautioned against conflating a glimpse at the present with a forecasted trajectory.

“A snapshot in time cannot predict the future,” he said.

If these trends do hold, though, they could indicate a monumental shift in American Jewry in terms of Modern Orthodoxy’s role within it. “Nobody will be surprised if a generation from now, instead of being 10 percent, they’re 20 percent,” Sarna said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hope is fading’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But among his peers, Ojalvo is the exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good luck’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

New Turkey

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

Or, as he calls it, New Turkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Words can be dangerous’

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

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

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

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

Both officials later denied making these statements. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘If I were Jewish, I would hide’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring the spirit of halachic marriage


Each time we hear of yet another heart-wrenching and infuriating agunah story, we tend to point an accusing finger at the Jewish legal system that has created these circumstances, in which spiteful, angry husbands can cynically abuse the divorce laws to extort and torment their wives. And this is not an unreasonable reaction. It is true that within halachah, the husband alone possesses the legal authority to issue the Jewish writ of divorce, a get. A wife cannot issue a get, nor can a rabbinical court. Yes, the category of annulment exists in the Talmud, but centuries of legal precedent agree that annulment does not apply to such cases. So it can be stated fairly and accurately that the law itself, without intention to do so, has created the circumstances that enable these abuses to occur. 

In the minds of some, this leads to the ineluctable conclusion that we ought to simply abandon the religious law. This, however, is a tautological nonstarter for Orthodox Jews.  For us, the halachah is “our life and the length of our days.” A much more subtle and plausible version of the idea though, has begun to circulate within our community, namely, that if we are to remain committed to halachah as a system, then we have no choice today but to avoid creating halachically valid marriages. There are indeed any number of ways that a couple and a rabbi can purposefully subvert the halachic validity of a marriage ceremony, and any one of these ways would be sufficient to obviate the need for a get, should the couple separate later on. The justification for this proposal is simple and straightforward. If we have no way of ensuring a halachic off-ramp, then we simply have to avoid getting onto the halachic on-ramp. 

On a visceral level, I understand why this proposal is appealing. There is even a sense of justice about it. Yet, I shudder to think about its possible unintended consequences. For as much as we are stymied by halachah in these awful agunah situations, we are thankful to halachah for having created the marriages and the families that so many of us enjoy. 

While the Torah itself spoke of marriage in only a legalistic way, the talmudic literature reinvented marriage as a deeply committed, truly covenanted relationship. The rabbis of the Talmud utilized the verse “Love your friend as yourself” as the legal framework regulating the marital relationship, and they described the marital bed itself as a place where the presence of God should hover. And these were no mere homiletics. The Talmud legally mandates that spouses cherish and respect one another, and take responsibility for the other’s material and emotional welfare. In addition, the Talmud imposed the institution of the ketubah with an alimony payment at its heart, to prevent husbands from seeing their marriages as being easily disposable. In this way, it protected wives and protected the institution of marriage from being undertaken — and from being regarded — casually. Long-term commitment was bred into the system so that marriage would have the strength to endure the crises and conflicts that invariably affect every marriage at some point or another. And this is the legal and ethical nature of halachic marriage.

What might the consequences be if we began to advise our daughters to avoid entering halachically binding marriages? Even though it might seem a sensible and practical idea for any given woman, what would the impact be if it became the practice of the entire community? The same halachic system that frustrates us when we rally against a recalcitrant husband also produces the kinds of marriages that we desire to have for ourselves, for our children and for our community. This is part of the reason, after all, that we are committed to halachah to begin with. 

The existence of agunot is the ugliest moral scar on the face of Orthodox Judaism, bar none. And each one of us who upholds halachah bears personal responsibility for mitigating the unintended yet devastating damage that it allows to occur. A couple of centuries ago, in a different time and place, this was easier to do. When a husband was tormenting his wife, or leaving her chained to a dead marriage, the local rabbinical court utilized various kinds of social, economic and even physical pressure to induce him to give his wife a get. But in our time and place, in which religious courts do not wield legal enforcement powers, and recalcitrant husbands can simply leave the social and economic orbit of the Jewish community, the old ways do not serve us nearly as well.

Today, in our time and in our place, the responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of each one of us. The first thing we each need to do is insist that every single couple that marries signs the halachic prenuptial agreement (go to rabbis.org). The halachic prenup is not a panacea, but it has the civil legal capacity to profoundly discourage husbands from withholding a get.  Years ago, our synagogue board at Congregation B’nai David-Judea modified our bylaws to prohibit any rabbi ever employed by the synagogue from performing a wedding without a halachic prenup. Please check to see that your synagogue has a similar policy. And if you are already married and don’t have a halachic prenup, circle Sept. 7, 2014, on your calendars. This is the day on which the Pico-Robertson Orthodox community will be hosting a mass halachic postnuptial signing. 

No less important, each and every one of us must also commit — fully and without any exceptions — to the watertight policy that there is never, ever an excuse or justification for extortion. No one, not our brother, nor our son, nor our rabbi, can ever attach conditions of any kind to the delivery of a get. Not a financial condition, not a child custody condition, not any condition of any sort. And we have to possess the moral vision and religious courage to loudly and publicly label any effort to impose such conditions for what they are — extortion — plain and simple. We can’t let ourselves be fooled or hoodwinked. 

Extortion can hide even in the folds of piety or behind the mask of rabbinical ordination. We cannot fall for it. We have to call it out when we see it, for it may be up to you and you alone to save a woman from becoming an agunah.

We cannot have it both ways. If we choose to live according to halachah, we must take responsibility for halachah.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spends a weekend in L.A. envisioning the Jewish future


Swiping his finger to the left, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s now-former chief rabbi, and arguably the world’s most prominent religious Jewish leader, was looking for a text he felt might show how Orthodox Jews can spread a Jewish message to the Western world.

He wasn’t leafing through the Talmud, and he didn’t have in mind a specific passage from the Torah. He wasn’t even looking for a Jewish text. 

He was browsing his iPad, and after a few seconds lost in his app collection, he finally found what he was looking for.

“The Waste Land” — a poem by T.S. Eliot, an American-born Englishman widely regarded as among the 20th century’s most influential literary figures.

“Hang on,” Sacks said, as he prepared me for the pinnacle of the app, a specially filmed performance by actress Fiona Shaw. “This is magic. This is the masterpiece.” 

Shaw’s voice — that of the Petunia Dursley character from the “Harry Potter” series — emerged majestically from the speaker: “The Waste Land. The burial of the dead.” 

This is how Orthodox Jews might learn from and teach religious texts? 

Sacks put his beloved iPad down and looked at me, ready to clarify.

“Can you imagine having a siddur [prayer book] where you’ve got the text,” he said, “You’ve got the translation, you press one button [and] you get the commentaries?” Then added, “You press another button, and you get half a dozen shiurim [lessons] on that paragraph.”

It was Sacks at his most dynamic, blending Western poetry with ancient tradition, rabbinic commentaries with one of Silicon Valley’s proudest inventions. 

I was sitting with the former chief rabbi, his wife, Elaine, and his assistant at a table in the lobby of the Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was the morning of Feb. 23, and I was still absorbing the past four days, during which I had followed Sacks, the unofficial spokesman for Modern Orthodox Jewry, around Los Angeles. 

From Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, he gave 11 lectures to Los Angeles’ Orthodox community, all but one in the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood, as part of a weekend sponsored by Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a local Modern Orthodox school.

[Related: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, met with students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, including Eli Isaacs and Sarina Finn, both eighth-graders and student council presidents at the school. Photo by David Miller

Speaking everyone’s language

Sacks knows how to keep the tone light. 

His first public appearance in Los Angeles was on Feb. 20 at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, joining talk-show host Michael Medved and the head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil, for a panel discussion in front of 300 people. 

As at every event he spoke at during the weekend, he did not shy away from people who sought his attention. Dozens from the audience introduced themselves and wanted to speak with him. 

Like any good rabbi, he started with a joke. He recounted how, upon his appointment as Britain’s chief rabbi at just 43, someone asked him, “Aren’t you a little young for the job?”

His response: “Don’t worry, in this job I’ll age rapidly.” 

His audience that evening was predominantly parents and grandparents, so his leadership message to them was about communal religious leadership. “Make friends with Jews who are less religious than you are — and by lifting them, you yourself will be lifted.”

His speech followed a performance by the Shabbaton Choir, a British choral group that has traveled around the world with the rabbi. As he took the microphone, he expressed his gratitude to the choir and then asked the crowd to give them another round of applause. In fact, during a musical event on Feb. 22 at Congregation Mogen David, he joined the choir in song.

On Feb. 21, Sacks was at the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for three consecutive addresses. He spoke first to grade-school students, then to local political, educational and religious leaders, and, finally, to teens from local Orthodox high schools.

With the children, most of whom may not appreciate for years to come who they were meeting, the rabbi did not change his message; he simply tweaked his delivery and tone. 

“Your young [class] presidents are going to be presidents of the United States one day,” Sacks said as he walked through the aisle that separated the boys from the girls, making eye contact with the young children. “Get to know them now, because one day they are going to be very big stars — and so are all of you.”

A few minutes later, upstairs, Sacks led a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Los Angeles’ political, educational and religious leaders, that notably included a woman rabbi — Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El Synagogue — as well as a Christian clergymember — Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church, illustrating that although Sacks predominantly speaks to Orthodox groups when speaking to Jewish audiences, he does not wish to restrict himself to that relatively small enclave. 

It was, for him, an opportunity to impart a few ideas to the people — Jewish, Christian, secular — who will help shape the next generation of leaders. 

More than 20 people were in the room, and when each said his or her name and position, he looked at them warmly and acknowledged their presence.

“Each one of you is engaged in God’s work,” he said. “The purpose of education is to allow people to achieve their full dignity in the image and likeness of God.” 

Sacks stressed teaching kids how to teach, relating a conversation that he’d had with his late father when he was only 5 years old. 

Walking home from Shabbat services with his father one day, the young boy asked his father to explain certain prayers and Jewish practices. Sacks’ father, who’d dropped out of school at 14 to help support his family, answered:

“Jonathan, I didn’t have an education, so I can’t answer your question. But one day you will have the education I didn’t have. And when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”

By the time he took the podium Saturday morning for his Shabbat address at Beth Jacob Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, nearly 800 people filled the main sanctuary. It was so packed that, so as to not violate fire code, the synagogue had to turn away throngs of people who had hoped to hear the former chief rabbi.  

As he prepared to speak, the anticipation inside was palpable. 

Standing sideways, with his right arm propped on the podium, Sacks glanced toward Beth Jacob’s Senior Rabbi Kalman Topp, then toward the congregation, and said with a smile, “I am going to try very hard to deliver a good speech. Do you know why? Your rabbi promised me that if I do, he will give me a lollipop.” 

