Israeli couples say ‘I don’t’ to Orthodox Jewish weddings


For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married – God's way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licences in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.

Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

“We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious. It is our people, our tradition,” Sharon said.

Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognised as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad – even in a non-religious ceremony – outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognised religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.

WHO IS A JEW?

Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.

About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.

Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.

Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a gruelling process.

Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.

But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother – the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.

And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.

“It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.

“They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents. At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday,” he said.

His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.

Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.

The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.

Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.

“A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not … and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria,” Maor said.

According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage licence are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.

GAY MARRIAGE

There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.

Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognises gay marriage – but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.

Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.

“The (Rabbinate) would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”

She later travelled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognises gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.

At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.

“It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.

But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.

Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.

Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’


Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners


Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

Community Briefs


After 22 years as head rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, Rabbi Aron Tendler resigned last weekend.

“It is with mixed emotions that I write you today to let you know of my decision that, after 22 wonderful years, I have decided to step down as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek,” Tendler wrote in a letter to the 400-member families of the Orthodox synagogue.

“This has been a decision I have contemplated for some time, and after great soul searching and deliberation and with the full support of Esther and the family, I decided that it was time to explore other opportunities and embark on a new aspect of my personal and professional life.”

Tendler wrote that he intends to stay in the community but wants to spend more time with his family and pursuing writing, teaching and other projects.

“On occasion, I would like to sleep for more than four hours. Selfishly put, I want more time, and if not now when?” he wrote. Tendler will stay on through the High Holidays and help the search committee in its quest to find a new rabbi.

“Rabbi Tendler turned innumerable lives around, and it will be a great loss for us,” Brad Turell, Shaarey Zedek’s communications director, told The Journal. “He’s very talented and we wish him the best.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Sharansky Visits Southland

Israeli politician Natan Sharansky spent a quick two days in Los Angeles last weekend, giving four speeches on Jan. 22 calling for more American Jewish involvement in the upcoming World Zionist Congress.

“People have a need to strengthen their bond, somehow feel themselves part of a bigger family,” Sharansky told The Jewish Journal. “It doesn’t matter what origin; it doesn’t matter whether they are right or left; more and more Jews feel the need to become close to Israel. Before you are looking for the new way with your connection with Israel, what about the most traditional way?”

The prominent Likud party member was brought to Los Angeles last weekend by the West Coast chapter of American Friends of Likud. He encouraged Jews here to get more active in the quadrennial congress this summer of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which controls the multimillion dollar budgets for The Jewish Agency.

Organizers said Sharansky spoke to about 35 Likud supporters at a Sunday breakfast, then to 100 people at the Hillcrest Country Club, plus more than 200 people later Sunday afternoon at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and finally another 90 at a private dinner at a television producer’s home.

Since last November, the WZO’s American branch has been selecting delegates for this June’s 35th WZO Congress in Jerusalem. Voting ends in late February with U.S. candidates from Likud, Russian, Green Zionist, Meretz, Harut and other Jewish movements. Sharansky wants more U.S. Jews to sign up with the $7 registration fee on the WZO’s American Zionist Movement Web site and then vote for delegates concerned about WZO spending.

In an interview between two of his speeches, Sharansky criticized the WZO Congress as a, “narrow group of people without broad involvement of Jews [worldwide]. So people simply don’t know, its connection of involvement and distribution of funds. Jews have an opportunity to participate in it, but they’re not using this opportunity. One percent maybe knows about its existence.”

Sharansky quit his minister-without-portfolio post last May in protest to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout last August of Gaza settlers. While Sharon’s former Likud party sponsored Sharansky’s two-day L.A. visit, the onetime Soviet dissident said, “When speaking abroad, I’m trying to speak as little about splits in Israel as possible. When speaking to the Jews of Diaspora, you have to speak about building bridges between Jews of Diaspora and Israel.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

A Dozen Nonprofits Get Foundation Grants

The Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded grants totaling $116,000 to 12 mostly local nonprofit organizations to support a variety of services, ranging from suicide prevention hotlines to dental care for the poor and counseling and tutoring for abused and neglected children.

The Foundation’s grants ranged in size from $5,000 to $20,000 and will help fund valuable services that government money alone cannot underwrite, said Marvin I. Schotland, foundation president and chief executive.

“There are vast pockets of need that cannot possibly be met at this time by the public sector,” he said. “Support by our organization to the greater community is more critical, and immensely gratifying, than ever and remains a vital part of our mandate.”

The foundation, created in 1954, is the largest manager of charitable assets for Greater Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists. With more than $590 million under its management, the Foundation distributed last year $58 million in grants to more than 1,300 organizations.

Among the nonprofits that received grants in January:

  • The Los Angeles Free Clinic received $10,000 for its dental program. This year, the clinic, which provides health and other services to the uninsured and the working poor, expects more than 3,500 children and adults to make more than 9,000 visits for dental services.
  • Trevor Project Inc., based in Beverly Hills, received $10,000 for a suicide prevention hotline and educational programs that promote tolerance for gay teens and those questioning their sexual orientation.
  • New Ways to Work in Sebastopol, Calif., received a $10,000 grant to help prepare children in foster care for independence at age 18. Over the next four years, nearly 4,000 Los Angeles youths currently in foster care are expected to become emancipated and leave the foster care system.
  • Inner-City Arts received $10,000 for a hands-on arts program designed to improve literacy among grade school students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Chabad in the House

What is “The Rebbe’s Gelt?”

Literally, “the rabbi’s money,” it’s the name of a new Chabad program unveiled last week at the annual West Coast Convention of Chabad/Lubavitch for Shulchim, or emissaries. The new initiative will provide grants and loans to those rabbis who need short-term financial aid.

More than 170 Chabad rabbis and emissaries gathered at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel and the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, for the Jan. 15-16 convention. Chabad West Coast unveiled Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, a new Jewish overnight camp located on Chabad’s Kiryas Schneerson mountaintop campus. Chabad also announced its plan to organize the first ever Woman’s Convention of Shluchos on the West Coast, tentatively scheduled for May in San Diego. — Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Thousand Oaks Temple Teacher Receives Award

Bobbie Match, who has spent 10 years at Temple Adat Elohim’s Early Childhood Center received the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education presented by the Jewish Education Service of North America, Inc. The award recognizes outstanding classroom-based teachers in formal Jewish educational settings. It includes a $1500 grant for continued professional development. Last year Match received the prestigious Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award from the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE).

