Burkini ban is great for business, says Israeli-French maker of modest swimsuits


According to the latest tally, at least 30 French municipalities have banned the product that the Paris-born businesswoman Yardena G. sells for a living.

Yardena, a haredi Orthodox mother of nine from Jerusalem, owns the Sea Secret fashion label of modest swimwear for devoutly religious women. And she regards the bans on full-body bathing suits for Muslim women, or burkinis, as “the best commercial ever for modest swimwear.”

In fact, Yardena said in an interview Thursday with JTA, she predicts the controversial bans will “end up boosting sales in a big way.” (Citing privacy issues, she asked that her last name not be mentioned in the article.)

Yardena, who immigrated to Israel 14 years ago, sells various models of “full-body” swimsuits that leave little more than the hands and feet exposed.

The bans on the distinctive Muslim swimwear have ignited a polarizing debate in a divided France, which is struggling to balance freedom of worship with its attachment to other liberal values — including the fight against radical Islam and the oppression of women.

Defended by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls as a countermeasure against “a political project … to perpetuate female servitude,” the burkini ban and its enforcement have angered millions of Frenchmen who regard it as a gross infringement into the private realm and unwarranted discrimination toward Muslims.

It also dismayed Yardena, 45, who started her line of modest swimwear with a female business partner “to empower women” who adhere to religious laws, common to Muslims and Jews, that demand women cover up to various degrees.

“It’s like someone turned the world on its head in France,” she said. “Instead of promoting modesty and good measures like leaders and figures of authority ought to, they’re telling women to take it off.

“I don’t understand what’s happened, but I do know that as a person who keeps modest clothing, such measures will do nothing to discourage other women like me.”

Sea Secret’s dozen or so sales agents in France have reported to Yardena that French Jewish women, who constitute the lion’s share of the firm’s clientele, are worried they may be affected by the ban.

“It’s creating a problem for Jewish women because it’s poisoning the atmosphere for everyone – Muslims, Christians and anyone who doesn’t want a police officer making wardrobe decisions for them,” Yardena said.

Some suits in the  Sea Secret line could be classified as a burkini, she said. Yardena noted one model featuring an elastic shawl that can be used both as a hijab and a traditional head cover of the sort favored by haredi and modern Orthodox women.

One of several Jewish-owned businesses offering modest swimwear for women, Sea Secret does have some Muslim clients. But many Muslim women refrain from buying its products because it is known to be Jewish-owned and Israel based.

“They perceive it as political,” Yardena said.

Christian women, however, account for a third of sales.

“I believe women who observe modesty observe the sanctity of God no matter what their own faith happens to be,” Yardena said. “I think our brand is truly a light onto the nations.”

The mainstream representative organs of French Jewry, which are normally quick to offer their take on current affairs — especially on religious issues — have remained conspicuously silent on this issue even as the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained Wednesday about reports of “police harassment” of Muslim swimmers in Nice. It was an unusual move for the board, which rarely comments on foreign issues without consulting the relevant Jewish communities.

A senior rabbi, Moshe Sebbag of the Grand Synagogue of Paris, acknowledged in an interview with JTA on Tuesday the reluctance of other French Jewish leaders to speak out on the issue.

“It’s a complicated subject and both sides have compelling arguments,” Sebbag said, adding that the French state is a “secular country with freedom of religion.”

But Sebbag ultimately defended the bans, whose supporters, he said, “understand today there’s a religious war, a takeover of the secular establishment of the French republic, and this is what they find unacceptable.” Asked if he agrees with the burkini bans, he said: “Yes, because you see that going with it [a burkini] is not innocent, it’s sending a message.”

The burkini ban is turning France away from its own core values, according to David Isaac Haziza, a French-Jewish columnist for La Regle du Jeu, the commentary and news site edited by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Haziza is critical of those who wear the burkini, which he described as a sign of radicalization at the expense of integration. Nonetheless, Haziza argued against fighting it through legislation and regulations. The fight, he said, should be “on a moral level.”

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.

Orthodox educator Rabbi Elimelech Meisels sued for sexual assault


Rabbi Elimelech Meisels, who runs four religious seminaries in Israel for young Orthodox women, is being sued for sexual assault and fraud.

The civil suit was filed Monday with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of four parents with daughters signed up for Meisels’ haredi Orthodox seminaries for the 2014-2015 school year. The parents are seeking to recover their tuition deposits.

The suit alleges that Meisels would lure girls under his charge “into late night coffee meetings and other private settings and then sexually assault them.” It says he threatened to ruin girls’ marriage prospects if they told and would “intimidate his victims by telling them that no one would believe that a rabbi and author with his reputation would have done such a thing.”

Meisels denies the allegations.

“The allegations are completely false,” Meisels told JTA in a phone interview from Israel. “My attorney has advised me to pursue legal action against all those who are wronging myself and the seminaries.”

The seminaries named in the suit are Peninim, Binas Bais Yaakov, Chedvas Bais Yaakov and Keser Chaya.

The complaint said that seminary attendance has had negative impacts on the marriage prospects of the Orthodox women who have gone there. The parents involved in the lawsuit allege that Meisels is committing fraud by misrepresenting the seminaries as institutions that help Orthodox girls become upstanding Jewish women. Aside from Meisels, other administrators at the seminaries are named in the suit.

The matter was initially brought to the attention of the Chicago Beit Din, a Jewish religious court, which concluded that “students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and it does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time,” according to the lawsuit. Following the Beit Din determination, two institutions that offered college credits to students attending Meisels’ seminaries suspended their affiliation with them.

Though Meisels claimed to have sold his seminaries following the Beit Din ruling, the Beit Din did not accept the sales as legitimate, according to the complaint.

Though the schools are based in Israel, Meisels and the other defendants named in the suit are U.S. citizens, and the non-profit organization that processes funds for the seminaries — Peninim of America — is a nonprofit charity in the United States, according to the complaint.

Women of the Wall Megillah reading undisturbed by Israeli police


A women’s Megillah reading at the Western Wall took place on Shushan Purim without incident or arrests.

Approximately 80 women turned out, some donning prayer shawls, others dressed as police and haredi Orthodox worshipers, on Monday morning in Jerusalem, the TImes of Israel reported.

Hallel Silverman, the 17-year-old niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, who was arrested two weeks ago during rosh chodesh morning services for the Hebrew month of Adar, participated in the Megillah reading dressed in striped prison garb with two of her younger siblings dressed as police officers leading her by handcuffs.

Israeli police have made nearly monthly arrests related to dress code violations since June related to the Women of the Wall's monthly rosh chodesh service.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit, prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall.

Earlier in February, 10 women were arrested for praying with prayer shawls at the Wall as they celebrated the new Jewish month of Adar. Haaretz reported that the arrests took place after the services had concluded, which police had been observing.

Meanwhile, the Israeli nonprofit Learn & Live, established in 2009 to help at-risk youth, ran a Purim patrol on Sunday night assisting young women who were in distress because of drunkenness and brought them to one of two safe places in Jerusalem.

Women praying to be heard at the Western Wall


We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple-and-blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC more than 20 years ago, when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi. Several women were in line in front of me; the security guards checking bags told them they couldn’t bring their tallitot into the Kotel Plaza. As of 6 that morning, a new decree had been issued by the “Rabbi of the Wall” forbidding women from entering the plaza with Jewish holy articles like tallit and tefillin. 

This week’s Torah portion continues the story of Joseph. It begins: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda …” “And Judah approached him (Joseph) …” The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 93:6) asks what “approach” means, what are the different strategies one might use to approach those who hold power. It offers three options: One is to approach in conciliation, the second is to approach in battle, and the third is to approach in prayer.

I wanted to approach in prayer. I learned long ago of the power of tallit and kippah to help me move from the secular to the sacred, spiritual tools that begin the transformation that opens my heart to prayer. I took my tallit out and wrapped it around my neck like a scarf. When it was my turn to go through security, a guard pointed to my neck. “Does that scarf have tzitzit? Take it off. You must leave it here.” I tried to explain: “But I am coming to pray. In the mornings, I pray with a tallit. This tallit is very symbolic to me — it was a gift from the students I taught that there is more than one way to be a Jew.” But as he was going through my purse and holding my kippah in his hand, he didn’t seem interested in a conversation. “You can take this,” handing me the kippah, “but not that tallit.”