The room immediately relaxed as Sacks began to explore his main passion, and something he hadn’t yet spoken of at much length during this visit — the deeper messages hidden in the stories of the Torah.

The week’s portion was Vayakhel. On the surface, the text speaks in detail about the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a portable holy place the Jews built as they wandered in the desert where they could properly worship God. 

It’s a very technical, detailed Torah portion, and Sacks related that in one of his learning sessions with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he had pointed out that while God needed only a few verses in Genesis to create the entire universe, the Torah dedicated five entire portions to the construction of the Tabernacle. Why?

Because, he said, until the Jewish people were given a task to build, a project that called for unity and purpose, they could not possibly lead.

Now 65, Sacks is a London native, but has known America well since the summer of 1968, when, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he came to the United States to meet as many prominent rabbis as he could. With a $100 unlimited Greyhound pass, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles to stay with his now-late aunt in Beverly Hills.  

Based on the recommendations of many rabbis he met, the young Sacks was most eager to meet Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the now-late leader of the Chasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement — who was viewed as religious Judaism’s ambassador until his death in 1994.

That encounter, he’s often said, set him on the path to becoming the leader of two synagogues, the director of the rabbinic faculty at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) and, perhaps just as formative, a philosophy scholar and a lecturer at several secular British universities, including Manchester and Essex. 

Beyond the texts, Sacks demonstrated during his speeches here and in our interview his deep knowledge of non-Jewish philosophy and history — Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, Tocqueville, Locke, Churchill — as well as popular culture. 

Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting in “The West Wing” was “genius,” he told me, and “Gravity” is an “extraordinary film” that demonstrates the existential need for faith.

Bridging Judaism with society

In his 22-year term as chief rabbi, Sacks was far more than a leader for British Orthodox Jewry and the 62-member synagogues, all Orthodox, of the United Hebrew Congregations. He became the bridge between Orthodoxy and British society, publishing 25 books in 24 years, several of which could just as well have been written for non-Jews.

Like many leaders, though, Sacks could never please everyone, on either side of him. Agudath Israel of America, a leadership organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, criticized Sacks following his July 2013 retirement dinner, in which he critiqued what he sees as a trend toward increased insularity within the Orthodox world.

It was a message he repeated in Los Angeles. “There are Jews moving very far away from social engagement, turning inwards,” Sacks told me, choosing his words very carefully. The implication, though, was clear — much of the ultra-Orthodox world is not spreading the Jewish message to the outside world, and that has led to the growth of what he called “aggressively secularized tendencies.”

For the British Jews more liberal than he, Sacks was perceived as beholden to his country’s Charedi community during his tenure. He did not, for example, attend the funeral of prominent British Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and he never attended Limmud, the largest annual interdenominational Jewish education event, now held worldwide and which got its start in London.

In 2012, Sacks signed his name to a joint response from Britain’s rabbinical court to the government, opposing same-sex marriage. In response, 26 prominent British Jews wrote an open letter criticizing Sacks for trying to “influence how the generality of the population leads its life”— somewhat ironic because influencing society, and not just the Jewish community, is one of his main goals.

And yet, even as he openly admires some of Nietzsche’s work, he also has written groundbreaking commentaries on four Orthodox prayer books, for Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to his office, he’s currently working on ones for Sukkot and Shavuot.

And although as chief rabbi, Sacks did not speak on behalf of Britain’s Reform, Conservative or Charedi movements, from a marketing perspective he might as well have been, for British society viewed him as the Jewish spokesman.

As he became Great Britain’s de facto Jewish ambassador, a Sacks brand developed — a polished look for television appearances, a royal-sounding voice for radio broadcasts, a scholarly tone for books and op-eds, and an ability to condense his message into sound bites while rarely making news for saying the wrong thing.

Although he shies away from attracting controversy, Sacks will be outspoken when he feels he must. At a BBC-sponsored debate, Sacks told Dawkins that the beginning of Chapter 2 in the atheist’s book, “The God Delusion,” is a “profoundly anti-Semitic passage.”

In Britain, Sacks was viewed as the face of British Jewry by two groups of people — his natural followers, the Modern Orthodox, and also the politicians and media. His acceptance into the House of Lords as Baron Sacks of Aldgate, and his regular broadcasts and documentaries on BBC, helped inject Torah ideas into the British conversation.

In America, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sacks about Jewish assimilation, the Israeli-Arab conflict, anti-Semitism, the Vatican, Iran and Ariel Sharon — topics with which every Jewish community in the United States has grappled in recent months.

He is quickly climbing to the top of the American media’s speed dial list for interviews on all things Jewish — if he isn’t already there.

During his talk at YINBH, he told a story about one of his core goals — to reach Jews who don’t attend synagogue regularly (which includes 76 percent of American Jewry), teach Jewish things to non-Jews.

So Sacks decided that, as chief rabbi, he would broadcast regularly on BBC Radio. Yes, its audience is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, but, all the better.

“A Jewish guy comes to his office one morning, and the non-Jewish guy who has the office next to him says to him, ‘You know, I heard your chief rabbi on the radio this morning. He’s quite good,’ ” Sacks said at YINBH. “I turned a whole of non-Jewish Britain into an outreach organization for the sake of Judaism!”

The Orthodox ascent?

Sacks’ prediction of an Orthodox ascent in America stems from the October report by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which says that the Orthodox community’s relatively high birth rate and low, or nonexistent, rate of intermarriage could give it a comparative demographic advantage, over time, to both the Conservative and Reform movements.

“It has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing,” Sacks said. Based on Modern Orthodoxy’s current position in American Jewry, Sacks’ prediction sounds a bit, well, optimistic. 

According to the Pew survey, only 11 percent of Jews in America identify as Orthodox, and only 3 percent as Modern Orthodox. In other words, Sacks is predicting that a minority within a sliver of American Judaism may hold, within 25 years, the mantle of influence.

A second Pew analysis, however, shows that Orthodoxy is gaining ground on Conservative and Reform Jewry — very quickly. Twenty-seven percent of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox homes, and as sociologist Steven M. Cohen told the Forward in November, “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” while the non-Orthodox has been losing 10,000.

Therefore, Sacks calls upon the Orthodox movement to prepare as if it will soon inherit American Judaism’s mantle, so that its members will know how to lead on a mass scale and not just in yeshivas or at Shabbat morning sermons.

“The non-Orthodox Jewish world always had a strong sense of tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Sacks told me. “What I’ve tried to show is we in the Orthodox world can have that sense as well.”

“We’ve got a technical glitch”

Mesopotamian cuneiform, Chinese ideograms, Linear B — Sacks was more philosopher than rabbi as he delivered a short keynote address at Harkham Hillel’s gala at the Universal City Hilton, offering a call to Orthodoxy’s leadership to use technology to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to make learning more interesting for Jewish children.

Today, he said, we are living through an information revolution, inaugurated by “Steve Jobs [coming] down the mountain with the two tablets, the iPad and the iPad Mini.”

In fact, he related, on the morning the iPad was released, Jan. 27, 2010, Sacks walked into his London office and told one of his assistants, “This is the game changer.”

When sitting with me, Sacks asked if I could wait a moment as he showed off some of his favorite Jewish iPad apps. “I hear God knocking at our door saying, ‘Use Me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread My message,’ ” Sacks said

“Let’s have a look at this week’s parsha [Torah portion],” he said as he played with an app that serves as a type of Wikipedia for Jewish texts. “Touch that, here are the mefarshim [Torah commentaries].”

And then, Orthodoxy’s challenge stared us in the face.

The app froze. 

“We’ve got a technical glitch,” Sacks said humorously, referring to his app — or was he speaking about the Orthodox movement? 

“It took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills,” Sacks said. “We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.”

And beyond creating operational iPad apps, Sacks wants Orthodox Jews to act more like, well, him — using mass media to communicate.

Of course, in America, the decentralized nature of Judaism — there is no chief rabbi — makes it difficult for any one person to spread his religious ideology. That’s why Sacks believes observant Jews should work with Hollywood.

“I would so love to see a film not just about how Jews died, but how Jews live, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough of those,” Sacks said, a message that recurred in several of his Los Angeles appearances. 

Speaking at YINBH, he even let the audience in on one of his script ideas — a film on the life of Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman — and said, only half-jokingly, that he would love to see someone in the room help turn his idea into a film.

Less power, more influence

As he adjusts to a career in which he no longer has the power of chief rabbi, he seems to believe his new role may allow him more influence. 

Perhaps that is why issues of leadership seem to make its way into most of his work these days.

Every week, Jews across the world receive an e-mail from his office titled “Covenant & Conversation” containing his weekly essay on the Torah, written in English but also translated into Hebrew and Portuguese.

In it, he weaves together biblical narrative with a historical, philosophical and scientific framework — Oxford meets Yeshiva University. This year, he decided, each essay will center around one theme — leadership. 

In Britain, Sacks showed that to influence a society, leaders must work with the followers they are given, and not compromise on core principles for the sake of adding fans. 

In America, he suggested that a window of opportunity is opening up — a window that will allow America’s Modern Orthodox movement to inject Torah values into mainstream American culture, as he has tried to do in Britain. 

And whether the predicted Orthodox ascent comes to pass, and whether Sacks’ insistence on preparation for leadership pays off, he is giving something to American Orthodox Jewry, something that perhaps no one else can deliver quite as well — a clear, passionate and hopeful 25-year advance warning. 

The Limmud way: My journey to the future of Judaism


Two distinct visions of Judaism played in my head at the 33rd annual Limmud Conference in England, which I attended during Christmas week. The first vision was alive and kicking at the conference itself, where, under cold and gray skies, 2,600 Jews gathered on a university campus to sample the world’s greatest Jewish buffet. 

If you’ve never been to a Limmud conference, think of it as a Club Med for the Jewishly curious.

No Jewish subject is left behind. The conference I attended offered 1,102 classes, 25 films and 55 panel discussions touching on everything from the spiritual, cultural, religious and mystical aspects of Judaism, to the political, literary, musical and, of course, the controversial.

A major part of the Limmud adventure is learning the art of picking from this dizzying number of options. But another essential aspect of Limmud is the fact that, for several days, you live in an intensely Jewish “neighborhood” and mingle constantly with other members of your tribe.

Not too long ago in many areas of Europe, such a Jewish neighborhood would have been called a ghetto — a place where Jews were forced to huddle in the face of a hostile world. Today, we can be thankful that when Jews huddle, they do so by choice.

And if Limmud is about anything, it’s about the power of choice. The body of Limmud is learning, but its soul is choice.