Other recent BJE Award winners from Temple Adat Elohim are Michelle Princenthal, winner of the 2005 Smotrich Family Education Award; Tara Farkash, winner of the 2003 Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award; and Marcy Goldberg, winner of the 2004 Lainer Distinguished Educator Award. — NZ

Yago Joins Israel Securities Authority Board

Glenn Yago, director of Capital Studies at the Milken Institute in Los Angeles, was appointed to the International Advisory Board of the Israel Securities Authority (ISA), the government body that oversees and regulates the Israeli capital market and serves the same function as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States.

Yago joined key Israeli economic policy makers, including ISA chairman Moshe Tery, Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer and Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange chairman Yair Orgler, for the first meeting of the International Advisory Board in New York. Other board members from the U.S. include Leo Melamed, chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Douglas Shulman of the National Association of Securities Dealers; Bill Brodsky, chairman of the Chicago Board Options Exchange; Milton Harris of the University of Chicago School of Business; and David Loglisci, deputy comptroller of the State of New York.

Appointing Yago, Tery said that he wanted the economist’s experience and insight “to help build the legal and economic infrastructure to advance Israel’s capital markets and its standing as a venue for global investment.”

Yago is a leading authority on financial innovations and capital markets and specializes in privatization projects to improve the economic climate in the Middle East. He has experience working with municipal, government, business and academic leaders in the region to promote economic reform. He is a senior Koret Knesset Fellow and teaches at Tel-Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya. He is the author of numerous books and studies, including “The Economic Road Map: Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Milken Institute, 2005). —NZ

Bubis Honored for Community Service

Professor Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service (SJCS) at the Los Angeles School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), was honored recently when the school celebrated its 36th Anniversary at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Two-hundred guests turned out for the event, including colleagues, community leaders, fellow SJCS alumni and old friends, saluting Bubis’ efforts at the school and in the field of Jewish Communal Service.

The (SJCS) was founded in 1968 and is the oldest professional school of its kind. Its inter-disciplinary approach combines study of Jewish tradition and text with tools from the fields of the social sciences and business. Open to students from all areas of religious thought and communal life, the School seeks to be inclusive and pluralistic. Since its inception, 650 people have graduated from the school.

More than 300 SJCS graduates hold dual master’s degrees from USC. Twenty-five rabbis hold degrees from the school and 37 SJCS graduates have received dual degrees in Jewish Education from the HUC-JIR/LA Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

Concurrent with the celebration, alumni and friends of the School of Jewish

Communal Service raised more than $135,000 in scholarships in honor of Bubis. —Norma Zager

Stan’s Customers Go Bananas Over Reopening

Asked about the past three and a half months, shopper Kathy Mannheim said, “I hated it. It has not been a happy time in my life.”

She’s referring to the period of time she endured without her favorite local produce store, Stan’s. A Pico-Robertson neighborhood fixture, Stan’s closed after the High Holidays, when owner Stan Pascal got sick and was unable to carry on his usual six-day-a-week schedule.

Earlier this month, Pascal reopened and was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for rock stars.

“I’m thinking of giving autographs,” he joked.

Feyge Yemini, who patronizes the store twice a week to supply her large family, said she was “extremely happy” about Pascal’s return.

“I never found a comparable high-quality fruit store,” she said. “I had to go to five places to get what I can get here.”

Pascal started in the produce business as an 8-year-old in Windsor, Ontario, where he would help his father out on the weekends. In 1957, he came with his family to Los Angeles, and worked at his father’s three produce stalls at the Grand Central Market downtown. After his father died, Pascal and his wife, Susan, opened their own store on Fairfax Boulevard, where they remained for more than two decades before moving to the current location.

Fairfax resident Miriam Fishman continues to shop at Stan’s despite the distance.

“It’s a haimisch place,” she said. “There’s no other fruit store like it in town.”

In a time of big box markets and megastores, Stan’s has remained a place where retailer and customer maintain a personal relationship. Pascal greets customers by name, allows regulars to purchase with IOUs, and has been known to weigh a customer’s new baby on the produce scale.

During his absence, rumors circulated that he had sold the store, and in fact, he almost did. “At the last minute I changed my mind,” Pascal said. “I missed the people.”

The feeling is mutual. “I went to other places but it wasn’t the same,” said customer Mannheim. “It wasn’t Stan’s.” — Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

 

Sympathy for the Devil?


A rule in Jewish law holds that when all the judges on the Jewish high court unanimously condemned an accused criminal, he must be set free. The very unanimity was suspicious and called into question the justice of the proceedings.

Talk about unanimity. By now thousands of published articles, ranging from critical to hateful, have appeared about the famous Jack Abramoff — Orthodox Jew, former Washington super-lobbyist, product of an affluent Beverly Hills upbringing and future inmate of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

As Abramoff told The Jewish Journal in a series of phone interviews earlier this month, “I had lost a sense of proportion and judgment. God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn’t listen, so He set off a nuclear bomb.”

In such a case, can there be room for giving the universally condemned man the benefit of the doubt?

“What hurts the most is the way my co-religionists want to cut my head off,” Abramoff says.

Predictably, he has been excoriated by some Jews who seem transparently thrilled to point to an Orthodox Jew with failings. The response from the Orthodox community is more aptly described as shock and frequently expressions of shame at the thought that Abramoff, a Jew, did what he did.

But the story has another side.

In presenting this alternate view, I don’t pretend to be disinterested. I have met Abramoff twice, and 10 years ago I enjoyed spending the first two festival days of Sukkot in his home. His fundraising efforts, related in his plea agreement, supported many Republican and Jewish causes including an organization I admire and once worked for — Toward Tradition.

But those who so entirely condemn Abramoff are not all disinterested either. Many are eager to see the humiliation of Republican congressmen who received gifts and favors from the lobbyist. Others find in him confirmation of dearly held but more idiosyncratic beliefs, biases and bugbears.

So having admitted biases all around, let’s try to understand Jack Abramoff and his Jewish journey.

From an early age he was a religious rebel and an ardent idealist. His story is in many ways that of many other ba’alei teshuvah, Jews who returned to tradition. I, too, am in that group.

