Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left), Associate Rabbi Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg (right), Director of The Shalhevet Institute Judaic Studies Faculty

Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk: A conversation between — and about — denominations


Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Ari, we separate our movements based on our philosophical approaches to Judaism. Yet I feel that there is a disconnect between what movements purport and what we actually do.

Reform Jews are supposed to have a deep education in Jewish text and tradition in order to make an informed “choice through knowledge.” Because we believe our Torah was shaped by imperfect humans striving to understand the Divine, we have flexibility in approaching tradition in ways that your community — with its view that God dictated Torah through the hand of Moses — doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Reform Jews often exchange flexibility with non-engagement. Shabbat attendance and ongoing learning aren’t nearly as central to Reform communities as the clergy would like.

“Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education.”— Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Why would I still choose Reform Judaism? Because I think your community, too, struggles with a disconnect between purported and lived values. I choose the flaws of my community over those I perceive in yours.

Despite our deficiencies, my movement does an extraordinary job of moral education — conveying core values about what it means to be Jewish in the world. Some say we overemphasize universalism, but the Torah, our prophets and our most-respected modern philosophers all seem obsessed with the central core value of human dignity. I take pride that Reform Judaism has been at the forefront of each era’s fight for human dignity.

The Orthodox community will nearly always beat us on fidelity to learning, Shabbat practice and kashrut. But I fear that focusing on these values comes at the expense of the our tradition’s moral core, which demands that we transform our faith into social action.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

Sarah, first, I don’t claim to be the representative of the Orthodox community. But I’ll do my best to present a fair and constructive perspective on it.

I think you’re right: A major tenet of Jewish thought and tradition is social action and, generally speaking, the Orthodox community does not make it as central as it ought to be. But some contextualization is also necessary. To claim that social action alone is the “moral core” of our tradition ignores the binding nature of mitzvot as they appear in the Torah and rabbinic literature.

Regardless of how you define revelation, a Judaism that doesn’t place ritual, God and some form of halachah (Jewish law), on similar footing to social action feels a bit Jewishly vacant to me. I don’t mean to downplay the value of social justice and tikkun olam, but our tradition perceives Torah and mitzvot as axiomatic to our Jewish identity.

Also, many Orthodox Jews carry a significant burden of historical oppression, so they fear what the Jewish future holds. Given those concerns, a serious commitment to social justice unfortunately takes a backseat to internal Jewish causes. Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.

Rabbi Bassin

At our origin, the Reform movement clearly distinguished between ritual and ethical commandments. We’ve walked back that language in recent decades, but there’s a truth to that distinction that I refuse to relinquish. My intellectual predecessors gave birth to the Reform movement as a corrective for a tradition that had lost sight of ethical monotheism in focusing on the details of legal minutiae.

You may find this heretical, but I don’t believe that Judaism is an end in and of itself. I see it — and all religion — as a tool for human flourishing. I don’t believe in a deity that cares whether I light Shabbat candles. I have trouble with the idea of worshipping a god that demands such acts of reverence. I do believe that the act reminds me of the moral importance of setting aside time to remember that we are not only what we do.

Spiritual discipline, channeled to an end beyond itself, can help us tap into our core purpose. Yet our inherited mitzvot are not my only — or even my primary — source of commandment. I have always been drawn to the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas, who posits that our greatest access to the Divine is through other people, who reflect the image of God more strongly than any law.

When religion becomes its own end, I fear that we unleash dangerous impulses. We find ways to overlook bad behavior, tolerate scandals and disregard the humanity of others under the guise of protecting our community — and keeping our dirty laundry indoors. That tendency isn’t isolated to the Orthodox community, or even the Jewish community, but I fear that the danger increases with greater particularism.

I take joy in witnessing elements of Orthodoxy that have reclaimed a more universal outlook and ethical imperative, and I hope the Reform movement helped pave that path. I also hope to draw from your community to address the shortcomings of my own — particularly in the form of spiritual discipline and commitment to community as a foundation for faith in action.

Rabbi Schwarzberg

Your clarity of purpose and responsibility is inspiring. I agree that when religion becomes an end unto itself, it has the potential to become idolatrous. There’s a fine line between serving God and serving ourselves in the name of God. But I think that’s the precarious nature of all religious institutions.