Which brings me to the other vision of Judaism that played in my head at Limmud, one that was clearly not about choice. 

That vision was articulated in a hard-nosed editorial written by a prominent Orthodox Jew in a British Jewish paper, The Jewish News, which was widely distributed at the conference. Taking issue with Limmud’s pluralistic approach, the author, Brian Gordon, asserted that “the future strength of Anglo-Jewry lies fairly and squarely with the Orthodox camp.”

Freedom of choice is fine, Gordon intimated, as long as one chooses Orthodoxy.

For anyone at the conference seeing this message, it was an odd disconnect. Here we were feasting at this fabulous buffet of Jewish choice but reading that the future of Judaism resides only in one section of that buffet.

Even though England’s new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did show up this year, the continued opposition to Limmud among some in British Orthodoxy signifies that these two visions of Judaism — one based on choice, the other on religious boundaries — will continue to clash.   

To Gordon’s credit, he doesn’t mince words when making his case, stating flatly that “there is only one real factor that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the ages — namely adherence to Orthodox doctrines.”

He railed against a Jewish faith that is “a popular democracy based on trends,” or what he called “an ice cream parlor, where customers can pick and mix the mitzvah flavors that suit them and reject those that don’t.”

It was unsettling to read these words even as I was absorbing so much learning at this giant ice cream parlor of innumerable Jewish flavors.

In one session, for example, I learned from Joel Grishaver about God’s “brokenness,” examining Martin Buber and the Lurianic creation myth, and how “each of us is broken … and as we heal ourselves, God and the world are healed as well.”

In another session, I learned from Chicago Torah expert Shoshana Waskow about the 10 instances in the Torah when a woman “takes” something, and how, every time, something transformative happens.

In other sessions, I learned about “Torah and acting theory”; the oldest Jewish sect (the Karaites); the spiritual meaning of Havdalah; the rise and fall (and rise?) of political Islam; and I even saw a film on the once-vibrant but now vanishing culture of my ancestors, the Jews of Morocco.

One night, I skipped out of a class I found dull and stumbled onto what was, perhaps, my favorite session of the conference: “Photography That Cares,” presented by Glenn Jordan, an African-American artist originally from Los Angeles, who now teaches at the University of South Wales. Jordan showed a series of portraits of Welsh Jewry titled “Hineni: Life Portraits From a Jewish Community.”

Each portrait told another Jewish story; each face expressed the complexity of human emotion. Here was a black man from America giving a Jewish audience in England the goose bumps of Jewish peoplehood. 

As I continued to sample the multitude of Jewish flavors throughout the week, meeting Jews from around the world, debating Eliezer Berkovits’ breakthrough ideas about the existence of God, being challenged by a candid examination of King David’s series of sins, seeing an Orthodox woman perform a play imagining her burial, and attending a musical jam session of Iraqi-Israeli music, Gordon’s message was never far from my mind: This ice cream parlor is not the future of Judaism.

Was I enjoying a Judaism of pleasure that could never stick because it doesn’t make any demands on me? Would this very broad sampling of Jewish ideas reinforce my Jewish identity or water it down? And is this Judaism of choice incompatible with stringent Orthodoxy?

Ironically, it was something as silly as a colorful poster that enlightened me the most on this subject. This poster stared at me in every class I attended, and it said: “Taking you one step further on your Jewish journey.” 

That is the essence of the Limmud mission statement, and it frames your whole experience. 

Its brilliance is that it empowers everyone equally: Whether you’re a Charedi Jew or an atheist, there’s always something at Limmud to take you one step further on your Jewish journey.

By honoring individual journeys, Limmud nurtures the collective journey that its conference represents. It’s an artful move. Large Jewish gatherings are usually homogeneous — one movement, one ideology. Limmud is 2,600 attendees, 2,600 movements, 2,600 journeys.

This respect for the individual creates an unthreatening environment in which Jews feel free to explore, discover and break down barriers.

Children learning from parents, and parents learning from children, at a Limmud study session. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

I met two deeply religious Jews at Limmud who embodied this very idea of breaking down barriers. The first was Rabbi Dov Lipman, a member of the Knesset in the centrist Yesh Atid Party. You listen to Lipman speak and you think: “Please, someone make him the Chief Rabbi of Israel — pronto!”

On every issue of controversy, Lipman offered moderate and compassionate views that respect Jewish law. It helps that he’s a Torah scholar trained in some of the most prestigious yeshivot, and that he holds a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University.

When discussing Israel’s conversion crisis, for example, he quoted the halachic concept of zera yisrael (Jewish progeny) that would allow an easier path for hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis seeking an official conversion to Judaism.  

What’s most intriguing about this Charedi Jew is how fearlessly and respectfully he engages with the secular world. Because he learns from them, they end up learning from him. In one of his sessions, he shared anecdotes about how some of the secular colleagues in his party often ask him, out of respect, “Is this OK with Jewish law?”

The point Lipman made was an old and timeless one. It was a point, in fact, that every Limmud conference makes: Human contact breaks down barriers.

The other religious speaker breaking down barriers was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a  halachic scholar, philosopher, author and founding member of the moderate Tzohar rabbinical organization.

In a conversation with Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton, Cherlow explained how Tzohar was conceived after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination — a traumatic turning point that galvanized religious Jews like Cherlow to try to lessen tensions between Israel’s religious and secular communities.

In reaching out to their secular brethren, members of Tzohar wanted to go beyond simple expressions of love to do something concrete that would benefit the secular world. They started by focusing on marriage, providing a halachic alternative to the thousands of Israeli couples whom the chief rabbinate refused to marry for one reason or another.

I got to hang out with Cherlow a little during the conference. One of the unique aspects of Limmud is that everyone is on equal footing. There are no titles on name badges — just your name. Presenters and students mingle in the cafes and bars and eating areas.

If you see a presenter and you feel like shmoozing, you do so. Which is what I did with Cherlow. Beyond his obvious intellect, what I took away was a sweetness and genuine curiosity.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from the Yesh Atid Party, addresses Limmud International delegates from 40 communities around the globe. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

The sight of these two Orthodox scholars mingling at a pluralist Jewish event was in sharp contrast to the uncompromising attitude I read about in Gordon’s editorial.

I wondered: Would Gordon and his ilk feel the same way if they actually attended this event? Would they still be turned off by “the active presence, on an equal basis, of non-Orthodox clergy” if they had attended a fascinating Torah class by a non-Orthodox rabbi?

We’ll probably never know, because they are not likely ever to set foot at a Limmud conference (at least not until Maschiach shows up first).

Part of me gets it. When you believe in something very deeply — such as the idea that Jewish identity lives or dies on absolute observance of God’s commandments — it’s difficult to expose yourself to anything that might challenge that view.

What these tough chaps are missing, however, is the fact that Limmud itself is hardly a secular venture. For one thing, the food is strictly kosher (which might be its best feature). Limmud also offers Orthodox prayer services, and on Shabbat you might as well be in my Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles.

But above and beyond its respect for Orthodoxy, Limmud caters to the individual Jewish journeys reflected in its mission statement. How does it do it? By serving up the whole Jewish buffet.

Jewish groups famously love to say: “Every Jew is welcome! Our doors are wide open!” But wide open to what?  Wide open to their own, individual expression of Judaism.

Limmud goes one crucial step further: It doesn’t just open its doors to all Jews, it opens its doors to all of Judaism.

It opens its doors to talmudic debate and Torah study, yes, but also to Jewish philosophy, Jewish music, Jewish poetry, Jewish mysticism, Jewish activism, Jewish nationhood, Jewish history, Jewish argument … Jewish everything. 

It challenges the assumption that Jewish identity can only come from one vessel. In that sense, Limmud is a movement of modern-day realism. It acknowledges that the religious Orthodoxy of the ghetto days — while proudly one of the flavors offered at Limmud — simply will not fly with everyone in this era of free choice.

It recognizes the human truth that when people are given freedom of choice, using that freedom makes them feel human and alive. So, Limmud offers a diverse Jewish context in which to exercise that freedom.

This makes sense: If you are honoring the freedom to pursue individual Jewish journeys, how can you not open up Judaism to its many delights?

This philosophy has major potential for Jewish communities around the world struggling to keep Jews connected to their tradition. They should recognize that every Jew is on a different journey and their best bet is to nourish those journeys.

They should also recognize that the extraordinary breadth of Judaism is a key ingredient to nourish these journeys. By broadening and enriching the Jewish menu, communities can essentially tell their fellow Jews: No matter who or where you are, there’s a Jewish journey in it for you.

Isn’t this infinitely better than having no Jewish journey at all?

For the faction of Orthodoxy who shun such pluralistic impulses, Limmud offers  a practical question: If you believe so fervently in your way, why not come to Limmud and make your case? 

In today’s wide-open world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, ghettos are no longer the way. It’s counterproductive to be insular and dig in your heels, so you might as well join the conversation and put your best foot forward — just as Rabbis Lipman and Cherlow did so effectively at this year’s Limmud. 

If the anti-Limmud faction of British Jewry can swallow its pride, it may discover in Limmud a powerful outreach vehicle for its cherished Orthodoxy.

Of course, outreach works both ways.

So, here’s a word of caution to this anti-Limmud faction: If any of you ever decide to show up at Limmud, you might end up one day in a riveting Torah class taught by a woman rabbi from Chicago who is not Orthodox — and find yourself really enjoying it.

I’d call that a step forward for the future of Judaism.

To find out about Limmud activities in Los Angeles, please visit limmudla.org.


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

Are Jewish neighborhoods a good thing?


I would like to offer a view on Jewish neighborhoods that is so contrary to accepted wisdom that I can only ask that people read this column with as open a mind as possible.

On balance, after a lifetime of thought, I don’t think that Jewish neighborhoods are always a good thing for Jews or, for that matter, for our fellow Americans who are not Jewish. In fact, committed Jews living among non-Jews often does more good — for Jews, for Judaism, for Kiddush HaShem and for relations with non-Jews.

Having lived much of my life in Jewish neighborhoods, I think I am well acquainted with the arguments for many Jews living in one area of a city. 

One argument is comfort: People prefer to be among “their own.” That is why there are black, Latin American, Chinese, Korean, Armenian and other ethnic neighborhoods. 

Another argument that appeals to Jews in particular is that Jewish neighborhoods help prevent Jews from assimilating.

And for Orthodox Jews, there is simply no choice. If you don’t live within walking distance of a synagogue, you simply cannot attend a synagogue on Shabbat or any of the other Torah holy days. And you will be very lonely on Shabbat, as there will be no one with whom to share Shabbat meals.

These are significant arguments. And in the case of Orthodox Jews, there is almost no alternative.