Now age 46, he was born in Atlantic City, N.J. His father, Frank Abramoff, a Diners Club executive, moved the family to Beverly Hills in 1969. The family’s home was in the tree-lined flats north of Santa Monica Boulevard on Elm Drive. His early religious education was at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills. However by the time of his bar mitzvah he was fed up with what he felt was a Judaism devoid of meaning.

“I quickly came to the conclusion that what they were saying was gibberish,” Jack Abramoff says.

Frank Abramoff remembers, “He said ‘That’s the last time I’ll be involved with that sort of tradition.’ I said, ‘That’s your decision.'”

His only exposure to traditional Judaism was from watching “Fiddler on the Roof,” a movie he found inspiring. Abramoff had no idea there was an Orthodox community in Los Angeles and was stunned in 1972 when he met a boy his own age wearing a kippah in La Cienega Park.

Jack started attending a Conservative synagogue, Sinai Temple, on his own. He taught himself Hebrew and read Judaica, notably Hayim Halevy Donin’s “To Be a Jew,” first published in 1972.

“I read that book cover to cover several times over and decided that if I was going to be a Jew, that’s the kind of Jew I was going to be.”

Many ba’alei teshuvah (including myself) have been strongly influenced by Donin’s powerful and dignified-yet-simple summary of Jewish practice, which has no equal even today among the new books for Jewish beginners.

Donin wrote of the Jewish idea of holiness, which he defined as “Developing one’s sense of discernment as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the good from the bad, the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, and the clean from the unclean. The greater the sense of ethical-moral-religious discrimination, the greater the holiness of the individual.”

For all his study of Donin, the young Abramoff remained remarkably innocent about the realities of a traditional Jewish life. When he decided to observe Tisha B’Av for the first time at age 13, he became confused about the rule against wearing leather shoes on that holy day. He thought all shoes were forbidden on Tisha B’Av, and he assumed too that it was a rest day, like the Sabbath, and thus riding in a car was forbidden.

“So I walked to Temple Sinai, 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard, night and day, in my socks. Somebody at the temple asked me if I wanted a ride. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with these guys?'”

For college in 1977, Abramoff chose Brandeis University in Massachusetts because he’d read it had a kosher kitchen. There he first came into personal contact with Orthodox Rabbi Rod Glogower.

“We learned Gemara [Talmud] together. There was a Mishnah shiur [class],” Abramoff recalls. “He bore himself in such a dignified way, an elegant way. Just seeing him inspired me.”

Rabbi Glogower, now spiritual leader of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan, remembers the college-age Jack fondly.

“My wife and I lived in a tough neighborhood, and when we would walk to and from the campus, I often got anti-Semitic comments from passing cars. Windows would roll down,” he said. “When Jack heard about it he was extremely upset and protective of me. I have never forgotten the sense that he was a guy who would be in the trenches with me.”

After graduating in 1981, Abramoff got into the political trenches as chairman of College Republicans, later as a producer of admittedly cheesy anti-Communist action movies. Work on one of those took him to South Africa, where he met the man who became his “rav,” or rabbi: David Lapin, now a business consultant and rabbi emeritus at the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice.

That was in 1983. Again what impressed Abramoff immediately was a certain regal bearing in Lapin, not so different from Glogower. After listening to thousands of hours of taped lectures over the years by Rabbi Lapin, Abramoff said, “His is the voice in my ear, the voice of Torah, that I hear the most. He is so erudite, such a mensch. His teaching is outside the box, it’s in the box, it’s all around the box.”

So one turns to Rabbi Lapin himself for an insight about Abramoff — especially since Lapin, along with his brother Daniel in Seattle, president of Toward Tradition, the nonprofit, conservative, Judeo-Christian foundation, were both initially drawn into the Abramoff affair in different business-related ways, which by now have blown over.

Daniel Lapin was interviewed by the FBI which, he said, found that Toward Tradition had innocently accepted money from an Abramoff client. David Lapin was negatively and misleadingly portrayed in The New York Times — and by The Jewish Journal, which carried a JTA article drawing from the Times story — on the topic of consulting his company did for the Northern Mariana Islands. The Times subsequently printed a correction of a key detail, which it said was “erroneously omitted.”

What, I asked David Lapin, does religious observance do if it doesn’t keep a man out of prison?

“Studying Torah refines the character,” he said, “It doesn’t artificially transform it. So I usually assume that when one who has studied Torah does wrong, he or she would have done much worse without the refining and restraining influence of Torah knowledge and practice.” And now that his student is in trouble, Lapin said, “I think the Torah he has learned helps him to internalize the tragic events of the past two years in his life and use them for personal transformation.”

What leads a religiously committed Jew to go down a wrong path? Liberal Jews and some Christians point to what they see as Orthodoxy’s over-emphasis on minutiae which, so goes this line of analysis, may result in a Jew who is fervent about what is picayune (for example, the details of Sabbath observance) but lax about greater matters (like bribing congressmen). There are two problems with this strategy for maligning traditional Judaism.

First, taking seriously the Torah’s commandments inherently necessitates a care for details. God cares to see that we care.

Second, while the mitzvot are not magic, if done right they create a heightened mindfulness about matters great and small, including moral matters. But the key phrase is “done right.” In our conversations, Abramoff repeatedly berated himself for allowing his Jewish observance to become mechanized, an afterthought.

“How many times did I take 60 seconds to say Birkat Ha’Mazon [the grace after meals]?” he asked. “How many times did I say the Shemoneh Esrei [Judaism’s central prayer] without thinking about what I was saying?”

Obviously, if you are not mindful about the so-called “ritual” commandments, they will produce few beneficial effects in other areas of your life.

Alternatively, could Abramoff’s problem be classic compartmentalization: cares about mitzvahs, doesn’t care about mail fraud?

In the end, to ask such a question, thinking you can imagine the mind of another person, is to mislead yourself.

“God created us as infinitely complex creatures,” Daniel Lapin said in a public statement released after Abramoff’s plea. “We are capable of both evil actions and good ones — very often on the same day.”

Jack Abramoff is undoubtedly a complex creature. The same man who wrote crudely insulting e-mails about Indian gambling moguls plowed the money he made not into a second home, a yacht or mistresses, but into expensive Jewish enterprises of benefit to others: two idealistic religious schools in the Washington, D.C., suburbs; two money-losing kosher restaurants, intended both as a lobbying venue and as a boon to kosher diners and other Jewish businessmen; and private gifts to needy Jews who came to him with broken hearts and empty wallets. In the early 1990s, he put his work on pause to oversee the creation of the Torah School of Greater Washington, now 12 years in operation and thriving. The high school he started, Eshkol Academy, failed amid acrimony over unpaid salaries as Abramoff’s legal troubles deepened. Abramoff himself told The Journal he saved nothing and supported himself, his wife and five children from check to check.