I unwrapped the tallit and left it in the pile of tallitot other women had been forced to leave behind. Four women who wore their tallitot under their coats were able to pass through security. When they reached the women’s section of the Kotel and our prayer began, they put on and wore their tallitot and were soon summoned by the police and told they must take them off or leave. Subsequently, they were arrested. 

There is no halachic prohibition against a woman wearing a tallit. At most, the prohibition is against saying a bracha that indicates she is fulfilling a commandment. We actually have evidence in rabbinic tradition that some daughters of certain prominent rabbis wore tallit and tefillin. So why is my wanting to approach the Kotel in prayer, the way I pray, a problem for the authorities who control the Kotel? If I can’t approach in prayer, in what for me is real and authentic prayer, the only options left are to approach in conciliation or in battle.

I could approach in conciliation. I could argue that Women of the Wall have been given what we need — we are “allowed” to convene 11 times a year in the women’s sections for public prayer, as long as we move to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service. There we can wear tallitot and tefillin; there it is possible to have women and men pray together. But Robinson’s Arch, while technically part of the Western Wall, is not the “main” Kotel, not the iconic symbol that so many Jews consider sacred. The Kotel is sacred space that should belong to all Jews. It is, in fact, a national monument. The problem is that government legislation has turned it into an Orthodox synagogue where public prayer can only be led by men. It disenfranchises me, along with the vast majority of Jews in the world. It says that my expression of Judaism is not authentic. Conciliation means giving up my own voice and my own truth. 

So the only approach that is left is battle. Women of the Wall will continue to fight, not only for reclaiming the Kotel as public space, but also for all the other issues of religious pluralism that are so important. The women and men who support Women of the Wall will continue to speak truth to power, raising our voices and our prayers to challenge the Orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status —marriage, divorce, burial and conversion — and to work for parity in government funding for non-Orthodox religious and educational institutions, and for recognition of liberal rabbis. And we will continue to act on our conviction that there is more than one way to be a Jew.


Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Thou shall not have images … on buses … neither men nor women


Fearing costly vandalism aimed at buses carrying advertisements that include images of women; to avoid legal issues of discrimination if only images of men appear; and to side-step head-on collisions with Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community; Egged, Israel’s public bus cooperative has ordered the company handling its on-bus advertising to stop running ads with pictures or representations of either men or women. As of August 1, a “faceless” policy was put into effect.

Vandalizing public advertisements bearing women’s pictures is not a new issue. Bus shelters, for instance, were frequently damaged or destroyed going back decades. More recently, issues of discrimination against women in the capitol have become headline affairs. The present issue came to a head eight months ago when the Yerushalmim organization – an NGO advocating for a pluralistic city of Jerusalem—sued in the High Court of Justice to force Canaan, the exclusive ad agency for the Egged bus company, to run its campaign featuring “The Women of Jerusalem.” Its legal effort was supported by the Ministry of Transportation, which submitted a brief objecting to any censorship of photos of women. According to Yerushalmim CEO Rabbi Uri Ayalon, at that point it seemed that the matter was solved and the ads, replete with photos, would be running on Egged buses.

According to Ayalon, the apparent understanding fell apart when the discussion turned to the specifics of the images submitted by the NGO to the ad agency for the buses to carry. At issue was the length of the sleeves the models were shown wearing. Yerushalmim insists that when it agreed to the sleeve issue, a new request was made to replace T-shirts with long-sleeve blouses.

While the back-and-forth was continuing, Egged decided to change its policy and ban advertising in the Jerusalem market that contained any human images at all. Canaan told Yerushalmim it would honor its commitment for a ten day period, after which time the agreement to run its ads would lapse. Ayalon told The Media Line that his organization did, indeed, submit its ads in a timely manner, but Canaan differed, saying the NGO failed to get the ads in before the contract expired.

Yerushalmim was established in 2009 by Jerusalem residents advocating a pluralistic city. Opposing the exclusion of women from the public sphere, the organization kicked-off its campaign one-year ago in response to the censorship of an ad campaign of women. It included ads displayed on balconies and street stands throughout the city of Jerusalem that featured images of women. Yerushalmim claims bus ads have been free of female images for the past eight years; and five years in the case of posters.

Nissim Zohar, director of marketing for Zohar advertising company, told The Media Line that “for years” his agency had been trying to place ads in Jerusalem that included images of women.  Zohar credited Mayor Nir Barkat with raising the issue six months ago, resulting in media coverage of the issue and subsequently, more than 500 posters were displayed around the city.

Advertisements that feature women have found a home on Jerusalem bridges, though.

Uri Neter, CEO of Rapid Vision, franchise-holder for billboards affixed to bridges in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that, “We divided advertising on bridges in large formats across the platforms. Currently we don’t have any ads with women, but [when we did] we didn’t have a problem because it is hard to get to the bridges and cause damage because of the height.”

Canaan CEO Ohad Gibli told The Media Line the “faceless” policy instituted by Egged and prompted by the Yerushalmim fracas has cost him his Jerusalem offices which he recently closed, citing a loss of more than $60,000 month. Gibli said for Egged, it’s just a business decision stemming from the financial costs the bus company has sustained in the past due to acts of vandalism.

A spokesperson for Canaan said that there is a lot of provocation around this story,  but since there is no problem of discrimination now, no decision is expected.

Ayalon, though, disagreed and told The Media Line that not publishing any human images in Jerusalem while allowing it everywhere else is also an act of discrimination, and that Yerushalmim will continue to pursue the issue. The group’s attorney, Aviad Hacohen, told The Media Line that, “It’s not only an act against women, but it’s an act against men – it’s against freedom of speech and equality.”

New glasses blur women for haredi Orthodox men


Charedi Orthodox men in Israel are buying glasses that will prevent them from seeing the immodest women that threaten their way of life.

The glasses, which are being sold for $32.50, have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry — including women.

While it is not known how many have been purchased, the devices have gone on sale recently in Charedi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere, reported the Times of Israel.

The Charedi Orthodox community’s unofficial “modesty patrol” has developed a range of products to act as a first line of defense against the threat of seeing immodest women, Israeli media reported.

In an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle, the Charedi Orthodox in some neighborhoods have separated the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

Who are the Charedim?


The disturbing recent episode involving the harassment of an 8-year-old Orthodox girl in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, and the ongoing controversy over separate seating for women on public buses in Jerusalem and elsewhere, has focused new attention on that group of Jews known as Charedim (or ultra-Orthodox). But who are they, and where do they come from?

In their own self-presentation, they are the direct heirs of a long-standing Torah-true Judaism. Indeed, they frequently declare the desire to walk in “the path of the ancient Israel” (derekh Yisrael sava), as if they represent an unbroken chain of tradition. And yet, Charedim are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish history, a group born in modern times, even though possessed of a decidedly anti-modern worldview. Insofar as they regard the world around them as corrupt and polluted, they believe that it is necessary to engage in a prolonged struggle to assure the purity of their Jewish lives. This leads to a set of impulses that often grate against one another: a martial impulse to join in battle on behalf of the Almighty, paired with a separatist impulse to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to assure that purity. In both cases, they are motivated by “charada,” a Hebrew word that connotes a trembling fear or anxiety in the face of God’s omnipotence. From this state of vigilant anxiety issues the name “Charedim.”

In studying the Charedim, scholars such as the late Israeli historian Jacob Katz point to the advent of a “new traditionalism” in 19th century Europe. They note the influence of the German-born rabbi, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, who gained renown for his forceful opposition to currents of change in Judaism in his time. This opposition was immortalized in the Hatam Sofer’s famous credo: “Chadash asur min haTorah” — innovation is forbidden as a matter of Torah. He himself left his native Germany for Pressburg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to establish a yeshiva that would gain renown for its traditionalist curriculum and rigor. There he would join forces with an unlikely partner, the Galician-born Chasidic Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, to combat the “modernizers” — such as the first Reform Jews, whom they believed were undermining the true faith. (Chasidism was an 18th century populist movement of spiritual revival that took aim at elitist Torah scholarship inaccessible to the masses.)