But there are also powerful arguments against Jews congregating in one area. 

One argument is that Jews (and any other ethnic group) often become better people when they live among those who are not members of their ethnic/religious group.

Most people grow — intellectually and morally — when they have to confront outsiders. There are, of course, wonderful people who never leave their communities. But they are the exception. Most people do not grow when they lead insular lives.

In my travels through the 50 states, my favorite Jews have disproportionately been those who live in small Jewish communities. 

Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn — having only Orthodox Jewish friends, and having attended Orthodox schools and Orthodox summer camps through high school — I know what insular ethnic/religious life is like. And I didn’t find it healthy. Among many other reasons, the non-Jew (and even the non-Orthodox Jew) wasn’t real.

I first seriously encountered Jewish alternatives to my insular upbringing in my early 20s, when I drove from New York to Texas with my dear friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Thanks to the “Jewish Traveler’s Guide,” we found the name of a Jewish doctor in Alexandria, La., who listed himself as providing a place for Jewish travelers in central Louisiana to have Shabbat meals and kosher food.

This man, the late great Dr. Bernard Kaplan, awakened my eyes to the good that a Jew living among non-Jews could do. He was Alexandria’s leading surgeon, and he was loved for his goodness by just about everyone in that town. He was, therefore, a living Kiddush HaShem. (And all his children grew up to be committed Jews.)

Kiddush HaShem is probably the greatest mitzvah a Jew can perform, and it usually concerns a Jew’s behavior in the eyes of non-Jews (that is, after all, the purpose of the chosen people — to be God’s representatives to the world). In that sense, it is obviously more likely that a Jew can serve as a Kiddush HaShem in Louisiana than in Borough Park, N.Y.

I suspect that Chabad rabbis who run a Chabad House outside of Jewish communities can attest to the power of a Jew living among non-Jews to be a Kiddush HaShem.

I also believe that they and most other identifying Jews who live among non-Jews can attest to its transformative nature. It makes you a better person and a better Jew.

Yes, it is comfortable to live among one’s own. But comfort in life rarely leads to personal growth. 

Or to Jewish growth.

It can’t be a coincidence that virtually every great Jewish religious work was composed outside of Israel, when Jews lived among non-Jews. We have, for example, two versions of the Talmud — the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. And it is the former that we study. Maimonides’ works were all written outside of Israel, sometimes in Arabic.

I cannot overstate how impressed I have been when meeting Orthodox Jews who live in small Jewish communities among non-Jews. I will never forget a black-hat Orthodox rabbi I met in the Midwest who founded a Jewish day school for the relatively few Jews in his city. He told me that he allowed non-Jewish students to attend his school. When I regained my composure, I asked him one question: Do your fellow frum Jews in New York City know about this? 

“No,” he responded.

What he did would be essentially impossible in New York.

My wife and I live in a non-Jewish suburb of Los Angeles — so non-Jewish that it doesn’t even have a Chabad House. The closest Chabad House, in Glendale (not a major Jewish metropolis either), is run by the inimitable Rabbi Simcha Backman. He has “appointed” me an honorary shaliach (Chabad emissary) in La Canada.

I think I build the only sukkah there, and when we opened our home one Sukkot, I recall the wide eyes of all the children of Jewish parents who had never seen a sukkah in their lives. Introducing Jews who have had little or no contact with Jewish life to Judaism is another mitzvah that a committed Jew living outside a Jewish neighborhood can engage in. 

I live in a cul-de-sac, and my immediate neighbors are an Arab-American couple, whom my wife and I adore. The other neighbor is Korean. My cul-de-sac is what America is supposed to be about. It’s still a good idea.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

The challenge of defining Charedim


The Iranian nuclear issue and Palestinian peace talks may be dominating the news about Israel nowadays, but if discussions within the Jewish state focused on any social challenge this year, it was the question of how to integrate the Charedi Orthodox population into Israel’s workforce and military.

A new centrist party, Yesh Atid, won 19 Knesset seats in January promising to cut subsidies and draft exemptions for the Charedi community. As the government has pushed legislation cutting Charedi benefits, Charedi leaders have debated how to respond.

But observers assessing trends and responses among Israel’s Charedim first need to ask a crucial question: Whom do we count as Charedi?

This week, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel came out with a novel way to define the community that departs from previous measures used by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Existing studies define Charedim based on whether they attended advanced yeshivot, and whether they avoided army service or eschewed college. Families with too many college degrees or too many soldiers were placed outside the Charedi box.

This method becomes a problem when you’re trying to measure, say, a rise in Charedi college attendance or army service. The Taub Center’s methodology avoids those pitfalls by choosing metrics that set Charedim apart from other Israelis while avoiding statistics that it’s trying to track (like Charedi presence in the workforce).

Instead, the Taub Center looked at recent electoral maps and identified precincts that voted in high numbers for Charedi political parties — a traditional measure of communal loyalty. The center found that in those districts, 80 percent of families were Charedi.

But how to separate that 20 percent? Answer: TV sets. Surveys of the Charedi community have found that fewer than 10 percent of Charedim watch any television at all, and that those who do watch TV watch very little — perhaps only outside of the home. Taub’s conclusion: If you live in a Charedi-voting district but own a TV, you’re almost definitely not Charedi.

If the political and social forces pushing for Charedi integration succeed, military service, academic degrees and employment will become increasingly less relevant to the task of classifying Charedim as time goes by. But until “The Voice” becomes popular in Me’ah She’arim, the Taub Center’s methodology seems safe.

No faith, no Jewish future


In my last column, I suggested a number of reasons for the rise of Orthodox Judaism and the decline in membership among non-Orthodox denominations. 

In this column, I would like to discuss one important reason that often goes unnoted.

That reason is faith — not only faith in God, but specifically faith that the Torah represents the word of God. 

“Represents the word of God” does not necessarily mean that God dictated every word to Moses. Nor does it necessarily imply any specific form of divine communication. How the Torah came to be is an entirely different question from whether it ultimately comes from God. 

Having taught the Torah much of my life, I am well aware that there are challenging, even difficult, parts of the Torah. However, in almost every case, with intellectual honesty coupled with a belief in the divinity of the Torah, those difficulties can be surmounted. 

Take the often-cited example of the law demanding that a son who will not listen to either his father or mother and who is “a stubborn and rebellious glutton and drunk” be stoned.

As it turns out, this law was one of the most morally elevating laws in mankind’s history. By stipulating that the son must be taken to a court and that only the court can execute him, and that the son had to revile both his mother and father, the law permanently took away the right of a father to kill his child. 

This was likely a first in human history. Throughout the world, as in the Code of Hammurabi, children were the property of their father — who was, therefore, allowed to kill his child. The Torah law ended that. Moreover, it is unlikely that one son in Jewish history was ever stoned by a Jewish court. On the contrary, thanks to the Torah, Jewish family life was the most peaceful in every society in which Jews lived. Would that those who in believe in “honor killings” today had inherited such a law in their holy works.

Whatever the difficulties moderns may have with believing that the Torah is divine, the difficulties with believing that the Torah is just a creation of men are far greater.

Of course, many Jews who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah — or even in the God of the Torah — feel Jewish and some are deeply devoted to the Jewish people. Indeed, it was secular Jews, not Orthodox Jews, who founded Israel. But over the course of a few generations, without belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah coming from God, most Jews will gradually leave Judaism and eventually the Jewish people.

Take Shabbat observance as an example. There are excellent rational, non-God-based  reasons to observe the Shabbat. But the reason the vast majority of Jews who do not work on Shabbat (or on the Torah’s other holy days) refrain from work is that we believe God commanded us to. Over a few generations, those who believe that men wrote the commandment to observe the Shabbat will eventually abandon it. But those who believe that God gave the commandment will not.

Similarly, if one does not believe that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, let alone that God took the Jews out of Egypt, one can be a committed Jew and even celebrate Passover. But over time it strains credulity to believe that generation after generation of Jews will celebrate an event they don’t believe ever happened. They may celebrate family time together at a seder, but not Judaism.

The centrality of belief in a God-given Torah obviously challenges most non-Orthodox Jews. But it should also challenge many Orthodox Jews. 

Many Orthodox Jews think that observance of halachah, more than faith, is what ensures Jewish survival. Every yeshiva student is taught the famous line from the Midrash: “It would be better that the Jews abandoned Me [God] but kept my commandments.”

But Conservative Judaism provides a nearly perfect refutation of this idea. Many Conservative rabbis in the past, and many today, have led thoroughly halachic lives, virtually indistinguishable from many modern Orthodox rabbis. If halachah is what keeps Jews alive, the Conservative movement should not be in decline — and it should certainly attract more Jews than Reform, the least halachic of the major denominations. 

Furthermore, if halachah is the single most important thing to the Orthodox, why has Orthodoxy been so opposed to Conservative Judaism and to Conservative rabbis who have been scrupulously halachic? The answer is that the Conservative movement dropped belief in a God-given Torah. (Jewish Theological Seminary Web site: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font.”) And it is that, not lesser observance of halachah, that is the primary reason for Conservative Judaism’s decline. 

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Survivor: Edith Jacobs


“You are being relocated to a labor camp,” the Hungarian gendarmes, or police, announced to the Jews of Sopron, Hungary, who had spent the previous two weeks confined to a windowless tobacco factory. Edith Jacobs (née Rosenberger), her parents, three sisters and the other Jews were marched to the train station. There they were loaded into cattle cars where they were crammed together so tightly they couldn’t speak. Still, Edith and her family weren’t frightened. “We didn’t know,” Edith explained. But three days later the train pulled up to the Auschwitz platform, and the prisoners were unloaded and separated so quickly that Edith didn’t realize what was happening. “I never saw my mother again,” she said. “I never saw my father.” It was July 8, 1944; Edith was 18.

Edith was born on Feb. 16, 1926, to Zsigmond and Maria Rosenberger. She had an older brother, Jenö; two older sisters, Katalin and Piroska; and a younger sister, Olga. They lived in the village of Gyömöre, where Zsigmond was a bookkeeper.

Around 1932, the family moved back to Sopron, Edith’s parents’ hometown. There, Zsigmond owned a small grocery store, and Maria worked as a seamstress. Edith attended Jewish elementary school and then public high school.

The family was close-knit. They were Orthodox, and Friday nights were always special, celebrated with a white tablecloth and a challah. “You never can imagine how beautiful it used to be,” Edith said. And every Sunday, Zsigmond took the children on hikes in the mountains, a half-hour walk from Sopron.

In 1939, Edith was 13 and not allowed to perform office work because she was Jewish, so she apprenticed to a Jewish woman to learn dressmaking. She worked for three years with no pay and then a year or two with a small salary.