Although Jewish law asks us to give between 10 percent and 20 percent of net income to charity, Abramoff says, “I incorrectly didn’t follow the mitzvah of giving away at most 20 percent. I gave away everything. I was the softest touch in town.”

Or are we soft to believe him about this? The Jewish newspaper in Abramoff’s area, the Washington Jewish Week, deserves credit for bothering to look beyond the negatives. A Jan. 11 article quoted a range of community members who personally witnessed the effects of Abramoff’s generosity, testifying with comments like: “Hundreds of kids in this area owe their Jewish day school education to Jack,” “We remain indebted to him,” and “How many Jews make millions of dollars in this town and don’t give … anything” back?

The Abramoff family lives in the same house in mostly drab Silver Spring, Md., that Abramoff bought in 1999 for $1.03 million. While far from a shack, such a house is equally far from a mansion by today’s standards. Clearly, his crimes weren’t committed to fund some ridiculously lavish lifestyle.

“He has always been a good child,” says his father, Frank Abramoff, who sounded a heartbreakingly plaintive note, describing Jack Abramoff’s moral qualities as if his son were still that boy walking 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard in the dark, in his socks.

Now that Abramoff’s personal fate for the next decade or so has been sealed with the plea agreement, the Jewish community must decide whether to give him the benefit of the doubt about his charitable works and contrition, or persist in thinking we’ve got him figured out, and in announcing to the world how embarrassed of him we are.

Some apparently believe it’s almost a mitzvah to say you’re embarrassed. When Abramoff famously appeared in public wearing what looked like a “religious”-style black hat, of the kind favored by some Orthodox Jews, the story caught the attention of Los Angeles’ Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. In his online journal, Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein speculated that Abramoff meant to conceal a yarmulke and thus avoid making his chilul Hashem (a public “desecration” of God’s Name) worse.

The rabbi, who is Orthodox himself and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, then chided me for, as I’d written elsewhere, not being embarrassed of Abramoff: “I am embarrassed that he [Klinghoffer] is not embarrassed.”

Rabbi Adlerstein also discovered in Abramoff an occasion for some patronizing thoughts about ba’alei teshuvah. He was pretty sure that Abramoff is a ba’al teshuvah, or BT. Thus the rabbi compared the character of “BTs” with Orthodox Jews who are religious or “frum”-from-birth: “FFBs,” who because of their superior schooling would know better about ethical matters than a BT like Abramoff.

Adlerstein, an incisive thinker and a caring person, nonetheless typifies a certain Jewish response to Abramoff, speculating from a position of ignorance about the man. As it happens, his interpretation of the hat was flat wrong.

“That was between me and God,” said Abramoff of the hat, “not between me and anyone else. I was sick and tired of not wearing a head-covering in business. I no longer care what others think of me. I care what God thinks of me.” Contrary to press reports, it wasn’t a “frum” Borsalino, either. “You know what it was?” he said. “It was a crushable rain hat.”

Other reactions to Abramoff have been more hurtful than Adlerstein’s. One thinks of Orthodox Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe defining the term chilul Hashem for his readers: “Within the Jewish community whose values he so dishonored, there is little sympathy for Abramoff, who is likely to receive a prison sentence of 10 or 11 years.”

The column was posted by the Aish HaTorah Web site, which led with these harsh conclusions: “Instead of upholding the Torah’s ethical standards, Jack Abramoff trampled on them, desecrating God’s name.” (For whatever reason, it’s since been taken down.)

Other Jews, too, rushed to decry Abramoff without grasping the facts or the character of the man.

In an op-ed distributed by the liberal Orthodox group Edah and picked up by The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, of New York tony’s Park East Synagogue, castigates me for preferring not to denounce Abramoff: “I am sorry Mr. Klinghoffer, if using an Orthodox yeshiva to launder ill-begotten [sic] money does not embarrass you, then what does?”

Abramoff did not use the Orthodox high school he supported to launder funds, although the school was the recipient of money he raised, reportedly without telling lobbying clients where it was going.

He did set up an entity purportedly to help inner-city youths, The Capital Athletic Foundation — which did serve as a conduit for other causes.

Again, Abramoff has admitted that his business was shot through with illegalities.

But in light of his plea agreement, what purpose is served by his fellow Jews, including rabbis, continuing to flog him so publicly?

While not making oneself into a chilul Hashem is an undoubted Jewish value, I’m still searching for the Torah source obligating us to publicly denounce the chilul Hashem of others where the offender has already admitted his offense, even if under the pressure of potentially decades in prison, abased himself in public and faces heavy secular penalties.

Please, give me sources to match in clarity and authority those that advise us, as the Talmud does: “He who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably [by God]” (Shabbat 127b); “In the measure with which a man measures, so is he measured” (Sotah 8b).

Or this: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (Leviticus 19:15), by which the classical interpreter Rashi says we’re meant to understand that when there is a doubt about our fellow’s good intentions, we must be “dan l’kaf zechut”: Judge on the side of merit.

We circle back to the question of motivation. What was Abramoff’s motivation? To be a player? To prove himself? To be a macher? Personally, I would not dismiss out of hand his assertion that he acted to help others — even though it probably strikes most as self-serving. Someday, I will want God to measure my misdeeds in a forgiving fashion, and judge me on the side of merit.

In this context one must also open up the possibility that what is in his plea agreement represents not a stark and true representation of crimes committed, but rather a confession “squeezed” (in Time magazine’s word) out of him by the threat of harsher punishments.

The day he wore the notorious black hat to appear in federal court, he said, “Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer.”

These are only two logical possibilities. Either a) Abramoff was squeezed into giving false testimony about himself, or b) he is a repentant sinner. Since a) can’t be supported from any known evidence, we’re left with b). Which, then, is the greater chilul Hashem? A Jew who admittedly committed crimes and will be performing teshuvah (repentance) for years to come? Or Jews lining up to kick such a person now that he’s been defeated and humiliated?