The unlikely pairing of a non-Chasidic Germany rabbi and a Chasidic rebbe from Galicia reveals one of the characteristic features of Charedi Judaism: its diversity. There are not only non-Chasidic and Chasidic components to the phenomenon, but many variants of Chasidism within the Charedi world. The same Austro-Hungarian Empire where the Hatam Sofer settled proved to be, in the late 19th century, the chief incubator of this new experiment in religious traditionalism. In particular, Hungary was the site of an intense battle among differing Jewish factions including the Neolog (akin to Reform), Status Quo (somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox), Orthodox and Charedi camps. Already in the late 19th century, the Charedim insisted on a new degree of ritual stringency in Jewish communal life. The descendants of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum were especially energetic in insisting on new standards of kashrut, gender segregation, modest dress for women, and resistance to secular studies. The most famous of those descendants, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), also gained renown for his fierce and unrelenting opposition to Zionism, which he regarded as a violation of the rabbinic injunction against “hastening the [messianic] end.” 

As a matter of fact, opposition to Zionism was a key feature of the many new forms of traditionalist Judaism that took rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is best to think of these new forms as occupying a spectrum that included more moderate and more radical versions, though the differences would not be readily discernible to the average observer. For example, a new traditionalist movement took rise in 1912, the Agudat Yisrael, composed of Chasidic and non-Chasidic Jews from Poland and Germany, with the express mission of warding off the secularizing influence of the Zionist movement. They were not joined, however, by the leaders of Hungarian Charedi Judaism such as Joel Teitelbaum and the Munkaczer Rebbe, who, in fact, forbade their followers from having any contact with the Aguda. This reminds us that the impulse to engage in battle that has been so central to Charedi Judaism was often directed against one’s putative allies. The Hungarians regarded themselves as purists and branded the Aguda as collaborators, for reasons that will soon become clear.

For all of their opposition to Zionism, Charedim of different stripes — moderates and radicals alike — felt a deep bond with Eretz Yisra’el and sought to settle there. The more radical among them established in 1919 their own “Edah Charedit” (Charedi Community) in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. This community served as an alternative, anti-Zionist source of religious authority, with its own synagogues, yeshivas and kashrut norms in various Jerusalem neighborhoods, as well as Bnei Brak. Their own curious blend of quietism and activism rested on the belief that while one should not seek to establish Jewish self-government in Palestine in advance of the Messiah, one should not surrender the Holy Land to the Zionists, with whom compromise was impossible.

The Aguda adopted a different tack. In 1933, it entered into an agreement with the Zionist-led Jewish Agency to receive 6.5 percent of the immigration certificates to Palestine that the agency had to distribute. And in 1947, the Aguda was partner to the famous Status Quo agreement that David Ben-Gurion, soon to be Israel’s first prime minister, proposed that guaranteed that the new state would observe the Sabbath, maintain kashrut in government institutions, and cede control over education and personal status matters to religious authorities. 

Over time, the Aguda has become more and more integrated into Israeli political life; its representatives serve as deputy ministers and members of Knesset. Some would say that the price to pay for the Status Quo agreement — and the Aguda’s involvement in Israeli public life — is a high one: coercive Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel. That may well be, but what transpired in Beit Shemesh — and the battle over gender segregation on buses in Israel — result from the more radical Charedi component, whose roots extend back to the Edah Charedit. While adamantly separatist — for example, their leaders do not serve in the Knesset or in government ministries — they are, at the same time, an increasingly aggressive, visible and populous component of the Israeli public square. Their heavy-handed and at times violent tactics are not new. They have their roots in the formative Hungarian setting of Charedi Judaism. The key question is: Will their growing numbers necessitate a greater integration into and accommodation to Israeli society, thereby mitigating their separatist and martial impulses? Or will their increasing prominence and sense of empowerment result in ever-deeper fissures in Israel’s social fabric? To a great extent, the future of Israel hinges on the answer to these questions.

David N. Myers is chair of the UCLA History Department; he is writing a book, along with Nomi Stolzenberg, on the Satmar Chasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

The response to extremist Judaism lies within Judaism


In an attempt to better understand the problem that arose as a result of the recent events in Beit Shemesh — the one that succeeded to light a fire under so many people — most of us always return to our comfort zone by declaring that the problem lies in the Jewish religion. But the truth is very far from that. The deeper problem stems from the ability of a capricious, domineering and vociferously vocal minority to set a political dynamic into motion. This is exhausting and worrisome to the extent that no politician is capable of standing up to it. When the spirit of compromise is always one-sided, when the rioting and acting-out side always manages to achieve more, and, mainly, when the quiet and tolerant side begins to feel that it always ends up with less, people begin to ask themselves what God meant when he described us as “a light unto the nations” and what the founders of the Zionist movement meant when they wanted to establish an exemplary society? Maybe we are simply not suited to be the “chosen” people.

As always, Israeli society woke up late to the issue, went into panic mode and began waving the first flag they found next to their beds upon waking — the flag of the secular. It’s a comfortable flag to wave, both basic and superficial enough to satisfy anyone who was moved by the tears of Naama Margolese (the little girl who was attacked by the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh). But in many ways, it is a flag devoid of meaning, one that is not substantive enough to have any real meaning. And so, every time it has been waved in the past, it ends up collapsing after a short while and returns to its place in the dead-storage space of the “State of Tel Aviv.”

The Jewish religion is not just mehadrin bus lines (connecting Charedi communities), separate sidewalks and spitting at women. The fact is that we, the secular public, have grown lazy and have accepted things deterministically. This is not only sad, it also raises serious doubts about our future as a Jewish people that are enlightened, progressive and pluralistic. Our decision, of which we are not even aware, to give up on our Judaism for the sake of a radical and violent group who have decided to use religion and nationality as it sees fit, means we give in not only to them but also to ourselves, and allow a norm to reign whereby “might makes right.”

When Yohanan ben Zakkai felt that the zealots were threatening to put an end to the Jewish people with their persistent support of the Great Revolt and their attempt to claim ownership of the Jewish religion, he could have opted for the easy response — to lose faith and gather himself behind the door of his beliefs. But instead of giving in to the zealots, he fought them with the “weapon of the Jew” itself: He left Jerusalem for a period of time and created an alternative that would allow Jewish life to continue in the spirit of the time and the changing reality. He understood then what too few of us understand today — that Judaism is not religious fanaticism or a cult; it is first and foremost a culture and a value system. This is the legacy of an enlightened Jewish leader 2,000 years ago. But somehow we have a hard time repudiating fanaticism and a Taliban-like identity, and cleaving to the true essence of our nation (and, yes, we are first a nation and then a religion, in case we forgot).

By waving the militant flag of secularism, we accomplish nothing other than creating an equally fanatic backlash (even if secular fanaticism is nicer than religious fanaticism) and strengthening the notions held by the Charedi community that they are the “real” Jews and we are not. We end the battle by scoring a goal — in our own wrong court.

Everyone believes that a fundamental change has to occur — a genuine social and political earthquake. In order to make this happen (without destroying ourselves) we have to make greater efforts, persist in knowing more, engage our brains in independent and innovative thinking and know how to learn from those, like Yohanan ben Zakkai, who stood before exactly the same kind of cultural war and learned what it takes to win. The secular response to Charedi radicalism does not lie in declaring ourselves atheists, or making a point of eating shrimp for ideology’s sake. The answer is written here — in the history of the Jewish people, in our Bible and in what the Jewish religion was meant to be from its inception.

Elisheva Mazya is the CEO of the Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit) organization which works to prevent the negative emigration of secular young adults from Jerusalem by supporting young idealistic and pluralistic communities.

A spit of death


I am sickened to hear the recent reports from Israel concerning eight-year-old Naama Margolese who is afraid to go to school because “orthodox” extremists spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.” In addition to violating the biblical commandment of Ahavas Israel, and Maimonides warning against extremism, this fanatical behavior can have disastrous consequences.

Some 30 years ago I was asked to meet with an Israeli woman who was involved with the Church of Scientology. Here is her story.

When she was 12 years old her uncle took her by train from her home town of Haifa to Jerusalem.  This first trip to the holy city would be her special Bat Mitzvah present. Upon arriving at the old Jerusalem train station she got separated from her uncle and turned to a religiously dressed man for help. She was wearing a sleeveless top because of the summer heat and the individual who could have helped her, decided it was more important to spit on her because he disapproved of her immodest dress.

She cried uncontrollably and eventually told her uncle that if this is the way religious Jews act she want nothing to do with them or their religion. 

Years later during the six-day-war she was assigned to a unit in the Sinai and witness the depression war brought upon the soldiers. Out of nowhere she heard music and witnessed a bus load of Chabadniks arrive with a friendly smile and a few L‘Chaims. She thought to herself, “Maybe not all religious Jews are bad.”