During this time, many Jews from Austria, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938, escaped to Sopron, just across the border. But the Sopron Jews were not worried. “Everyone thought that it will never happen to us. We were Hungarians first and then Jews,” Edith said.

But things changed. 

In 1942, Edith’s brother was taken to a labor camp in Köszeg, Hungary, where he worked in aluminum mines. And in fall of 1943, the young Jewish women of Sopron were assigned to work details. “We heard they will let us live in peace if we do this,” Edith said. She and Olga were taken daily by bus to weed vegetable fields. “It was very hard work,” Edith said.

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, and on April 7 the Rosenbergers celebrated their last seder. “It was very sad,” Edith recalled, as her brother was not with them. By the end of June, they and the remaining Sopron Jews were imprisoned in the tobacco factory.

At Auschwitz, Edith and her sisters were processed, shaved and each given a dress. Then they were taken to barracks, where they slept on the floor with no mattress or blanket. The first night their uneaten bread rations were stolen.

After two weeks, Kato, the oldest sister, became sick with scarlet fever. “They said they were taking her to the hospital,” Edith said, “but they took her naked in a truck and that was the last time we saw her.”

A week later, on July 30, Edith, her two remaining sisters and the other young women all were taken by train to Bremerhaven, arriving at a work camp on Aug. 2. Even though they slept on a barracks floor, Edith said, “it was not so bad,” as there was no roll call and they were given some food. 

Six days a week, Edith and the other prisoners were taken by open truck — “it was very cold in the morning,” into the city, where they cleaned up debris from Allied bombings. “We were always happy when the city was bombed, because the next day we had food,” Edith said. They ate what they found amid the debris, but had to do so surreptitiously, when the guards weren’t looking, and they couldn’t bring anything back to the barracks.

At some point Edith and her sisters were transported to Roden, Germany, along with 500 other Hungarian and Polish young women, where they worked in a cement factory.

There, they met two women working in the kitchen who had run a restaurant in Sopron. They gave Edith and her sisters food — “a little bread, a little margarine,” Edith remembered — and, in exchange, Edith sewed for them.

In late March 1945, with the Allies approaching, they all were taken to Bergen-Belsen. “It was terrible,” Edith said. As prisoners died in the yard, other prisoners came in groups of four to pull them away, each taking a hand or a foot. “Bodies were stacked up like a house,” she said. “There were so many dead people.”

One day the Germans disappeared, and the Hungarian army took over. The soldiers stood on the guard towers and fired randomly at the prisoners, hitting one woman who was standing next to Edith. “They loved killing. Life was very cheap,” Edith said. After a day or two, the Germans returned. 

The next day, April 15, 1945, the British liberated the camp. Edith and her sisters were so weak they couldn’t talk. The British cooked soup and set up showers for the freed prisoners.

Edith and her sisters were later moved to the Belsen displaced persons camp, a former German army barracks nearby, where, Edith said, they had a beautiful kitchen and beautiful rooms. Edith and Olga both were sick with typhus, but they didn’t tell anyone, as they didn’t want to be hospitalized. Their sister Piri took care of them. 

Then, on May 8, the day Germany surrendered, Piri arrived at their room with food. She announced that she was very tired, lay down on the bed and died. The doctor later said she had been suffering from dry typhus.

Piri was buried in a mass grave. Edith ordered a gravestone, paying the craftsman with sugar and flour. Two Englishwomen from the Jewish Brigade helped Edith and Olga install it. 

It wasn’t until December 1945, that Edith and Olga left the displaced persons camp. They didn’t go home, as they knew everyone was dead, so they headed to Palestine by ship in April 1946, with Aliyah Bet, as part of the first illegal immigration. They eventually settled in Tel Aviv, where Edith worked as a dressmaker.

In February 1947, Edith met Meir Jacobs, who had come to Palestine in 1938 and who had lost all his family, except one sister. Edith and Meir married on May 20, 1947, and settled in Holon, where their daughters were born — Miriam in 1948 and Esther in 1950.

Life in Israel was difficult, however, and in December 1958, the family immigrated to the United States. After a short stay in Florida, they moved to Los Angeles in May 1959.

Meir opened a furniture refinishing business, and Edith worked as a seamstress. Around 1965, Meir brought Brown’s Wilshire Bakery and, later, the J&T Bread Bin in the Farmer’s Market. He retired in 2009.

Although she’s 87 now, Edith still works as a seamstress. She also enjoys spending time with her family, including her two children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Edith never talked about the Holocaust, even to her family, until 1995, when she was among the survivors interviewed by the Shoah Foundation. And then she spoke only minimally because it was too painful. 

To this day, she said, “I sleep with it, and I wake up with it. You cannot even tell how horrible it is.”

Why Orthodoxy is growing


As almost every Jew knows by now, according to major reports on American Jewry — such as the most recent and most highly regarded Pew report — Orthodoxy is growing, while Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking. 

Before presenting my explanations, I think it important to note that I have no denominational ax to grind. I was raised Orthodox, and went to yeshivas through the end of high school. But I left Orthodoxy early in life and have always been involved in Jewish life — Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish federations and writing for Jewish publications.

In a nutshell, I wish all Jewish endeavors well.

I believe that Orthodoxy is prevailing and that the non-Orthodox denominations are diminishing for the following reasons:

First, Orthodoxy makes more religious demands on its followers (and they are demands, not suggestions). Orthodoxy demands strict religious ritual observance — at the very least, Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayers with tefillin (for men), and regular attendance at synagogue on Shabbat and all the holidays (how many non-Orthodox Jews can even identify Shemini Atzeret, as much a Torah holy day as Passover?). 

I can cite a personal example to prove this point. Non-Orthodox Jews nearly always assume that I am an Orthodox Jew when they learn that I do not broadcast on Shabbat or on any of the Torah holidays. If many Reform and Conservative Jews took all those days off from work — as the Torah demands — few Jews would make that assumption. (I do broadcast on yom tov sheni, the rabbinically added day for Jews outside of Israel.)

Like all other religions (with the prominent exception of Protestant Christianity), Judaism has not been able to survive without ritual observance. 

Second, the more Orthodox one is, the more he or she is likely to live among Orthodox Jews. One’s entire social life (outside of work) revolves around fellow Orthodox Jews. That makes it, to put it gently, very difficult to leave Orthodoxy. If you do, you are likely to lose your whole support system and probably most of your friends, as well. You may even risk alienating your family.

Third, the great majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools — usually through high school. The Orthodox child rarely has close non-Orthodox, let alone non-Jewish, friends, thereby reinforcing Orthodoxy both experientially and socially from the earliest age.

Fourth, more Orthodox Jews marry; they marry younger, and they have more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Among other reasons, many non-Orthodox Jews bought the nihilistic nonsense — and the Jewish dead end — of the zero population growth movement. And fewer and fewer of them believe that marriage and children are mandatory. On the contrary, many consider a successful career at least as fulfilling as marriage and family. It would be instructive to conduct a poll among non-Orthodox young Jewish women, asking them this question: “Would you rather have a great marriage and family or a great career?” 

I have asked this of many young Jewish women, and at least half have responded that they would choose the great career. Just this week the Huffington Post published a column titled, “6 Reasons Never to Get Married.” The author? A woman named Leah Cohen.

It is hard to get further from Judaism and imperil Jewish survival than having Jewish women value career more than, or even as much as, marriage and children.

Fifth, as if all of the above were not enough, Orthodox Jews believe God chose the Jews and is the ultimate author of the Torah. Very few non-Orthodox Jews believe God is the author of the Torah; but it is inconceivable that Judaism can long survive among Jews who do not believe that God created the world, took the Jews out of Egypt and gave the Torah.

Sixth, Israel is central to almost all Orthodox Jews. Incredibly, and tragically, it is increasingly peripheral to many other Jews. 

Seventh, the further from Orthodox Judaism one gets, the more one is likely to adopt leftism/progressivism as one’s moral code and worldview. Just as the Orthodox Jew is steeped in Judaism from the earliest years, most non-Orthodox Jews are steeped in leftism at home and in school from elementary through graduate school. How else to explain the phenomenon of young women thinking career will give their lives as much or more meaning than marriage and family? How else to explain the alienation from Israel among so many non-Orthodox Jews?

I write none of this to make the case for Orthodoxy. I find most of the reasons admirable and a few disturbing. But truth is truth. Any one of the seven reasons would suffice to explain why Orthodoxy is increasing and non-Orthodoxy isn’t. All seven make the case incontrovertible.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Outmoded divorce law leading to back-alley beatings a real shandah


The FBI arrested two prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbis and two of their associates overnight Oct. 9 in New York. Allegedly, these rabbis arranged back-alley beatings for men who refuse to divorce their wives. Understanding their alleged crimes requires a short background in Jewish law.

Jewish law recognizes that some marriages may end in divorce, and includes provisions for how it should be done. In order to divorce in Jewish law, the husband, who accepted the responsibilities of marriage and the financial obligations of divorce at the wedding ceremony, must formally end the marriage with a divorce document, a “get.” This document must be given by the husband to the wife.

Most divorces go smoothly, with the parties in full cooperation. The husband gives the get and all ties are severed. However, there are a significant number of cases in which a recalcitrant husband refuses to give the get. It can be for financial reasons, it can be for vindictive reasons and it can be simply because the husband is holding out hope for reconciliation. Whatever the reason, when a husband does not give his wife a get, she is chained to him and cannot remarry under Jewish law. We call this woman an agunah.

Few things play at the heartstrings in a more profound way than the agunah. The woman is a double victim. She is a victim of an arcane, one-sided system of dissolving a marriage, and she is a victim of a husband who is taking advantage of that system.

A woman can become desperate for her get. It can begin to consume her life. Protests and social pressure might help, but sometimes the recalcitrant husband digs in his heels.

In extreme cases, the woman in these dire straits would call the two rabbis who were arrested on Wednesday evening. For a fee, the FBI describes, these rabbis would make the husband “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Allegedly, the rabbis’ thugs would physically coerce deadbeat husbands to give their desperate wives a get. Using props more familiar to mob films and torture scenes, the FBI complaint describes, the thugs would beat husbands until they actually handed over a signed get. Perhaps most shocking of all is that their actions, according to the complaint, were sanctioned by a rabbinical court.