O n Cross Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein is posting a three-part exploration of Jewish law as it pertains to hurtful speech and judging charitably. As of this writing, he had reached the conclusion that “there is no … legal obligation — only a praiseworthy character trait — in judging a stranger favorably.” I am waiting to see what he’ll do with the clear and unambiguous halachah in the most authoritative of law codes, the Shulchan Aruch, which forbids reminding a penitent of his now-repented sins (Choshen Mishpat 228:4) — much less publicly putting such a person in the category of “evildoers.” (Abramoff said he happens to be a regular reader of Rabbi Adlerstein’s journal.)

Abramoff told me, “What astonishes me is the unqualified support and outpouring of love I’ve received from the religious Christian world.” Now that should embarrass us.

In recounting the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs, the Torah suggests some relevant models of behavior toward the erring Jew.

One of these models is our forefather Jacob and how he handled the transgression of Reuben, his first-born, who grieved him by seducing Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. When Jacob was preparing to die, he blessed his sons, and reminded Reuben of his “impetuosity” and the “desecration” (Genesis 49:4) he committed. But at the time of Reuben’s deed, decades earlier, the Torah writes only that Jacob “heard” (35:22). He said not even a word about it. The classical commentator Nachmanides credits this to Jacob’s “humility.”

Abramoff attributes his downfall, in part, to “zealousness for finding funds for the charities I supported.” Like Reuben, he was certainly impetuous — impetuous enough to believe that the causes he supported merited committing fraud against others.

After Jacob died, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him as a slave. He told them: “Fear not, for am I instead of God?” And “Thus he comforted them and spoke to their heart” (50:19, 21). As Egypt’s viceroy, he could do to them what will soon be done to Jack Abramoff, or worse. He chose to follow the humble path of his father Jacob. Granted Abarmoff deserves a prison sentence, the question for us is what our attitude toward him should be as a fellow Jews.

What will be done to Abramoff? I asked Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International. If Abramoff is sent to a minimum-security prison, at least personal safety won’t be a major concern.

“He’ll have nothing to worry about,” Friedman says. “He’ll be a high-profile case. Still, my recommendation to him would be: don’t bring attention to yourself.”

Kosher food won’t be a problem either: “Everything is hekshered” — that is, there’s kosher-certified food available.

“Everything that’s heated is pre-packaged. That helps insure the kosher integrity,” says Chaplain Friedman, who incidentally puts to rest Rabbi’s Adlerstein’s idealization of FFBs at the expense of BTs. The BT and FFB prison populations are, in relative numbers, “perfectly consistent with community demographics,” he said.

Consistency and inconsistency are the principal themes of this story. One may say in the final analysis that Jack Abramoff, Orthodox Jew and admitted sinner, is consistent with the norms of humanity. Sincerely repentant yet amazed at the “lack of proportionality” of his crimes to his punishment, he remains infinitely complex. I wouldn’t pretend to know what criminal punishment he deserves or doesn’t. However the injustice of continuing to condemn him, now that it’s been resolved that he will take his licks, seems obvious.

Undoubtedly there are others in prison who are like him; that is, better than society has judged them to be. Meanwhile there are many walking the street who have not aspired to deeds of charity or been called to account for their missteps. When Jack Abramoff gets out, I suspect he’ll continue to repair his life by pursuing the good acts that he never, in fact, abandoned. Without calling attention to himself, he may well put to shame others who now sit in judgment of him.

David Klinghoffer (

Letters


“Covenantal Judaism”

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was arguably the leading Jewish intellectual institution in the United States. It was home to a cadre of scholars whose research and publications in the areas of Bible, Talmud, history and Jewish philosophy helped shape the thinking of a large cross-section of American Jewry.

JTS shaped the direction of Conservative Judaism in the United States, producing scholars and rabbis whose trademark was the synthesis of Jewish scholarship with modern life in America. That is why I am baffled that Rabbi David Wolpe, a graduate and product of the intellectual milieu that once was JTS, would produce a manifesto for his movement so focused on form and so thin in substance (“A Manifesto for the Future,” Dec. 2).

I am surprised that the spiritual leader who once challenged our thinking on the historicity of the Exodus, a sermon that was “vintage JTS scholarship,” would envision a Jewish movement void of the intellectual engagement with Torah that was once a trademark of Conservative Judaism, focusing instead on cosmetic name changes and superficial definitions.

In his discussion of covenants, Rabbi Wolpe says, “The covenant at Sinai brings us to our relationship to God.” What he fails to mention is that in the classical Jewish tradition, from Mount Sinai all the way to the JTS of Heschel and Lieberman, the covenant with God at Mount Sinai was always expressed through an intellectual and spiritual dialogue with the Torah we all received at Sinai.

Rabbi Wolpe replaces this aspect of the Sinaitic covenant with a “friendship with God,” an idea that sounds like it comes more from the world of New Age pop-spirituality than it does from the people whose daily prayers invoke the covenant at Sinai by asking God to “open our hearts, inspire our intellect and enlighten our eyes through the teachings of Torah.”

For centuries, spiritual seekers from Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the ARI, Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon — and the scholars of JTS — all sought spirituality by penetrating God’s mind through Torah study, not by holding His hand and asking God to take a stroll in the park.

Call it what you will, but a “Covenantal Judaism” void of intellect is nothing more than just another feel-good, self-help movement. The intellectual and spiritual legacy of JTS deserves more than that.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskilla
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Rabbi David Wolpe Responds:

The proposal for “Covenantal Judaism” seeks to reinvigorate the profound and complex tradition of Conservative Judaism. The idea of a “friendship with God” is not mine but rabbinic. The interested reader should check Hagigah 16a, “God is the Friend of the world” creating friendships among people (Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 17), swearing eternal friendship to Abraham (Sefer Yestirah 6:7) and taking off from the description of friendship in Isaiah 5:1, Sifre Deut., Menachot 53b, etc.

No serious Jew should assume that covenant is separate from an engagement in Torah or synonymous with a “stroll in the park” (Rabbi Bouskila’s words, not my own). Should I conclude that because Rabbi Bouskila’s reaction omits mention of mitzvot he advocates a Judaism without mitzvot? Of course not.

Let us take one another seriously; no one is negating the centrality of study. We are a people of Torah. Study alone is not enough, however. Real relationship is as rigorous as real learning. As a wise aphorist once said, professors wish we were joined at the head, but God joins us at the heart.