After the war she married and settled down in Haifa. Her first daughter was born with a disability that prevented her from walking. Every hospital told her there was no hope. In desperation they traveled to visit medical experts in London and New York. The prognosis was awful. Nothing could be done.

Depressed and out of money she sat on a New York City park bench holding her daughter and crying. A taxi stopped and the driver asked if she needed a ride. Upon hearing her situation the Israeli driver said, “Let me take you somewhere you can get help.” He dropped her off outside the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn. The Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein greeted her in Hebrew and invited them to stay with his family. He also arranged to have all the medical records presented to the Rebbe for his advice and blessing.  Weeks passed and the Rebbe finally recommended she move to Los Angeles. With nothing to lose she accepted the Chassidim’s financial assistance and traveled to LA.

It was a USC Medical Center where is discovered a new treatment that helped her daughter. Then on Yom Kippur her daughter had a relapse and needed to go to the emergency room. She asked a neighbor for a ride and once again contrary to Jewish law a “religious” and dare I say ignorant Jew, refused to help her. Some secular Israelis came to the rescue and drove them to the hospital and though there friendship introduced her to Scientology.

I was able to help her see though the propaganda of Scientology and invited her to Shabbat dinner at the original Westwood Chabad House. I will never forget the moment she arrived with her husband and daughter who walked in unassisted. She sat with my wife singing Shabbat songs together. I started crying and thanked God for the opportunity to witness this miracle.

For the third time this woman, who could have been turned off to Judaism forever, saw that not all religious Jews are bad and this time she committed herself to staying actively involved in Jewish life.

As the Talmud teaches, we must ask ourselves if our actions save a Jewish life or destroy it. Do we draw a person close with kindness or push them away with anger.

I hope the extremists wake up and realize they are making a horrible mistake and I also hope Naama reads this story and it warms her heart and gives her hope.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder and director of Jews for Judaism International. He is dedicated to keeping Jews Jewish and can be reached at la@JewsForJudaism.org

Haredi Orthodox children attacked in Jerusalem


Two haredi Orthodox children say they were attacked in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox Jews in recent days.

An 11-year-old haredi Orthodox boy filed a complaint with Jerusalem police Tuesday alleging that two non-Orthodox teens attacked him and shouted at him at a bus stop in Jerusalem, and tried to prevent him from getting on the bus because he is haredi Orthodox.

On Sunday, a haredi-Orthodox girl, 11, told police that a non-Orthodox bus passenger on a Jerusalem bus spit at her and pushed her, saying “We will destroy the haredim.”

The haredi Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat reportedly opened a hotline for haredi Orthodox people to report violence against them. It has reportedly received numerous responses.

Females sit in the front to protest gender-segregated buses


Dozens of female demonstrators in Israel sat near the driver at the front of gender-segregated buses to protest the separation of men and women.

The protesters rode buses Sunday evening leaving from Jerusalem and Ramat Gan through the haredi Orthodox community of Bnei Brak and through Beit Shemesh, where a Modern Orthodox girls school on the cusp of a haredi Orthodox neighborhood has thrust the issue of the exclusion of women in the public sphere into the spotlight.

Be Free Israel, which according to its website is a nonpartisan movement working on behalf of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, organized the protest of the mehadrin, or sex-segregated, bus lines. Men also participated in the protest.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that voluntary sex segregation is permissible on public bus routes.

Also Sunday, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces told a meeting of military rabbis that they must work to prevent the exclusion of women in the military.

“There will be no exclusion of women in the IDF,” Rabbi Rafi Peretz said. “We especially, who know the importance of respecting a woman, must make sure this controversy won’t penetrate our ranks.”

Israel will take action against haredi extremists, Netanyahu says


Israel will take action against haredi Orthodox extremists who harass women in the public sphere, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned.

“We won’t accept spitting on people in the street just because someone doesn’t approve of their dress,” Netanyahu said Wednesday at the Knesset, Haaretz reported.

He also warned against generalizing all haredi Orthodox people because of the actions of a few.  “The vast majority of the Haredi public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law,” he said.

Netanyahu made his comments a day after thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh to protest the exclusion of women and violence against women in the public sphere.

American Jewish groups condemned the public violence against women in Israel.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said in a statement that it stands firmly against discrimination with regard to gender, religion and race.

“We denounce recent attempts by extremists to segregate and discriminate against women in public spaces in Israel,” the organization said. “All of our institutions … are fully committed to equal opportunity for all.”

The organization praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres “for their public statements and call on religious and political leaders everywhere to join them in condemning and committing to end extremist positions against women.”

The Jewish Federations of North America also praised Netanyahu and members of the government for their public condemnations of religious extremism and violence against women

“Our movement includes Jewish people from all streams and persuasions. Yet, despite our differing backgrounds, we unite today to strongly condemn, with one clear and loud voice, all acts of violence, intimidation, coercion and extremism, especially those that are undertaken, incredibly, in the name of Judaism,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA. “We know that ‘deracheha darchei noam’ – the Torah’s paths are ways of peace. We stand firmly and resolutely behind the voices of reason and moderation in Bet Shemesh and throughout Israel.”

Man arrested for insulting female Israeli soldier on bus


Israel detained an Orthodox man on Wednesday on suspicion of calling a woman soldier a “whore” on a public bus for refusing his appeals that she move to the back of the vehicle, a police spokesman said.

The incident came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of harassment by religious zealots, with the publicity surrounding these cases risking upsetting his political alliances with Orthodox parties.

Much of the controversy has surrounded complaints by women against ultra-Orthodox men trying to force them to sit separately in the backs of public buses in deference to their religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.

Soldier Doron Matalon said on Israel Radio that a devoutly religious man had approached her and insisted she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem earlier on Wednesday, after she had embarked at a station near her military base.

“It was very frightening,” Matalon said, saying the incident was not the first in which she had been asked to move to the back of a bus but that this time she felt more defiant.

Matalon said she replied to the man: “You can move to the back if you want. Just like you don’t want to see my face, I don’t want to see yours.” She added that she was “serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you.”

The man responded by shouting at her “whore, go sit in the back,” Matalon said, adding that the driver later stopped the vehicle and police arrived.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed an Orthodox man was taken into custody and “questioned about his motives” for insulting the soldier, but no decision had yet been made as to whether he would be charged.

Some bus lines that serve predominantly religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities have been segregated despite complaints from women’s groups that their civil rights were being violated.

Under Israeli law women are entitled to object to sitting in the back, but they risk verbal and physical abuse for refusing to do so.

Several thousand activists demonstrated in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on Tuesday against incidents in which ultra-Orthodox zealots have spat at and insulted women and female children, complaining they were immodestly dressed.

Some Orthodox politicians have condemned the violence as the actions of an extremist fringe but see the controversy as an effort to incite public opinion against their politically influential minority in the Jewish state.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan

Rally in Beit Shemesh protests exclusion of women


Hundreds participated in a rally in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh against gender segregation and violence against women by haredi Orthodox extremists.

The rally Tuesday evening was held near a national religious girls school which has been at the center of the controversy. It is the school attended by 8-year-old American immigrant Na’ama Margolis, who was featured in an Israeli television news program, saying she was afraid to walk to school following harassment by local haredi Orthodox men.

The rally was organized on Facebook. More than 4,000 users responded on the Hebrew Facebook page, “1,000 Israelis are going to Beit Shemesh to protect little Na’ama” that they will be attending. Organizers had expected some 10,000 people to participate.

Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend the rally. “Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us, religious, secular, traditional … must as one man defend the character of the state of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity,” Peres told reporters Tuesday.

“Discrimination against women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the audience at an adult Bible contest gathering Tuesday evening as the rally was getting underway.

The rally comes a day after clashes between haredim and police in two neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, a northwestern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 80,000. Two residents were arrested.

About 300 haredi Orthodox men threw stones at police and burned trash cans Monday after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day.

Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some reportedly called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”

One sign called for women to cross the street in front of a local yeshiva; another called for women to dress modestly in public. The sign removal began Sunday evening, when it was assumed that residents would be in their homes lighting Chanukah candles, Ynet reported.

Following media reports of attacks on women by haredi Orthodox men, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

News teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi Orthodox men attempting to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

Netanyahu over the weekend called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere. The order came from Netanyahu Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following the television news report about Na’ama.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.

Rally set in Beit Shemesh to protest exclusion of women


Thousands are expected to participate in a rally in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh against women’s exclusion and violence against females by haredi Orthodox men.