It’s a clumsy solution, but it has precedent in Jewish law. It has its roots in the Talmud and is explicitly codified by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains the precedent well in his book “Jewish Wisdom”:

“Because the Rabbis were conscious of the inherent unfairness in divorce laws, over the centuries they established new laws to protect women. The tenth-century Rabbi Gershom, who also issued a decree against polygamy, legislated that it was illegal to divorce a woman against her will, a law that has remained in effect since. During the twelfth century, Maimonides ruled that if a man refused to grant a divorce to a woman who was entitled to it, he was to be whipped without mercy until he did so (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Divorce,” 2:20). The legal precedent for his ruling was the talmudic law, “If a man refused to give a woman a divorce, he is forced until he declares ‘I am willing’ (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a). That Maimonides was willing to accept as voluntary a statement elicited by whipping indicates how anxious he was to assist a woman who was being mistreated.”

However, in the United States this kind of activity is illegal, and the public is painting these rabbis as villains.

It’s not so simple. In the ugly mess of the agunah crisis, these rabbis could be a woman’s only hope. While I can’t condone violence, and while I can’t support thuggery, we must see these rabbis for what they are. They are knights in shining armor for these chained women. Like our favorite fictional vigilante, they may not be the hero that we want or deserve, but sometimes they are the hero that we need.

Disgusted might not adequately describe our feeling over the allegations of violence and Mafia-like tactics toward recalcitrant husbands, but these rabbis were heroes to women left with no options.

There is no doubt that these arrests will serve as another wake-up call to the Orthodox Jewish community. The agunah crisis must be solved.

One solution for preventing an agunah crisis is the Halachic Prenup. This is available and comes recommended by foremost rabbinic authorities. The prenuptial agreement triggers a daily fine of $150 if a husband withholds a get. It’s not a very elegant solution, but it works. The Halachic Prenup is gaining traction and hopefully our discomfort with violent solutions will push more rabbis to insist on it at every wedding they officiate.

Perhaps there is also an alternative solution: a conditional get that triggers after an agreed-upon event. There are halachic nuances that would be required to make it work, but I believe there is a way. Perhaps all Orthodox Jewish marriages should include a conditional get that triggers with a specific future event. If the husband refuses to give a new get during subsequent divorce proceedings, the conditional get takes effect. I think it’s at least an option worth exploring.

Until such time that all Orthodox Jewish marriages are subject to the Halachic Prenup or some other preemptive solution we will have an agunah issue. That it came to violence in the most recently reported case is a very sad commentary on what it feels like to be an agunah.

That rabbis were inflicting violence is a terrible consequence. But the real villains are the recalcitrant husbands. Let’s not forget that these rabbis were heroes to the chained women. But at the same time, we should not need such complicated heroes. There are preemptive solutions, and they must become universally instituted.

A version of this column originally appeared in Haaretz.


Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at Pacific Jewish Center/The Shul on the Beach in Venice. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. He blogs at finkorswim.com

The Pew survey: What’s missing from the conversation


The ink is barely dry on the latest Pew report on declining Jewish affiliation and concerned community leaders are quickly weighing in on what to do to attract the unaffiliated back under the tent.  Notwithstanding all the good ideas, something, from my experience, is missing from the conversation.

Ten years ago, I was one of the unaffiliated, the consummate once-a-year Jew, with little connection to our tradition.  Now I’m in shul every Shabbat morning — enjoying it, appreciating it and looking forward to it each week. 

What happened?  How did I find my way back?  It was not so simple. 

I knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t want to be too Jewish.  I was secular.  Religiosity, whatever that was, was for the Orthodox, whoever they were.  God was an interesting concept to talk about in college, but I certainly wasn’t going to believe in Him, whoever He was.

And while I knew that we Jews have had notable success in the world, I also figured that we’re a provincial bunch — a small community with an ancient religion, an obscure language, an old text filled with anachronistic stories, with religious men with long beards in black coats and black hats — amidst a big world of non-Jews.

Then, several years ago, things began to change.  At the recommendation of friends, my wife and I visited Ohr HaTorah, and we decided to join.  The temple has one requirement for parents with kids in religious school.  We needed to attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning.  Were they joking?  That was my day to be out and about having fun.  But, off to temple I went, every Saturday morning, reacquainting myself with Judaism — pretty strange stuff for a secular Jew.

I kept showing up and I kept learning.  Over time, unexpectedly, I came to realize something.  My entire view of Judaism was totally inaccurate.  Throughout my life, I had been inundated with many pervasive secular ideas – secular myths actually — that held me back from any serious interest in the Jewish tradition.  Overcoming these secular myths has been, for me, quite a journey.

What are these secular myths?  First, I had thought that, to be Jewish in any meaningful way, one had to believe in some archaic theology with God perched high up in the sky overseeing everything.  After all, the Hebrew prayers are subsumed with God’s name in all His glory – “Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

In thinking about God, however, I’ve found that it’s helpful to begin not with theology but rather with the soul.  Do we not have souls?  Do our souls not experience a common transcendent reality?  Do our souls not yearn for universal and enduring values like love and goodness, and truth and justice?  Are these values not divine in some sense?

The introduction to one of the Bibles that I study is entitled “Textbook of the Soul.”  I now recognize that there is a window into Judaism and into the idea of God that does not require the indoctrination of specific theological propositions.

Second, I had thought that traditional Judaism, like any religion, is inevitably dogmatic – incompatible with the modern era, with the free exchange of ideas, with the pursuit of knowledge, scientific and otherwise.

But I’ve learned that the Jewish tradition is anything but dogmatic.  It is grounded in the free inquiry of ideas, in the constant yearning and struggle for what’s true — no more exemplified than the ancient rabbis’ discussions and disagreements recorded in voluminous detail in the Talmud.  The Shabbat service implores us to seek truth.  As is said in the morning prayers, “One should always … acknowledge the truth, and be truthful in one’s innermost thoughts.”  Judaism as dogmatic?  How wrong I was!

Third, I had thought that Judaism, like other religions, inevitably gravitates toward theocratic government.  After all, history is replete with theocracies run by religious leaders.

However, I’ve now learned that religiosity does not necessitate a theocratic perspective.   Actually, modern conceptions of republican forms of government can be traced back to the Jewish religion, as Harvard University professor Eric Nelson writes in his book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

In the late 17th century, John Milton opposed theocracies, as well as monarchies, based in large part on his readings of Jewish texts, and he became one of the leading supporters of republican forms of government.  One hundred years later, in arguing for republican government in the United States, Thomas Paine, not exactly the most religious figure, referenced the same Jewish sources in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  It’s not surprising that Michael Novak’s book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding begins with a chapter entitled “Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding.”  No theocracy here.

Fourth, I was under the impression that the Bible was not to be taken seriously.  After all, I presumed that it’s an obscure text filled with ancient stories, absurd commandments, a wrathful God, verses of brutality — all based on someone’s strange interpretation of what they thought was the word of God thousands of years ago.

I’ve now learned that Biblical stories are anything but anachronistic.  They are about the human condition – about slavery and freedom, exile and redemption, justice and injustice, morality and immorality, good and evil, life and death.  The concept of equality – equal justice under the law — comes from the Bible, as Joshua Berman explains in Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.  Not take the Bible seriously?  Its stories and interpretations continue to provide invaluable moral insight and wisdom.

Fifth, I had thought that a religion that’s based in part on revelation — the revealed word of God at Mount Sinai – was in conflict with reason.  Isn’t any such revelation just theological speculation?

I’ve since learned that revelation does not obviate the need for reason, nor does reason negate the possibility of transcendent experiences.  Revealed truths need not entail fantastical ideas.  On the contrary, they can reflect something enduring and endemic in the human condition. 

Yoram Hazony, in his seminal book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, goes even further in arguing that the distinction between reason and revelation is actually alien to the Hebrew Scriptures.  While the Greeks conceived of revelation as an “inpouring” from another realm, Hebrew Scripture defines knowledge and truth in terms of only one realm, implying that there’s been a false dichotomy between reason and revelation.  I now realize that the Jewish religion is anything but unreasonable.

Sixth, I had thought that I could not be both assimilated and Jewish.  I certainly was not about to don Chasidic garb.  But more than that, I was not even comfortable with a religious identity that’s uniquely Jewish.  How parochial!  How exclusivist!

I now understand that the concept of total assimilation within the context of a free society is unrealistic.  We inevitably live within communities — from the family on out.  Moreover, the idea of total assimilation is untenable.  Free and open societies are premised on differences – differences in identity, culture, ethnicity, race, religion.  The title of Natan Sharansky’s important book on the subject says it all — Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy.

So, for most of my life, I had been living under a myth — actually several secular myths – which kept me away from Judaism.  Overcoming these myths is what it took for me to find my way back under the tent.  This is what it may take for many of the unaffiliated today to reconnect with our community and our tradition.

Pew study finds a vibrant Jewish community


Over the past week, I have seen a flurry of writing about Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews. Several scholars and communal leaders have taken an alarmist stance toward the findings, calling the increasing rate of intermarriage “devastating” and describing non-Orthodox Jews as “demographically challenged.” As an adviser to the Pew study and researcher of American Jewish communities, I would like to offer a more optimistic analysis.

Some of the articles have looked for the most dramatic findings to report. The Forward focused on the fact that in 1957, Jews made up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 2.2 percent today. This decrease can be explained by the steady streams of mostly non-Jewish immigrants from Latin America and around the world, which have increased the U.S. population at a higher rate than the Jewish population. To quote the Pew report, “The number of adult Jews by religion rose about 15 percent over the last half century, while the total U.S. population more than doubled.”

So how many Jews are there? It depends on how you count. The study estimates that there are 8 million people in the United States who are willing to tell a phone interviewer that they are fully or partly Jewish. But many of those are also Christian or have no Jewish ancestry and have not converted. The researchers realized that different readers would want to apply different definitions, so they provided a handy calculator where we can check off boxes and come up with our own estimate. (Missing from that tool is a halachic definition: There are no checkboxes for having a Jewish mother and/or conversion.) If we include only people who say they are Jews and do not also subscribe to another religion, we find 6.7 million. Just people who say their religion is Jewish (called “Jews by religion”): 5.1 million. No matter how you calculate our population, we still have an impressive representation.

The New York Times and other venues reported a 71 percent rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, a number I have already heard discussed with concern in various Jewish circles. I contacted the Pew researchers to verify this statistic, as it does not appear in the report. It is accurate (actually, it’s 71.5 percent), but it is a bit misleading. First, it includes only people who have married since 2000 and whose marriages are still intact. Second, it includes Jews of no religion. The sample size was too small to calculate the percentage of non-Orthodox Jews by religion who have married non-Jews in the last 13 years. But if we look at all Jews by religion, we find the recent intermarriage rate at 50 percent (marriages from 2000 to 2004) and then 45 percent (2005-2013); note the drop in the last several years. Third, these calculations include many people who themselves have mixed ancestry. If we look only at Jews with two Jewish parents — common practice in demography, as my colleague Bruce Phillips has explained — we find the intermarriage rate is 37 percent, compared to a whopping 83 percent of those with only one Jewish parent. I asked Pew to calculate the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews with two Jewish parents, and they complied: 43 percent. Again, the sample is too small to divide these results by year of marriage or even age, but it is clear that the “intermarriage rate” can vary widely depending on how it is calculated.