Name changes are not always cosmetic, they are often symbolic — Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. Redefining Conservative Judaism to “Covenantal Judaism” is an attempt to refocus Jews on our individual and collective mission: “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

Orthodoxy’s Role

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is correct in his view that a “window has opened to the Orthodox community” (Orthodoxy Has Chance to Reshape Role,” Dec. 9).

However, we at the Orthodox Union take strong issue with the suggestion that we move beyond “traditional parameters.” Many of these traditional parameters are nothing less than definitional of Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Kanefsky correctly notes that the participation of Orthodox rabbis on boards with non-Orthodox rabbis has “practically disappeared.” Most Orthodox rabbis adhere to the principles delineated by their teachers or teacher’s teachers of a previous generation.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the two authorities cited by Rabbi Kanefsky did, indeed, strongly discourage their disciples from pursuing matters of “spiritual religious interest” with non-Orthodox rabbis, and for us, the guidelines of these masters remain in full force.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s advocacy of “interdenominational study groups” presents serious and fundamental problems. Our tradition reveres the concept of Havdalah, the recognition and appreciation of boundaries and differences between groups.

Orthodox Judaism espouses Torah Min HaShamayim, the divine origin of Torah, and accepts the halachic process as it has manifested itself in Jewish history over the past 2,000 years. With such fundamental issues dividing us, it is well nigh impossible to teach Torah from the same platform.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s quote of Rav Soloveitchik’s statement, “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the mind and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements,” was relevant in its time and unlike Rabbi Kanefsky’s contention, is more relevant in these times of widespread spiritual chaos and confusion.

Rabbi Kanefsky’s position that the strong statements of rabbis of a previous generation are no longer relevant is one which most halachic Jews find alarming. It opens the gates to the slippery slope of relativism and of undermining the halachic process itself.

Whereas the Orthodox Union is prepared, even eager, to cooperate with all Jews on matters of general community welfare, it is committed to following the decisions and guidelines of masters such as Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik in all of our activities, ranging from the regulations of kashrut and Shabbat to broader communal concerns. To belittle the authority of masters of a previous generation because of changes in society echoes Reform perspectives, which we have historically opposed.

This approach is one which is fraught with dangers and difficulties, and which we cannot accept as fundamental policy for the Orthodox world.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Executive Vice President
Stephen J. Savitsky
President
Union of Orthodox Jewish
Congregations of America

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky Responds:

I’m grateful for Rabbi Weinreb’s thoughtful response. Rabbi Weinreb has done remarkable work leading the Orthodox Union, expanding the vision of the organized Orthodox community to include the victims of genocide in Darfur, the displaced and hungry of New Orleans and the victims of sexual abuse.

There is a paradox that characterizes much of human relations, that the people we are closest to are the very people when we have the most trouble truly engaging and embracing. It is with regard to linking arms with the people we are closest to — our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters — that Rabbi Weinreb and I disagree.

I also believe that the record shows that over time, the Orthodox community has indeed re-evaluated policy decisions of our eminent teachers, Rabbis Feinstein and Soloveitchik. The commonplace celebrations of bat mitzvah and observances of Yom HaShoah in Orthodox shuls both attest to this.

The slippery slope can indeed be frightening. But any religious community that truly aspires for relevance and impact must have the courage, patience and vision with which successfully navigate it.

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Masters Of Return


Not knowing the words to Friday night Kiddush — in fact, not knowing that there was such a thing as Kiddush — bothered Sharon Brous, but she got over it. She had always strongly identified as a cultural Jew, and there was no need to change that now that she was in college.

But one evening, when Jewish students gathered in the quad at Columbia University to memorialize victims of a bus bombing in Israel, Brous came up empty when she tried to join in singing the Israeli national anthem.

“I didn’t know the words to ‘Hatikvah’ and I was so mortified, because I realized I was not even a good cultural Jew,” she said. “I felt like for my whole life I had identified so strongly as something, but maybe I had no idea what that thing was.”

That intense humiliation set Brous, now 30, on a path of exploration and discovery that would take her from Manhattan to Jerusalem to Los Angeles, where today she serves as rabbi of Ikar (www.ikar-la.org), a new spiritual community that reaches out to those who, like Brous 10 years ago, seek to reveal a Jewish identity that lies dormant in their souls.

Brous is a baal teshuvah, literally a master of return, the term used to identify someone who has newly taken on Jewish identity and observance.

Her story, along with those of so many other baal teshuvahs, brings into focus what it is that the High Holiday liturgy demands: a true and deep re-examination of ones values, priorities and actions, and figuring out how Judaism, God and mitzvot can organize those values.

The baal teshuvah’s story offers a paradigm of real change, complete with the challenges and the payoff that goes along with consciously and deliberately putting one’s life on a different course.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for the past 20 years, more and more people are turning to a life of Jewish practice after having been raised without it. In the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, 60,000 people who now call themselves Orthodox were not raised that way, and that figure does not take into account baal teshuvahs whose expression of Jewish commitment is other than Orthodox.

Whether it begins with a determined search or happenstance, the journey is always one filled with the joy of discovering something new and the pain of leaving behind a past — and often family and friends.

It is a journey marked by highs of new understanding and changes in lifestyle, and lows of being suspected — sometimes even by one’s own self — of having gone off the deep end, of having been sucked into an easy fix to compensate for weaknesses or deficiencies.

For some, the journey is short-lived, a brief foray into observance and then a quick retreat; for others it means lifelong changes.

The “A-ha” Moment

Brous’ encounter with her own ignorance launched her on a quest for Jewish knowledge and experience.

She tried and struck out at a string of Manhattan synagogues. Then one Friday night she found herself sitting in the back row of a church where Congregation B’nai Jeshurun was meeting while its building was being renovated.

“It was all in Hebrew, and everyone was singing, and for some reason instead of feeling alienated I felt like I understood every word. I had no idea what was going on, but I didn’t feel at all lost. I felt I was precisely where I was supposed to be.”

What Brous later pinpointed as the “unabashed, unapologetic authenticity of the place” gave her the emotional hook into Jewish life that made her realize there was something deep and real going on, and she wanted to know more about it.