The rally is set to be held Tuesday evening near a national religious girls school which has been at the center of the controversy. It is the school attended by 8-year-old American immigrant Na’ama Margolese, who was featured in an Israeli television news program, saying she was afraid to walk to school following harassment by local haredi Orthodox men.

The rally was organized on Facebook. More than 4,000 users have already responded on the Hebrew Facebook page, “1,000 Israelis are going to Beit Shemesh to protect little Na’ama” that they will be attending. Some 10,000 people are expected to participate.

Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to attend the rally. “Today is a test for the nation, not just for the police. All of us, religious, secular, traditional … must as one man defend the character of the state of Israel against a minority which breaks our national solidarity,” Peres told reporters Tuesday.

The rally comes a day after clashes between haredim and police in two neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, a northwestern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 80,000. Two residents were arrested.

About 300 haredi Orthodox men threw stones at police and burned trash cans Monday after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day.

Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some reportedly called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”

One sign called for women to cross the street in front of a local yeshiva; another called for women to dress modestly in public. The sign removal began Sunday evening, when it was assumed that residents would be in their homes lighting Chanukah candles, Ynet reported.

Following media reports of attacks on women by haredi Orthodox men, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

News teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi Orthodox men attempting to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere. The order came from Netanyahu Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following the television news report about Na’ama.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.

Removal of modesty signs in Beit Shemesh sparks riot


Haredi Orthodox men rioted against police in Beit Shemesh to protest a crackdown on the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

The clashes occurred Monday afternoon in two neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, a northwestern suburb of Jerusalem with a population of 80,000. Two residents were arrested.

About 300 haredi Orthodox men threw stones at police and burned trash cans after the police removed a sign calling for the separation of the sexes on city streets, Haaretz reported. The signs had been replaced after being removed the previous day. 

Rioters on Sunday reportedly surrounded and threw stones at the city workers who removed the signs. Some reportedly called the police who came to break up the riot “Nazis.”

One sign called for women to cross the street in front of a local yeshiva; another called for women to dress modestly in public. The sign removal began Sunday evening, when it was assumed that residents would be in their homes lighting Chanukah candles, Ynet reported.

Following media reports of attacks on women by haredi Orthodox men, the Beit Shemesh municipality said it would install hundreds of security cameras in areas where harassment of women was occurring.

News teams from two Israeli television channels were attacked by haredi Orthodox men attempting to film in the city on Sunday and Monday.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people have responded to a Facebook group organizing a march in Beit Shemesh this week to protest the treatment of women in the city and the increasing haredization of the city, Haaretz reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend called on the Israel Police to act aggressively against violence against women in the public sphere.

The order came from Netanyahu Saturday night through Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch following a television expose the previous evening showing an 8-year-old Modern Orthodox girl who said she was afraid to walk to school because of harassment from local haredi Orthodox men.

Netanyahu reportedly also spoke with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to make certain that laws against excluding women from the public space were enforced.

Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops


A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.

“SACRILEGE”

Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Rabbinic group rejects proposal to admit women


A liberal Orthodox rabbinic group in the United States voted down a proposal to admit women members.

The International Rabbinic Fellowship, founded by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel of New York, voted down by what is being called “a close vote” a proposal to admit women as full or limited members, The New York Jewish Week reported.

The Dec. 20 vote came after what the president of the organization, Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston, told The Jewish Week was a “wonderfully healthy and passionate discussion.”

The 3-year-old IRF, which has 140 member rabbis, is considered the most liberal Orthodox Jewish rabbinic organization in the United States.

Weiss has been pushing for increased synagogue roles for women, trained a woman as a rabbi—Rabba Sara Hurwitz—and gave her a rabbinic role in his Hebrew Institute of Riverdale amid great controversy in January 2010.

Orthodox rabbis weigh in on professional roles for women


The leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic association has adopted an official position against the ordination of women, while also encouraging the creation of “halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” for female scholars.

Members of the Rabbinical Council of America adopted the resolution during their three-day conference that began Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y. The resolution comes just months after the near ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

The resolution cites “commitment to sacred continuity” in stating that the organization “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” But it stops short of sanctioning or expelling members who violate the policy—a move being urged by some rabbis who were upset over the recent actions of one of the RCA’s own members, Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Weiss sparked outrage in January when he conferred the title of “rabba”—a feminized version of rabbi—on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

The RCA resolution notes that “young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education.” And embraces the idea of such scholars assuming communal roles.

“As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature,” the resolution states, “we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring” of Torah study, religious commitment and observance of mitzvot.

RCA officials say the resolution was adopted without opposition. They declined to outline the specific duties that fall under the rubric of rabbi, saying the resolution sought to set out broad parameters while leaving a degree of latitude to RCA members.

Big talkers


Who talks more, men or women?

If you think the answer is obvious, perhaps it’s because you’ve been conditioned by a society that stereotypes.

We’ve all heard the joke the best man cracks to his buddy the groom on his wedding day: “Remember, when you have a discussion with your wife always get the last two words in: ‘Yes, dear.'”

Very funny. But is it a fair stereotype?

When God split the Red Sea, Moses and the Jewish men broke into spontaneous song. A long song. A song that is 19 long verses in the Torah — I know, because we recite it every day in the prayers.

Afterward, the Torah records how Miriam gathered the women, along with musical instruments, and called out to the women: “Sing to God for He is truly exalted; having hurled horse and rider into the sea.” (Prayers would be a lot shorter if we used Miriam’s version.)

Why was Miriam, the woman, so terse in her song to God? Where is the trait of loquacity normally found in the fairer gender? Furthermore, does the terseness of her song mean that Miriam and the women were less grateful for the miracle of the Red Sea’s splitting than the men?

Curiously, Miriam here is identified as “Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron” (Exodus 15:20). Wasn’t she also Moses’ sister? And why identify her by a sibling in the first place? The Talmud explains that Miriam’s adventure in prophecy began when she was but a girl, even before Moses was born, when only she and Aaron were alive (hence, she was only “Aaron’s sister”).

Because of the terrible servitude in Egypt, Miriam’s father and the other community elders wanted to give up on having children. But Miriam insisted that the Jewish nation had to continue growing despite the oppressive servitude. She said, “I know prophetically that my mother will sire the redeemer of Israel!” And so it was with the birth of Moses.

Miriam (and, it would seem, the other women of the time) had a much farther reaching gaze of the unfolding of Jewish history than the men. The men were able to witness the miracle before them and provide an exciting play-by-play analysis of God’s ultimate and palpable victory over Egypt.

Miriam’s perspective, however, was to look at the totality of the Jewish experience. She viewed the splitting of the Red Sea as necessary, seminal and miraculous, but still, just one more step in bringing the Jewish people closer to their ultimate end as the Chosen People.

This is why her comments are so abbreviated. She knew that we as a people haven’t made it yet. We’ve been liberated, but we’re still without a Torah to guide us, and still without a homeland where we can build our families.

In looking at other biblical prophecies we find that women prophetesses were more into the bigger picture, the eschatology of the Jewish people. The World to Come, known as the “the bond of life” in scripture, was prophesied by Abigail (I Samuel 25:29). Resurrection and proper silent prayer were prophesied by Hannah (I Samuel 2:6). Reincarnation was prophesied by the Tekoan woman to King David (II Samuel 14:14).

This is also why the Talmud states that the women did not worship the Golden Calf. The men suffered from shortsightedness, so when it appeared that Moses was dead, they fell into despair and took up a foreign god. But the women could see the bigger picture, and knew that the future of the Jewish people was bigger than any one individual leader.

Sometimes, stereotypes are on target. I like the stereotype of the Jewish grandmother, sitting silently in her rocker, smiling wisely in reminiscence with the knowledge that the Jewish people are stronger and longer-lasting than any one episode that forebodes “the end” of our people.

Thanks, Bubbe.

N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot


With strident calls for action and threats of “taking to the streets” if the issue is not soon resolved, participants in the 10th anniversary conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) ratcheted up the rhetoric around the plight of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce.

“Let this be the last JOFA conference where we need to ask if there’s a halachic heter [permissive legal ruling] for agunot,” Tova Hartman, founder of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem, told the approximately 1,000 people, mostly women, who attended a conference earlier this month in New York City. “The time has come to stop kvetching.”

The rhetoric on agunot contrasted sharply from that on other topics at the conference, where a sense of confidence bordering on the triumphant prevailed, owing to the substantial progress made in the decade since JOFA’s founding.