Instead of bemoaning or even debating the numbers, an alternative response to the survey would be to marvel at the fact that so many Jews still marry other Jews. We live in an age of acceptance: Not only are Christians willing to marry Jews, many (an estimated 800,000) feel so connected to Jews or Judaism that they tell a phone interviewer that they are Jewish, even if neither of their parents is Jewish. Why don’t the vast majority of Jews marry non-Jews? I would suggest it is because synagogues, schools, youth groups, Hillels and other Jewish organizations are creating opportunities for Jews to get to know other Jews.

According to conventional wisdom, Jewish organizations are no longer touching most Jews. The survey finds the opposite: 58 percent of all Jews report that they attend Jewish religious services at a synagogue or other place of worship at least a few times a year. There is little difference among age groups in synagogue attendance.

We see similarly high numbers for Jewish education: 67 percent of respondents participated in some kind of formal Jewish education. And when we look at Jewish day school attendance — the most exclusive and demanding form of Jewish education — we see an increase based on age: Only 17 percent of those 65 and older attended day school, compared to 35 percent of those 18-29. (Note that these statistics include many people of mixed ancestry, and the numbers for “Jews by religion” are significantly higher.)

Synagogues, schools and other organizations are, it seems, succeeding in fostering friendships among Jews: 79 percent of Jews say that at least some of their close friends are Jewish. Interestingly, this is the only item for which the report mentions regional differences. In the West, only 67 percent say that at least some of their close friends are Jewish, compared to 77 percent in the Midwest and South and 85 percent in the Northeast. These numbers are likely much higher in densely Jewish parts of Los Angeles, but to confirm this we’ll need to wait for the next (much-needed) L.A. Jewish Population Survey.

To sum up, yes, the report finds that the Jewish population is changing. Boundaries between Jews and non-Jews have become more porous, and Jews continue to marry the people they love, whether or not they are Jewish. This trend may lead to decreasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews in the future. But the numbers seem less alarming with a bit of explanation. The Pew study clearly shows that we are still a robust and vibrant community, numbering in the millions — no matter how you count.


Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at USC.

How to inspire a Jewish future in America


Last week, the Pew Research Center released the first national demographic study of Jewish Americans in more than a decade. Like all such studies, there are disagreements at the edges about the accuracy of some of the results, but the study’s most significant findings have been generally accepted.

The big news is that one in five self-identified American Jews does not identify as Jewish by religion (one in three among younger Jews), and that even among Jews by religion, the intermarriage rate since 2005 is 55 percent. Looking only at the non-Orthodox, since 2005 more than 70 percent of the marriages have been intermarriages.

The big question now is how funders and Jewish organizations respond to this data.

By itself, the news that one-fifth of America’s Jews do not see themselves as Jewish by religion might not be disastrous. After all, there are many Israelis who identify with the Jewish people who call themselves “secular.” The problem is that the Pew study found that unlike Israeli “chilonim,” most of whom see themselves as integral members of the Jewish people and actually perform more than a few Jewish rituals as a matter of course, American “Jews of no religion” are unlikely to raise their children as Jews, be attached to Israel, give to Jewish causes or see being Jewish as important in their lives.

One Jew of no religion who was interviewed for the study described himself to Slate this way:

“Six months ago I told a friendly Pew pollster that I consider myself Jewish but not religious, that my wife is not Jewish, and that my daughter is being raised ‘partially Jewish,’ in Pew’s terms. And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition — even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”

In short, most Jews of no religion have both feet out of the Jewish community — or at least are on their way to the exit sign.

The astonishingly high intermarriage rate among recent marriages outside of Orthodoxy is so important because according to the Pew study, nearly all children of two Jewish spouses are being raised as Jewish by religion, while only 20 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised exclusively as Jewish. Some of these couples are Jews of no religion and others are headed for the exits anyway. Others might be seen as having one foot within the Jewish community and one foot out.

So what to do?

Without offering firm policy recommendations, which should be carefully developed, here are initial principles:

* We should recognize the big picture. In the aggregate, the many programs developed by Jewish philanthropists and organizations after the 1990 population study that first showed alarming intermarriage rates have failed to stem the tide of assimilation. (It will be interesting to see whether the Pew study supports the contention that Birthright Israel increases Jewish identity and participation.) There is likely nothing that can be done to attract Jews heading for the exits, and the programmatic efforts should focus on those who at least have one foot still within the community.

* Based on the Pew study, at least in America, Judaism will endure across generations almost exclusively in families that identify with Judaism as a religion. (It is less clear to me what level of observance or participation generates a “tipping point.”)   The reasons are less clear, but I imagine that part of the answer stems from the famous Ahad Ha’am saying, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.”

Or, as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in his thoughts about the study:

“As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents. Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition. It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews [Hebrew] and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. … That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.”

* Along these same lines, we should measure the likely success of programs based on whether they offer the intensive and immersive education needed to give participants an understanding of the power and beauty of Jewish values and practices. Anything less will fail to give participants sufficient motivation to make the commitment of time, energy and money needed for engaged Jewish life. Programs that attempt to “meet people where they are” can only be justified if they actually succeed in attracting Jews to more substantive ongoing programs.

* Every business owner knows that it costs less to retain a customer than to attract a new one. While economic considerations may not be the only relevant ones, it is far more cost effective to invest in Jews who are closer to the core of the engaged Jewish community, whether they are children or young adults. The study tells us that these, too, are Jews at risk of assimilation. Investment in these young people is our community’s best chance for increasing retention of an energizing nucleus that has the potential to reverse the trends painfully evident in the study.

We all prefer good news to bad. This has caused some commentators on the Pew study to celebrate the number of Jews regardless of their commitments or argue that the answer is to be more “welcoming” of those who are heading for the exits.

There are no easy fixes. The only way to retain the next generation will be to inspire them to desire and love substantive Jewish life. If enough Jews can be so inspired, the Jewish future will be far rosier than the snapshot offered by the Pew study.


Yossi Prager is the executive director-North America of the Avi Chai Foundation.

Sunday’s protestors sought kaporot concessions


With chants of “Shonda,” and “Shame,” a group of around 75 protestors demonstrated on Sept. 8 in front of two sites on Pico Blvd where kaporot ceremonies were taking place.

Kaporot, which means “Atonement,” is a 1,000 year old custom observed by some Orthodox Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that consists of an individual swinging a live chicken over his head three times and a saying a prayer— in effect ritually transferring his sins to the chicken.

Afterward, the chicken is kosher slaughtered and customarily is either prepared and eaten by the kaporot observer, or given to the poor, though an article in The Journal reported that last year nearly 10 tons of kaporot chickens may have been  thrown away.

The protest was led by Rabbi Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Faith Action for Animals, an organization that supports the well-being of animals.

To demonstrate an alternative to using chickens, “Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, led the group, many of whom were animals rights activists, in a kaporot ceremony using money,” Klein said.

“People pulled coins out of their pockets and put them into plastic bags and waved them around their heads three times, and read the formula,” Klein added.

The protest, which was monitored by LAPD officers, at times grew loud, and heated with protestors leaning up against the enclosure where the kaporot was taking place and chanting and shouting into it in both English and Farsi.  “Genocide is wrong whether against Jews or Against chickens,” read a sign held by one protestor, “Kapporot not in the Torah,” read another.

Other protestors gave water to the chickens kept ready in cages nearby.

“I’m trying to keep kids off drugs, and they are calling me a murderer,” said Rabbi Moshe Nourollah, whose Jewish outreach organization Bait Aaron organized the kaporot ceremony behind Young Israel of Beverly Hills, from whom they rent the space. According to Rabbi Nourollah, the money collected—a fee is asked for each chicken—is used to help fund his organization.

“They were screaming at little kids,” said Meir Nourollah, the rabbi’s son, a schochet who traveled from Israel to ritually slaughter the kaporot chickens for Bait Aaron.

“It’s not surprising that people became so emotional,” Klein said. “They saw the blood spurting out and on the ground,” he said.

At one point during the demonstration, a blue City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation truck stood idling a few blocks from the demonstration.

“I am here for a dead animal pick up at 8701 Pico Blvd.,” the truck’s driver sadi when asked by a Jewish Journal reporter. The address is where the kaparot ceremony was taking place. After an LAPD officer spoke to the driver, the truck pulled away.

After the protestor walked a few blocks east to Ohel Moshe, where kaporot ceremonies also were being held, Klein, in view of the group, and accompanied by the an LAPD officer met with a synagogue official, to see if some agreement could be made concerning the chickens.

“Absolutely no progress was made,” he announced after rejoining the group on the sidewalk.

However, later in the day, Nehemia Shoob, a Beit Aaron representative offered as many as three chickens per day to be rescued, if the group would refrain from loud protesting of the kaporot ceremonies.

“It was some small measure of opening,” said Klein, who said he would offer the saved chickens to rescue farms and households equipped to keep chickens.

There was another opening as well.

Around the kaporot site, posted flyers announced that the “Chickens used for Sapporo at Young Israel of Beverly Hills are being donated in (sic) The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.”

When reached for confirmation, Ted Landreth, a founder of the Coalition confirmed that chickens for kaporot were coming to the coalition and had been donated the previous year as well.

The day after the protest, when Rabbi Nourollah was asked if the dead kaporot chickens were trashed, he said, “We give all of them away,” and showed a receipt for the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles indicating that several dozen chickens had been donated.

Several other chickens that had been slaughtered and butchered were shown in a barrel with ice.

“There would have been chickens,” said Rabbi Nourollah, “But the protestors drove people away,” he said.

“We will be taking the matter to health officials,” Klein said.

Feeds and reads: Jewish responses to same-sex marriage decisions


Much of the Jewish world is celebrating today’s Supreme Court ruling on two same-sex marriage cases.

But two Jewish groups aren’t joining the party. We devoted a separate post to the brief response of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel. The Orthodox Union weighed in with this longer and more balanced take which, while noting that that Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages,” concludes thus:

We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.

The Orthodox Union is proud to assert its beliefs and principles in the public forum, and will continue to do so in a manner that is tolerant and respectful of all of our nation’s citizens, but which is also authentically based upon our sacred ancient texts and time-honored traditions.

Beyond the Orthodox world, though, the rulings were cause for celebration. At Tablet, Wayne Hoffman wrote a poignant response which he ends, “Why is today different from all other days? Today I am legally married. Truly. At last.”