Jennifer Rosky felt that same intuitive bond when she heard just a few notes of Hebrew prayer 20 years ago at a synagogue in Tujunga. Rosky, now 47, was raised with a mixture of Eastern spirituality and Christian holidays by her Jewish father and Italian mother, and began exploring Judaism as an adult by opening the Yellow Pages and finding the nearest Jewish institution. One of the old men who shuffled in for davening that day in Tujunga sent Rosky to other shuls and to the young professionals group at The Jewish Federation. Before long, she ended up at a cantorial concert at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

“I walked into the sanctuary and I felt something I never felt in my life before — in my heart, I felt this elevation,” Rosky said.

Soon after, a colleague at work suggested a singles weekend at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), where Rabbi Joseph Telushkin was the scholar-in-residence.

Nearly 20 years after that weekend, Rosky’s voice still cracks when she talks about it.

“That weekend changed my life. I went there as a spiritual, nonassociated person, and Telushkin took everything I believed about spirituality and the forces of nature and put it into a Jewish framework,” Rosky said.

Rosky continued to study, taking classes at Aish HaTorah, making Shabbat with a group of women she met at BBI and going on a Federation Young Professionals mission to Israel.

After she married, she and her husband joined Temple Israel of Hollywood (www.tioh.org), where this past June, after four years of studying, Rosky celebrated her bat mitzvah. Next March, the oldest of her three daughters will do the same.

The Israel Factor

Rosky’s trip to Israel cemented her nascent interest in Judaism, inspiring her beyond anything she had experienced in the United States.

“When I was in Israel, I felt like everything I believed in fell into order,” she said.

Aish L.A. (www.aishla.com), a premiere outreach organization on Pico Boulevard and Doheny Drive, sends about 200 people to Israel a year, using it as a primary tool to guide people toward the next stage of Jewish inquiry.

“There is nothing that compares to an experience in Israel, where you can really get the totality of the vision,” said Chana Heller, director of women’s outreach for Aish L.A. “It is like the difference between watching a movie on a black-and-white TV with a grainy picture or watching it in an Imax theater in larger-than-life 3-D.”

After being turned on to Judaism at an Aish Rosh Hashana service, Sheryl Giffis spent three weeks in Israel and was driven to study more when she got back to Los Angeles. She was intrigued by the Orthodox lifestyle and embarked on what she calls a “spiritual investigation.”

“The university head in me said, ‘get evidence, go build a case and see what this is about,’ ” Giffis said. She spent Saturdays bouncing between different communities — from Aish to the Westwood Kehilla to the Chabad in Pacific Palisades to the Jewish Learning Exchange in Hancock Park.

She was convinced enough to go back to Israel, where she went to three different yeshivas before she found her place at Neve Yerushalyim, where many women without Orthodox backgrounds study. She spent nine months there — enough to solidify her commitment to leading an Orthodox life.

“I found this to be an extraordinarily interlocking system,” she said. “Everything in the Torah loops back to everything else and is all interconnected. For me, a Torah lifestyle is really the physical manifestation of spiritual principals I’ve sensed and now understand to be true.”

For some who return from Israel, commitment can take on extreme forms in a short time, with black hats appearing on previously bare heads and tank tops giving way to long sleeves and ankle-length skirts.

One mother remembers the period when her son returned from yeshiva after high school as one of the most difficult times for her family.

Though she had kashered her home when her son decided to become Orthodox at the age of 12, he returned from Israel and began throwing food out of the cabinets and making new demands.

“He came all of a sudden and so quickly with so much information,” she said. “For him to protect himself from turning back to where we all were he had to build this fence around himself, and everything had to be even more machmir [strict beyond the law] than he was asked,” she said.

Aish’s Heller acknowledges that some baal teshuvahs who return from Israel need to slow down when they come home.

“In Israel there is a temptation to take things on quickly — they get excited and get inspired, and get a vision for who they could be in terms of just being a better person,” Heller said. “Sometimes they move too quickly and come back here and go, ‘Whoa, I took on too much too fast, and I need help to slow down.'”

The Family and Friends

One of the toughest issues baal teshuvahs face is in redefining a relationship with their family and friends.

“I just don’t have as much in common with some older friends,” Giffis said. “Judaism is a religion of action, and sitting around and talking for hours is just not interesting anymore. What are you doing to change the world?”

That is the kind of attitude particularly annoying to one woman who ventured toward an Orthodox lifestyle and then retreated from the restrictions. She says some of the friends she met on an Aish trip to Israel and later studied with now have what she calls “tunnel vision.”

“Some of them were more interesting before they went in than after they came out,” she said. “They seem very robotic. You can’t have a conversation for more than three minutes without God being brought in, and I refuse to believe that before going to Aish I had nothing to offer.

“Most people want to deny who they were in the past and be done with it,” she said, noting that she is nevertheless thankful for the stronger Jewish identity she developed through Aish.

Perhaps most difficult is the notion that underlying it all is at best a lack of common interest, and at worst a mutual disrespect between the baal teshuvah and his family and friends.

The baal teshuvah’s choice implies a rejection of a way of life that family and friends still find fulfilling.

On the flip side, family and friends often assume, outwardly or not, that a baal teshuvah has been sucked into a brainwashing cult.

When Brous returned from a year at Hebrew University and told her parents that she was now halachically observant and was going to be a Conservative rabbi, not a civil rights attorney, her mother said, “I thought you wanted to do something important in the world.”

(Her parents have since kashered their home, founded a new synagogue in their New Jersey town, and are great admirers of Brous’ work as a human rights activist.)

Heller points out that religious tensions often highlight the weaknesses in relationships that were not healthy to begin with.

“If people have bonds of respect and trust and love they try to accommodate. Even if they can’t share what is going on with them on the deepest level, they can still maintain good, respectful relationships,” she said.

But accommodation is often not easy.

One mother kashered her home when two of her four children became Orthodox during college and now consciously tries to hold the family together, refraining from things like criticizing her daughter’s wig or the rabbis pictures in place of art on the wall. But she hasn’t been able to bridge the distance religion has created between her children.

Her oldest son is married to a non-Jew, and the other two won’t have anything to do with his wife.

“Gradually they locked everybody out of the family, and it is so sad for me,” she said. “It breaks my heart that my oldest son is not part of the extended family life.”

One woman who became Orthodox nearly 20 years ago, said, “I feel like I’ve divorced my mother, and we share custody of the kids.”

Her mother never accepted or accommodated her choice to become religious, and over the years their relationship — dysfunctional to begin with, she acknowledges — has deteriorated.