Women today serve as congregational heads, spiritual leaders and advisers on matters of religious law. They have greater access to rigorous textual study that once was the domain of men. And their participation in public prayer is on the rise with the growth of so-called “partnership minyanim,” in which women take on some leadership roles — including reading the Torah and leading certain prayers — in an otherwise typical Orthodox service.

Other issues, like marking a girl’s bat mitzvah, have fallen off the agenda entirely now that such celebrations are par for the course in Orthodox congregations.

“It is a slow and gradual progress,” JOFA Executive Director Robin Bodner said. “There is definitely progress. There is definitely change.”

Hartman electrified the conference with her talk of civil disobedience and the creation of alternative religious courts to address the plight of agunot, who under Jewish law are forbidden to remarry until their husbands have “released” them from marriage with a get, or religious bill of divorce.

In the worst cases, husbands have refused to grant religious divorces to their wives for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms.

In the United States, various rabbinic courts and civil laws provide some recourse. In New York, state law requires spouses to remove all religious barriers to remarriage before a civil divorce is granted; a similar law is under consideration in Maryland.

In Israel, marriage remains under the purview of rabbinic courts that have the power to enforce their rulings. The problem, agunot advocates say, is that those powers are rarely used by judges, all of them male and drawn mostly from the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox.

An international rabbinic conference on the topic, the first of its kind, was scheduled for last November by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It was canceled at the last minute, however, reportedly due to pressure from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Ashkenazi rabbi widely considered the most authoritative figure in the fervently Orthodox world.

“It’s time that we in the Modern Orthodox world challenge the power of a handful of extremist Charedi rabbis,” Sharon Finkel Shenhav, the only woman serving on Israel’s commission to appoint religious judges, said at the conference.

Shenhav said the ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, control the courts only because “we let them.”

One possible halachic solution, the so-called “tripartite” solution, would have couples sign a prenuptial agreement stipulating that the marriage is dissolved if a husband and wife voluntarily live apart for a certain amount of time.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the American-born chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, argued for that option in an address to a standing-room only crowd at the convention.

While some accused the rabbinic courts of outright corruption, Riskin said the principal obstacle to resolving the issue is the courts’ preoccupation with “what they think is the purity of Israel as over and against the plight of the agunah.”

The tripartite solution is nearly airtight from a halachic standpoint, Riskin said, but it would only affect future marriages and would have little impact on existing agunot. Even so, he’s under no illusions that the idea will be enacted.

“If it does not work, then I believe we will have no choice but to establish alternative batei din,” or rabbinic courts, he said.

JOFA plans to take ads in Jewish media demanding action on agunot from the Orthodox rabbinate. The ads, which call the situation an “injustice” and a “disgrace,” would be timed to coincide with the Fast of Esther, which falls this year on March 1.

“If the community rose up, ultimately that’s how things are changed,” Bodner said. “We need to keep pushing for this change. We’re going to do it. Somehow, some way.”

Nessah president blazing trail for Iranian women


Dr. Morgan Hakimi has a variety of roles — psychologist, Jewish activist, wife and full-time mother. But it’s her position as president of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills that has captured the attention of the L.A. Persian Jewish community.

In this Persian Orthodox culture, where leadership is traditionally dominated by men, opposition followed Hakimi after she was first elected president in 2004. However, Hakimi’s recent reelection has inspired her to step up her challenge to other women to get involved.

“I have always felt that Nessah could be an incredible bridge for more women to participate in our community, for younger American Jews of Iranian descent to connect with her heritage and for American Jews to become more familiar with us,” she said.

Skepticism from critics has died down since her initiatives have led to a substantial increase in membership within the last two years. People are packing Nessah’s two sanctuaries during Shabbat services, and crowds of previously disenfranchised women — both younger Persian Jews and non-Persian Jews — are participating in greater numbers in center programming Hakimi developed.

She credits outreach to and inclusion of the larger Jewish community for the synagogue’s growth. Hakimi has turned to a more American model of running a synagogue — setting up a membership system, establishing support groups for single parents and adding more events for its younger congregants.

“My greatest asset is having a diverse staff of Iranians, Americans, Hispanics and African Americans that are not afraid to work together,” Hakimi said. “We purposefully chose a new executive director in Michael Sklarewitz and new program director in Robin Federman, who are American, in order to better serve our community and bring us closer to the greater American Jewish community.”

Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet praised Hakimi’s outreach efforts to younger Iranian Jews and said he has noticed more women at the center since she took office.

“In my eyes, women are more important because they are the mothers of the next generation,” he said. “If they are committed to Judaism and are affiliated, they can hand it on to the next generation. Otherwise there will not be a continuity of Judaism.”

After Hakimi’s election two years ago, participation of women in religious services became a lightning-rod issue on both sides of the mechitza in the Orthodox congregation. Traditionalists sought to keep women out, and more liberated women demanded greater involvement. Hakimi has approached such situations with diplomacy in mind, talking with both sides to find acceptable common ground.

“I am not here to create a revolution. I’m here to bring awareness and understanding about a lot of issues in our community, including those involving women,” Hakimi said. “I was raised in an egalitarian family, so I’m not bitter toward men, and I don’t have an attitude of fighting when I approach the rabbis or men. That’s why they are welcoming of my suggestions to include everyone in our programs.”

Hakimi’s election as president set a precedent at Nessah, which she continues to build on slowly. Eight women now sit on the center’s board of directors, with more women serving in committee and staff positions. At the congregational level, young women are now welcome to celebrate a bat mitzvah by giving a d’var Torah during the daytime Shabbat service.

Nahid Pirnazar, a member of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, said that Nessah could stand to have greater inclusion of women in religious services.

“But Dr. Hakimi has certainly helped [us] take a lot of positive steps toward greater participation of women,” she said.

Pirnazar, a UCLA professor of Judeo-Persian history, said Hakimi is the first from her generation to achieve a leadership role in the local Iranian Jewish community, and that she shares good company with Jewish women in Iran who took leadership positions in the early 20th century.

Hakimi is also encouraging young women to develop their own programs at Nessah and to make their voices heard.”Dr. Hakimi has been an incredible mentor in my life in demonstrating to me the unique qualities women in leadership can bring,” said Rona Ram, a 22-year-old Nessah volunteer. “What we, as young females, have noticed is the overriding respect and appreciation the entire congregation gives her as she speaks.”

Hakimi said that when issues of change come up, she anticipates resistance. But she says her aim is to slowly press for greater involvement of women in community activities.

“The Iranian Jewish woman has a quiet strength that is only now coming to the surface. I’m here to say they can have it all, but it will take time _ it will not happen overnight, and they must show a desire and commitment to taking part in leadership roles,” Hakimi said.

For more information about the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, visit www.nessah.org or call (310) 273-2400.

Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?


When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”

Mikvah: Calming Waters for a Chaotic Life


The first time I saw a mikvah I had no idea what it was. My college roommate took me to a small building behind her synagogue that looked like a storage unit. We entered a dimly lit area where a small, green-tiled pool dominated the shabby room. It was hardly appealing, and I was shocked when she told me that Jewish women immersed themselves in it before they got married.

“My mother told me that the rainwaters that fill it are like the waters of Eden,” she said as we left.

The next time I encountered a mikvah was in “The Ritual Bath,” a mystery novel written by Faye Kellerman. While the moving descriptions of the Orthodox women who went to the mikvah had a powerful hold on me, I never thought that I would go to one myself.

Several years later, I made a decision that was life-altering: I decided to leave my law practice and pursue my passion for Jewish learning. I wanted to do something special and spiritually significant to elevate my choice into something more than just a career change. That’s when it hit me. I would begin my journey into Jewish learning by preparing myself in a very Jewish way: I would study the texts about ritual purity and go to the mikvah. To this day, it stands as one of the highlights in my quest to find ways to live a meaningful Jewish life.

Traditionally, the mikvah is a thoroughly private experience, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing about it. But I take some comfort in knowing that along with other traditional Jewish rituals that are being redefined today, there is renewed interest in mikvah observance as modern Jewish women discuss, explore and participate in mikvah for the first time.

The laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha, date back to biblical times. There are a lot of misconceptions and negative connotations about these laws, which have been viewed by Jews who are not familiar with the reasons behind the laws as primitive or demeaning to women. But the mikvah lies at the heart of Jewish life because it offers us the opportunity to become spiritually pure and to perpetuate Jewish life and Jewish living.

Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit marital relations during a woman’s menstrual cycle and for seven “spotless” days thereafter. A woman goes to the mikvah to become spiritually pure — not physically clean, as those who misunderstand the ritual suggest. If we understand menstruation as a reflection of a woman’s unique potential to create life, then we can appreciate a ritual that honors the renewal of a woman’s capacity to conceive.

Mikvah attendance requires conscious, vigorous preparation, including bathing, washing and combing the hair, cutting fingernails and removing all jewelry, makeup or anything that is a barrier between a woman and the mikvah waters. It gives a woman the opportunity to luxuriate in being “squeaky clean” and offers a time to focus on the miracles of being a woman.

Mikvah has traditionally been used for conversions, kashering utensils and preparing the dead for burial. But today, Jewish women are reclaiming mikvah to celebrate important lifecycle events and provide meaningful rituals in times of loss, tragedy and sickness. Women also go to the mikvah to mark the onset of menopause, the end of a marriage, a trip to Israel and, in my case, a change in careers.

Many community mikvahs are open to all Jewish women before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the purpose of spiritually preparing themselves for the year ahead. What a wonderful mitzvah to add to our lives as we embrace the New Year and the joys of being a Jewish woman.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, April 15

The bread don’t rise, but spirits may. Two events tonight focus on Passover through music and comedy. Celebrate Chol Hamoed Pesach at Stephen S. Wise Temple with this evening’s “Let My People Sing” series event, “Tears, Laughter and Spirit.” Comedian Joel Chasnoff performs with The Lost Boys of Sudan Choir and Dream Freedom Performers of Milken Community High School. Or visit the Workmen’s Circle for “Music, Mayses … and Matse?!” a concert of Yiddish and klezmer tunes performed by renown musicians Yale Strom on violin, Mark Dresser on contrabass and singer Elizabeth Schwartz.

Stephen S. Wise: 7:30 p.m. Dessert and coffee follow. Donation. 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 476-8561. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, April 16

Ladies only, you are cordially invited to a special screening of “Together as One,” a multicamera video produced by Kol Neshama, an L.A. arts program for Orthodox girls and women. The film about positive attitude and watching what you say has a “Wizard of Oz”-ian spin, when the snide-mouthed protagonist, Bracha, ends up in The Land of Emes (Truth). There are elaborately choreographed musical numbers featuring now-Orthodox professional performers, along with local school girls. The video may only be viewed in today’s and tomorrow’s screenings.

April 16 and 17, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Upstairs@ Kehilas Yaakov, 7211 Beverly Blvd. (877) 637-4262.

Monday, April 17

Director Nicole Holofcener’s film about the midlife struggles of four female friends — and their uneasy relationships with money and each other-comes to theaters this week. Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand star in the comedy/drama “Friends With Money,” which was the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 18

Head to LACMA West for art that makes you go, “hmmmm….” Their new LACMALab installation, “Consider this…” features the work of six varied artists that all invite viewers to “examine the cultural and social landscape: who are we and what do we want to be?”

Through Jan. 15, 2007. Free (children 17 and under), $5-$9 (general). 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. www.lacma.org

Wednesday, April 19

Pay homage to legends of different sorts at tonight’s American Cinematheque screening of “The Night of the Hunter.” This is the kickoff event for their new screening series of devoted film critic “Kevin Thomas’ Favorite Films.” The monthly event will feature 10 of Thomas’ favorites, including “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Star is Born.” Tonight also serves as a tribute to Thomas’ friend, actress Shelley Winters, who starred in “Hunter.”

7:30 p.m. $6-$9. 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. www.americancinematheque.com.

 

Thursday, April 20

The circle of life takes an unconventional turn or two in Michelle Kholos’ new play “Two Parents, Two Weddings, Two Years.” The story follows Sidney, a grown woman with a boyfriend and a career, who must reconcile herself with the fact that her divorced parents are both, separately, getting remarried, while she struggles to hang on to her significant other, and her brother tries to romance his soon-to-be sister-in-law. Wacky Jewish family drama ensues….

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.), through May 14. $25. The Hollywood Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. (323) 692-8200.

 

Friday, April 21

A woman dressed in a white gown and veil stands at a border crossing between the Golan Heights and Syria. She is “The Syrian Bride,” the titular character in a new film by Eran Riklis, and her story is based on a real incident Riklis witnessed and filmed for his 1999 documentary, “Borders.” The bride’s story is a complicated one, of people’s lives caught between the politics and bureaucracies of border countries. The film played at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, and is released theatrically today.

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Letters


Bigamist vs. Agunah

It is with horror that I read the article, “The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’ (March 24), by Amy Klein. Given Rabbi [Avrohom] Union’s devastating error, which he claims was unintentional, it is clear that this head of the beit din should resign immediately. Imagine if he committed the same error regarding kashrut. There is not a person, rabbi or otherwise, who would tolerate his remaining in so powerful a position. If his creating yet another agunah happened “by accident,” as Rabbi Union claims, what is to prevent it from happening again in the future? A rabbi unable to foresee and take responsibility for his actions should not be the head of a beit din.

Clara F. Zilberstein
Toronto, Ontario

Jewish women deserve fair and equal treatment when a couple seeks divorce and settlement. No woman should be left an “agunah” — chained to her husband against her will. A modern beit din does not have to be rigid and sexist. The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California includes conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, both men and women. It rules on matters of conversion to Judaism, and it models compassionate pluralism.

Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Secretary
Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California

I truly believe that the man was required to give a bill of Jewish divorce — the get — as a way of making him conscious of the seriousness of divorcing his wife. He could not just send her out, but had to legally release her. Now this lovely protective get has turned into an ugly misogynistic chain.

This halachic demand needs rethinking. When interest payments were forbidden and debts were to be canceled on the sabbatical year stopped the flow of commerce, laws were changed so that business could move forward. Again, not charging interest, and debt release were wonderful laws that no longer benefited society.

We, the people, need to demand that the get laws be changed. When laws — yes even Jewish laws — no longer work, change is mandatory.

Sarah Austerlitz
Los Angeles

Let me get this straight, Orthodox law mandates that a man, who is remarried to another, can emotionally torture his first wife and forbid her to remarry until she consents to be financially raped by the rabbinical court. What God would have decreed such a law — certainly not the one I pray to. It makes me ashamed to be a Member of the Tribe.

Bunny Rosenbloom
Los Angeles

AIPAC’s Message

I was very impressed with Alice Ollstein’s thoughtful reaction to her attendance at an [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC conference (“Propaganda for the Insipid,” March 31). It is very inspiring to see that young people can reject the preachy one-sidedness of organizations like AIPAC and still remain committed Jews. AIPAC does not do Israel any good by constantly whipping up false anxiety that the state is about to be destroyed, in order to promote its narrow, right-wing views.

Fortunately, Ollstein saw through the organization’s orchestrated charade and realized that there are plenty of ways to support Israel and the Jewish community, such as the religious school teaching she is doing. We are a diverse people, whose loyalty cannot be captured by fear-based cheerleading or buying Israel Bonds after the end of a Yom Kippur sermon.

Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law
Whittier Law School

AIPAC’s near-obsession with an equally balanced lineup of speakers and plenary sessions at Policy Conference reflects that bipartisan support that the U.S.-Israel relationship (and AIPAC) enjoys. Alice Ollstein’s labeling of the conference as the “belly of the conservative beast” says less about AIPAC and more about her own preconceived notions. With so many challenges facing Israel, especially Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation, our community can hardly afford such luxuries.

The U.S.-Israel relationship can thrive only when it is seen as a bipartisan issue. My hope is that friends of Israel such as Ollstein, whose own political views lean left, will join Rep. [Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. [Harry] Reid (D-Nev.) and other decidedly nonconservative thinkers in their support of AIPAC and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Randy Barnes
Los Angeles

Alice Ollstein states she was “manipulated, disturbed and disgusted” with the AIPAC Policy Conference. Ollstein was offended by a “conservative slant of the conference” based on her hearing John Podhoretz speak. I read her remarks with a smile as I often hear the opposite criticism. Last year Hillary Clinton addressed the conference and many were offended by the liberal slant of the conference.

Today, Israel can rely on the U.S. in the face of dangerous and dire times, thanks to AIPAC. Regarding Ollstein’s comments how AIPAC made everything “black and white.” “That you are either for Israel or against it.” You are right. With the threat of annihilation by Iran, Hamas in Palestine, anti-Semitism and war mongering by many Arab and Muslim nations — you are either with Israel or against it. Where else could you be?