At the heart of the DOMA case is Edith Windsor, a Jewish widower who was forced to pay extra taxes because the federal government did not recognize her marriage to the her partner, Thea Speyser. New Yorker contributor Ariel Levy was with Windsor when the news broke and captured emotional pictures that you can see here.

The Twitterverse has blown up in response, and so far, perhaps this subject line from an email from Bend the Arc takes the cake: ”Now Everyone Can Marry a Jewish Doctor”


TWEETS


Jewish Community Relations Council celebrates Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality

JCRC Supports Supreme Court Decision on Proposition 8 in California and Defense of Marriage Act; This is a Historic Day for Civil Rights and Equality in the United State.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013, The Jewish Community Relations Council, 121 Steuart Street, San Francisco – The Jewish Community Relations Council applauds the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down the key provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act and leave standing California’s ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. These are landmark decisions for the State of California and the United States as a whole, and an important step toward ensuring equality, liberty and justice for all American citizens.

JCRC President Jerilyn Gelt and Executive Director Rabbi Doug Kahn celebrated the decision, saying: 

 “The organized Jewish community overwhelmingly supports marriage equality out of an abiding commitment to civil rights in our society and therefore applauds today’s Supreme Court decisions as a major step forward. The Jewish Community Relations Council has advocated for same-sex civil marriage for many years as an essential step to eliminate discrimination faced by same-sex couples.   We are also committed to maintaining the right of religious denominations to set their own requirements for religious marriage.   

The Court’s decision that will permit same-sex marriages to resume in California will, we believe, lead to many more states recognizing that denial of such rights is incompatible with our society’s commitment to equal rights for all citizens.   The Supreme Court’s companion decision striking down the key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act eliminates a major barrier to equal rights protection.   

It is bittersweet that the ruling comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act – an act that has played an historic role in safeguarding one of our society’s fundamental rights.   Today, however, we join with many communities in celebrating the end of discrimination for same-sex couples seeking to marry in our state.”


Rabbinical Assembly celebrates Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage

In response to the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions today calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and dismissing an appeal supporting an anti-gay marriage law in California, the Rabbinical Assembly, the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis, released the following statement:

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, RA executive vice president, said,

Judaism views marriage as a sacred responsibility, not only between the partners, but also between the couple and the larger community. Our Movement recognizes and celebrates marriages, whether between partners of the same sex or the opposite sex. We therefore celebrate today’s decisions on gay marriage by the Supreme Court.

RA president Rabbi Gerald Skolnik added,

On behalf of the 1,700 rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, I Join with Jews across California and the United States in acknowledging today’s Supreme Court decisions as opening the way for loving and committed same-sex couples to enjoy the rights and privileges of marriage. This is most clearly modeled in the case of Edith Windsor, a Holocaust survivor who enjoyed a loving relationship with her wife of many decades, and had been unable to inherit her partner’s estate as her spouse.

The Rabbinical Assembly is the international association of Conservative rabbis. Since its founding in 1901, the Assembly has been the creative force shaping the ideology, programs, and practices of the Conservative movement, and is committed to building and strengthening the totality of Jewish life. Rabbis of the Assembly serve congregations throughout the world, and also work as educators, officers of communal service organizations, and college, hospital, and military chaplains.  More information is available at www.rabbinicalassembly.org.


OTHER LINKS: 

Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Western Wall


“There are no villains in this story.”  Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.  Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall.  The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world. 

Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.

We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew.  We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.

[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]

Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity.  Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.

The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews.  But this Wall that has united people can also divide us.  Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation.  Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.

Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.

Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.  He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.

We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.

Signed,
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh


Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 


Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”

Mikvah

Kosher consumers reeling after Doheny scandal


[UPDATE, MARCH 29] The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) responds to the Doheny Meats scandal.

[MARCH 28] Trust lies at the center of the business of kosher food, and earlier this week, in what is certainly the biggest kosher scandal to hit Los Angeles in 20 years, the trust many kosher consumers placed in Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats, a market on Pico Boulevard in the heart of L.A.’s most prominent Orthodox neighborhood, was shattered.

“I used to go to Doheny because I like their meat better; I’m so mad that I can’t shop there anymore,” said Shahnaz Benjy of Beverly Hills on Thursday, March 28.

Benjy had just finished buying groceries at Pico Glatt Mart, a kosher-certified market located a few blocks west of the disgraced shop. “I pay too much for meat as it is, and to know I can’t trust [Doheny] anymore is really sad,” she said.

[EXCLUSIVE: Surveillance video of Doheny Meat scandal]

After 28 years doing business in that location, Doheny’s owner, Mike Engelman, was videotaped on March 12 instructing his employees to bring boxes into his shop at a time when the kosher overseer, or mashgiach, who had been overseeing a delivery, had walked away. The video, which was shot by Eric Agaki, an independent private investigator, led the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) to revoke its certification from Doheny on March 24, the day before Passover.

That decision has not been taken lightly.

On Sunday, just hours before a portion of the footage from the investigator’s tape was shown on the KTLA 10 p.m. news show, staff members from the RCC as well as a handful of other rabbis and lay leaders from the Orthodox community gathered in the office of Rabbi Kalman Topp, the spiritual leader of Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. Also present were Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea.

Together they watched the video.

“You see him [Engelman] talking to the mashgiach; you see him waiting until the mashgiach leaves,” said Muskin of the 30-minute segment of video shown at the meeting. “And the damaging evidence is that once the mashgiach leaves, that’s when he has his helpers empty out his SUV, bringing the boxes into his establishment.”

After the group finished watching the video, the meeting continued, and Engelman himself was brought into the room. The shopkeeper – believed to be one of the largest distributors of kosher meat products on the West Coast — initially denied the allegations. But eventually, according to two people present at the meeting, Engelman admitted that he had brought boxes of unsupervised food into the store.

“He did claim that it was kosher – I think that the way he put it was that he ‘never brought non-kosher meat into the store,’ and that he ‘never sold something not kosher,’” an individual who attended the meeting told the Journal on March 28. “But he did acknowledge bringing in boxes – he claimed it was poultry — into the store.”

Before the meeting ended, the assembled rabbis composed an email stating that the RCC had “removed its kosher supervision, for cause, from Doheny Kosher Meats,” adding that all meat purchased before 3 p.m. that day was still considered kosher.

(The local rabbis, who consulted with another rabbinic authority, relied on a concept known as “rov” which allows rabbis — in cases when a majority of a set of items are known to be kosher – to declare the entire set to be kosher.)

Each of the synagogues and the RCC sent that message out to their mailing lists that night.

Agaki, who said he did the investigation over the course of several months after hearing rumors of problems with the market, did the  surveillance without the cooperation of the RCC. He said he had also obtained on Sunday from a relative of Engleman 5,000 fraudulent stickers that could be used to label the contents of any bag or container as “glatt kosher.”

For the rabbis in that meeting, however, Engelman’s actions captured in the video were enough to justify revoking his store’s certification.

“He lost the trust of the community,” Muskin said in an interview. The rabbi also spoke about the Doheny scandal from his pulpit on the first day of Passover. “If you’re a kosher butcher, then you’ve got to be a kosher butcher, and you’ve got to play by the rules. You don’t bring boxes of unidentified items into your establishment behind the back of your mashgiach.”

Engelman said that on the advice of his attorney he could not comment on the allegations or the actions taken by the RCC, and, according to Engelman, his attorney would not take calls from the press either.

Despite the situation, Doheny Market was open for business on Thursday and its front window displayed a new kosher certificate  — valid only until April 1.

The name and signature of Rabbi Meshulom Dov Weiss appear on the certificate, and the rabbi’s son, Rabbi Menachem Weiss, told the Journal that he and his father are working with Engelman to ensure that everything sold by Doheny is certified kosher. Weiss said that any opened meat packages had been removed from the store, and that two mashgiachs will now be on site at all times, and seven video cameras were to be installed throughout the premises, allowing the father to monitor the store via the web from his home in North Hollywood.

“We’re not going into it naïve,” Menachem Weiss told the Journal on Thursday. “These are the precautions that we’re putting into place to allow him to stay in business from now until April 1. What happens after that, we’ll have to see.”

The Weisses have acted as supervisors for Doheny before, for about 18 months starting in 2007 or 2008. Menachem Weiss did not remember the exact years, but said that Engelman brought them in after the RCC informed him – along with the rest of the shops they certified – that from then on, all meat sold under RCC kosher supervision had to be not just kosher, but glatt kosher.

For meat to be considered kosher, it must be from the right kind of animal and must be slaughtered and prepared properly. For large animals – not poultry – the animal’s innards must be checked to ensure that there are no signs of disease. If, for instance, a cow has a hole in its lung, the animal is not considered kosher by any standard.

But to be kosher under the higher “glatt” standard – the word means “smooth” in Yiddish – the animal’s lungs must have no signs of ever having had any ulcers. If the ulcers have healed, the meat is considered kosher – but not glatt kosher.

When the RCC began to insist upon the higher standard, it brought with it higher prices. Engelman, Weiss said, initially decided to drop the RCC’s certification and to continue selling kosher meat that did not meet the glatt standard under the Weisses’ supervision.

However without the RCC certification, Weiss said, Doheny’s business suffered, and Engelman decided to adhere to the glatt standard and return to the RCC.

“Our intent is not to replace the RCC,” Menachem Weiss said. “Our hope is that the RCC will take Mike back; we’re trying to help Mike earn back the trust of the community.”

Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but it may not only be Doheny that needs to win back the trust of kosher consumers in Los Angeles. The RCC’s reputation may have sustained some damage as well.

“I have no clue who to trust anymore,” said another woman shopping at Pico Glatt Mart on Thursday said, asking to be identified only as Friede. “I don’t trust RCC.”

Suspicions about Doheny Meats practices were brought to the RCC's attention repeatedly over the last three years, according to Daryl Schwarz, the owner of the now-closed Kosher Club.

Schwartz also said that, as early as 2010, he reported seeing the empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape to Rabbi Nissim Davidi, the RCC’s kashrut administrator.

“It was numerous times over the years,” Schwartz said.

[See story on RCC's prior warning]

The RCC did not respond to requests for comment on this story; the agency said Thursday that it would release a statement on Friday, March 29.

Told that some customers were worried that the certification of other markets might also come into question, Muskin, who served as president of the RCC from 1992 to 1997, said that such broad skepticism is not appropriate.

“The rabbis have to review the entire process of the supervision, and what fell apart, and how this happened, that’s clear,” Muskin said. “But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a man did something that he should not have done. He still tried to beat the system.”

“If there’s anger and disgust,” Muskin added, “it has to be at the owner of Doheny Kosher.”