“The sadness for me is that it has built this incredible wall between me and my mother, where I feel there is this place we don’t go anymore, a place we don’t talk about anymore. She sees it as this huge cultural and sociological difference that I’ve erected between us.”

Husband and Wife

While parents or siblings can grumble about having to deal with a new reality, the story is entirely different when a husband and wife find themselves on different pages.

“You get married and have expectations of who that person is, and all of a sudden that person changes the guidelines,” said Katie, who had dated her husband, David (not their real names), for 10 years, since high school. “I felt very betrayed. You’re not allowed to change the rules.”

In college, David got turned on to traditional Judaism by his younger brother, who was a baal teshuvah. Katie didn’t take to it so quickly.

After they had been married for about six months, Katie and David both decided to give Shabbat a try, thinking it would help them together take a breath from the intense work weeks they had. After a few weeks, Katie resented the restrictions and decided she wasn’t ready to jump in. David decided he couldn’t go back.

They agreed to each do their own thing — she takes on restrictions at her own pace, while he strictly adheres to Jewish law.

“I do what I can not to push her and to accept her for where she’s at,” David said. “But I do think that sometimes she holds it against me.”

Katie has moved toward more tradition — they keep the laws of family purity, they kashered their home in an Orthodox neighborhood, and she continues to appreciate the wisdom she gleans in the classes she takes. But she feels she has to make more compromises than David.

“I never thought that our marriage was threatened, but there have been plenty of tears and conflict and worry about the future,” she said. “One of our biggest concerns is our 11-month-old baby.”

The Payoff

Katie tries to focus on the benefits religious life has bestowed on her family. She enjoys the guests and the entertaining that Shabbat brings, and the quality time she gets with her husband. She says she has seen him grow — he is ethical, and an incredibly devoted husband and father.

Ultimately, for most baal teshuvahs, it is not only the belief that God demands things of human beings, but also the day-to-day payoff of a religious lifestyle that keeps them motivated.

Rosky utilizes Jewish values in conducting her marketing business. Her children have internalized an intuitive love for Judaism and feel at home in shul.

Judaism carried her through the tragedy of losing a baby at the very end of a pregnancy. Since then, she and her family almost never miss a Friday night service.

“I sit in shul with my family on Friday nights and I’m so proud that sometimes I have to remember to breathe,” Rosky said.

Brous said when she first pondered becoming Shabbat observant, she made a list of pros and cons, including the fact that she would lose hours worth of study and volunteer time if she kept Shabbat.

After just a few weeks all the cons were put to rest.

“All of a sudden I was so much more focused during the week on my work, because I knew Shabbos was Shabbos, and I wasn’t going to do anything else. My grades got better and everything that should have fallen apart got easier, because I had this time with no pressure and I wasn’t consumed by guilt.”

What consumes Brous nowadays is figuring out how to open the tradition to more who are searching, a quest she has pursued since she went back to B’nai Jeshurun not to sit in the back row, but to stand at the pulpit as a rabbinic fellow.

“I would stand and speak in front of 1,200 people, realizing any one of them might have just come in off the street searching, feeling alienated and uncomfortable with just enough courage to make it to the back row,” she said. “And suddenly I had the power to send them out, or to draw them in. And I knew I had to do whatever I could to draw them in.”

Spiritual Cleaning


More than 3,300 years ago, God swept us out from our slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for more than 400 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter — the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews — so central, in fact, that we mention it in the “Shema” every single day, as well as in the “Kiddush” on Friday night.

And yet there’s something very ironic about Pesach. Why is it that getting ready to celebrate our liberation from slavery involves so much hard work? First, we need to remember that during Pesach we are not allowed to eat, own or even benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta and even wheat germ. Who enjoys wheat germ, you ask? Well, I do. It’s in my favorite shampoo, so during Pesach the bottle gets booted into the garage with all the other verboten chametz.

The haggadah is our Passover playbook, which tells us that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Pesach you’re going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid stashed a packet of Oreos a few months back.

While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder tired, yes, but serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but, more importantly, kosher for Pesach. Yet many women (who generally do the bulk of the Pesach cleaning) can get carried away with it all. In their zeal to create a kosher-for-Pesach home, they run themselves ragged and may be so exhausted by seder night they can barely stay awake past the soup. Frankly, women like this make me nervous. I’m just not willing to begin Pesach cleaning the day after Purim (besides, we need another week to finish the shalach manot) but I also don’t want to feel behind in the Pesach-cleaning Olympiad. I take comfort from the assurances I have received from several esteemed Orthodox rabbis who wish that the women would calm down about this. They say that one should be able to clean a home for Pesach (not including the kitchen) in just a day or two. If you insist on cleaning the ceiling, they say, it doesn’t make the home any more kosher, and if the cost to the woman and her family is needless stress, it’s surely not worth it.

In a way, our ancestors were lucky. When Moses gave them the green light to escape from their Egyptian taskmasters, there was no time to say, “Wait! I didn’t finish sweeping the floor yet! And the pots and pans still need to be put away!”

No siree.

When Pharaoh finally agreed to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn’t enter the Promised Land for another 40 years.

So why can’t we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like chicken chow mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah, which tastes stale even when it’s fresh, remind us of freedom?

The answer, I believe, is that freedom is not just a physical reality — it’s a spiritual condition. And without a structure to our lives, there’s no freedom; there’s only chaos. It’s kind of like how gravity works: without gravity, every thing and every one of us would just float up into the atmosphere, hither and thither. Similarly, our value system is our “spiritual gravity” — it’s the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we’ll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It’s no coincidence that God gave us the Torah — His blueprint for living — after our liberation from slavery. As slaves, we weren’t free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?

Similarly, the chametz that we search for before Pesach isn’t just physical. Our sages teach that the chametz is a metaphor for the “leavening” in our own personalities — the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That’s why preparing for Pesach means more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It means spring-cleaning our souls, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness and tunnel vision. We’re multitasking — vacuuming with one hand, but also taking an inventory of our character, and trying to refocus on the things that really matter: our families, our values, God and the Torah He gave us to help us live a meaningful life. Only when we have swept this spiritual chametz away can we really connect with the deeper meaning of Pesach.

If we can manage to take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders, we will be free — truly free — to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will be celebrating not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.

Who knows? Perhaps any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” humor column, available on her Web site, www.judygruen.com. She is also a columnist for Religion News Service.

Hidden Sensuality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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