Joel A. Bertet
Bertet Investment Group, LLC
Los Angeles

Having just returned from my first AIPAC Conference, it was interesting to read a high school student’s perspective.

As one of this year’s 5,000 participants, the highlight, for me, was the number of high school and college students who attended. I was seated with two of them. They listened with interest as speakers like John Edwards, John Bolton and Dick Cheney addressed us. They clapped with excitement and stood up with conviction. Our faces lit up as over 100 college student body Presidents walked across the stage.

Those were not the only inspirational young people. In one incredible session, I heard a wonderful speaker, a student in Florida from a historically black college. She created “I Fest,” a campus celebration of Israeli culture. It was planned for 200 — and 600 people showed up.

From the motivating speeches to the thought provoking panels, the AIPAC Policy Conference gave me a sense of confidence that there are many people standing up for Israel. I am proud to be one of them.

Kim Cavallo
Hidden Hills

Spike Lee

Robert Jaffee writes: “Unsophisticated Jews may have once viewed [filmmaker Spike] Lee as anti-Semitic based on some of his statements about Ed Koch and the film industry….” (“Crime Scribes Do First ‘Inside’ Job,” March 24).

Criticizing Koch does not make a person anti-Semitic, something that Koch himself is the first to acknowledge. (I know that, because I called him up and asked him, before writing this letter.) But Lee’s statements about Jews in the film industry are certainly troubling.

In 1990, for example, Lee told ABC-TV that “a large part of the people that run Hollywood are Jewish. I mean, that’s a basic fact.”

In 1998, he strongly intimated that the number of Jews in the top echelons of the film industry was the reason that a Holocaust film, rather than his latest film, won that year’s Oscar for best documentary: “When the film is about the Holocaust and one of the producers is a rabbi and it comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center … that was a sure thing when you consider the makeup of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (Washington Post, May 1, 1998).

In a 2001 conversation with “Ain’t It Cool News,” Lee complained about Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans, and then “began to discuss how Jews are the only minority that seems to be protected from slurs,” as the interviewer put it.

Nor can one ignore the fact that Jewish characters in Lee’s films have been portrayed in extremely negative and offensive ways. With good reason, the author and critic Nat Hentoff has compared some of Lee’s Jewish characters to “the coldly vicious caricatures of Jews in the works of Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith.”

Rafael Medoff
Director
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Hineni

“Hineni” (March 24) by Anne Brener zeroed right in on it so clearly, so heartfelt and terrifically moving. I wish her all the best in the world.

Hineni v’kadimah (in the old sense of the word!).

Hank Rosenfeld
Santa Monica

Jews for Jesus

I am compelled to respond to David Klinghoffer’s article (March 31, “A Tenuous Claim as a Jew for Jesus”) not because he takes issue with the Jewishness of the leader of Jews for Jesus — in my opinion a Jew for Jesus is a Christian regardless of his birth — but rather to challenge some of the basic assumptions that are presented in his essay.

First: Genetic Judaism. The Reform movement’s position is not that a person is Jewish merely if either his mother or his father is Jewish. It is that if that child is born of one Jewish parent and raised as a Jew with positive, affirming Jewish life experiences, such as religious education leading to bar/bat mitzvah and a life dedicated to Jewish living, then we consider that person Jewish. It is not about genetics, it is about commitment. To be a Jew one must have connections to the Jewish community through a parent and live as a Jew. We live in a world of shrinking Jewish populations, what good does it do our community to circle the wagons and challenge the Jewishness of people who live within our community and declare their commitment daily through life choices? How will one more committed Jew threaten the integrity of the Jewish community? Far from it, that person will bring his or her commitment to our synagogues and enrich Jewish life, regardless of which parent is Jewish. It seems to me that we need to bring them in, not figure out ways to keep them out.

Second: The “Jewishness” of our biblical ancestors and their marriage choices. For the record, King David married many non-“Jewish” women, as did Moses and Abraham for that matter. There simply is no mention of conversion as we know it today anywhere in the Bible; any assumptions to the contrary are ahistorical projections. Yet their children were certainly members of the Israelite community and carried on their fathers’ traditions. King Solomon, the son of Batsheva and David who was a non-“Jew” previously married to the non-“Jewish” Uriah the Hittite comes to mind as one example.

Finally, we dignify Jews for Jesus when we challenge their claims with Jewish texts and traditions. There is simply no Jesus in Judaism. Though Jews for Jesus may assume the outward appearance of Jews and quaintly use Yiddishims while referring to their Jewish ancestry it is all irrelevant in the face of one reality: Christians believe in Jesus, Jews don’t. End of story.

Rabbi Ron Stern
Stephen S. Wise Temple
Los Angeles

Correction

An advertisement for Classique Raphy kosher catering contained an unfortunate, obvious typo. Raphy offers Cornish Hen in a Wine Sauce for Passover, not Cornish Ham.

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

 

Spectator – My Husband, the Rabbi


The first time the word “rebbetzin” appeared in The New York Times was in 1931, in a review of a book about Yiddish theater. The term stood untranslated; the reviewer and his editors assumed that readers would understand the meaning.

The word has gone in and out of favor among those whom it describes, but the role itself has been an influential one, albeit not always recognized, over the last century in the American Jewish community. The first book to study the evolution of the role and the women who have filled it, “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life,” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz (New York University Press), not only honors many unsung heroines but provides a significant contribution to American Jewish history.

Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and dean of its undergraduate List College, is the daughter, niece, wife and soon-to-be the mother of rabbis. Sadly, since beginning this book, her husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, died suddenly, so she now has an additional role — that of widow of a rabbi. Although “The Rabbi’s Wife” is not at all personal, Schwartz’s insider’s perspective informs her book. Because of her background, she was able to gain access to rabbis’ wives of different generations, who felt comfortable opening up their lives and — when they had kept them — their files.

Schwartz began pondering related issues while a graduate student at the Seminary in the 1970s, as she noticed the number of women in her classes hoping to get into rabbinical school should JTS begin ordaining women. “It got me thinking: Here are these bright, motivated religious women, who felt a calling to the rabbinate. My question was where were all these talented women in previous generations? My answer was that a lot of the talented women married rabbis.”

These days, professionals do much of the work that once was taken care of by the rebbetzin: synagogues now have executive directors, assistant rabbis, education directors and youth directors. In general the traditional rebbetzin role continues to thrive mostly in the Orthodox community, where women cannot be ordained. One pocket where the role continues most clearly is the Lubavitch community, where rabbis and their wives do outreach work as a team. But among the other denominations, women’s roles have changed radically.

“Women don’t have to marry rabbis to lead,” Schwartz says. “In balance, the Jewish community is richer.”

 

Letters


Focus Attention

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

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

Myles L. Berman
Los Angeles

Great Cover

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

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

Esther Tabak
Beverly Hills

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

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

Rabbi Meyer H. May
Los Angeles

Orthodox Women

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea

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

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

David Luchins
National Vice President
Orthodox Union

Westchester’s Bright Future

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

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

Art Wexler
Westchester

Links

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

Theresa Merrin
Thousand Oaks

‘Singlehood’

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

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

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

Deborah Graetz
via e-mail

Reaction to Rosove

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

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

Marjorie B. Green
Los Angeles

Sharon’s Legacy

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

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

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

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

 

Orthodox But Not Monolithic


The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.

But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union’s 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called “The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity.”

The four-day conference highlighted the diversity — and at times the tension — in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.

The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha — Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities — but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.

While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night’s “Fireside Chat” featuring two perceived “factions” of Orthodoxy. Representing the more “modern” faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D’asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.

For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.

The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B’nai David Judea.

“How Flexible is Orthodoxy?” featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, “How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?

A woman’s role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman’s-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.

Another perspective on women’s issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews’ broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as “necessary” for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.

On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women’s issues.

On the matter of Israel’s centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox – who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a “Zionist entity” — now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.

But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel (“The Orthodox Women’s Influence on Her Community”) that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.

“Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?” Luchins asked. “We’ve done it for the tradeoff,” he posited.

The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community’s conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.

“We’re so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we’ve lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community,” Luchins said. “We’ve lost on that issue, big.”

Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think the movement is going to have to break into two.”

But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.

“How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?” Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.

The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.

“We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together,” he said.