Similarly, your comment about scandals and overlooking bad behavior feels like an unfair critique of some of the Orthodox community’s lowest-hanging fruit. I am the first to criticize scandals, fraud or abuse under the banner of frumkeit. But, as you said, those issues are neither endemic nor exclusive to the Orthodox community.

“I don’t mean to downplay the value of social justice and tikkun olam, but our tradition perceives Torah and mitzvot as axiomatic to our Jewish identity.”— Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

That said, we’re not immune from the traps of tribalism, halachic territorialism, or authoritarian rabbinic leadership. And we should ensure that our most sacred values are not compromised in their name. My work with The Shalhevet Institute is predicated on the belief that pluralism and Orthodoxy are not oil and water.

Perhaps what we’re really talking about is methodology. If religion is to be transformative, how do we best achieve that result? I take my cues from Rambam here: The frame of our commandedness must be “to know God.” But it’s through mitzvot, prayer and learning that our religious consciousness is best activated. I don’t think of lighting Shabbat candles as merely a way to serve a demanding God. The meaning you’ve attached to it is wonderful, but it’s also part of an evolving system that aspires to foster a community of empathic humans and deep Jews. If anything, it’s our particularistic identity that obligates our universal mission.


Rabbi Sarah Bassin is an associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg is the director of The Shalhevet Institute.

Screenshot from Twitter.

‘One of Us’ Reveals the Bitter Consequences of Leaving Chasidic Community


Fewer than two percent of Chasidic Jews ever leave the fold. The documentary “One of Us” reveals why, telling the stories of three people who have left — and paid a high price for their personal freedom.

Etty, a young mother of seven, walks out on her abusive husband and loses custody of her children. Luzer, an actor, struggles with depression and his decision to leave his family. And Ari battles addiction as he comes to terms with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“Coming from a community where the collective is all that matters, these people had a ‘me’ inside that needed to have a voice,” said Heidi Ewing, who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady.

The filmmakers met in 1999 while working on a TV documentary about the Church of Scientology. “We’ve been able to build a career digging deep into subjects that interest us,” said Ewing, adding that filmmaking is “an opportunity to go into unknown worlds, ask questions and put together a story.”

Among their successes was the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about a charismatic Christian summer camp.

For their sixth film together, the filmmakers sought to crack open a window on a world they knew little about, one hidden in plain sight in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

“We were no experts on the Chasidic community before we started doing this film,” Grady said. “As outsiders, we will never truly understand.”

Grady, a nonreligious Jew, and Ewing, a non-practicing Catholic, found their way into that world through Footsteps, a support organization that helps Chasidic Jews who want to leave.

There, they found Etty, the young mother, who agreed to participate, Grady said, “with a lot of caveats,” such as hiding her face until she was ready to reveal it. “This is not someone who seeks attention,” Grady said. “She would never have chosen the spotlight had she not been in these circumstances.”

The film chronicles Etty’s custody fight amid ostracism and a smear campaign by the Chasidic community. “We couldn’t even grasp how difficult it was for these people to exit and start over — especially in Etty’s case,” Ewing said.

“She’s considered a turncoat, a traitor, because of the suspicion is that she won’t raise her children Chasidic,” Ewing said. “The way they look at it, these are the community’s children, to make up for what was lost” in the Holocaust.

Grady finds it ironic that Jews, who have a long history of facing religious oppression, would persecute their own. The Holocaust, she said, “gives you some context for this extreme behavior — things start to make sense, like why they hate the police, why they hate dogs,” she said.

Another of the film’s story lines follows Ari Hershkowitz, a young adult who as a boy was raped and beaten by a counselor at a Chasidic summer camp. He has struggled with anger, resentment and substance abuse, and is now working to stay clean and make up for lost time. “I was robbed of my life,” he says in the film.

Luzer Twersky has his own painful story. After an abusive childhood, he married at 19, fathered two children, and then walked away from his life. “Depression is something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life,” said Twersky, now 32. “There are issues that I deal with that have a lot more to do with how I was raised than religion.”

Describing himself as “genetically and psychologically Jewish,” Twersky said that now, “I’m not religious at all — I’m not even culturally Jewish.” He is in contact with his parents and some of his 11 siblings, but not with his ex-wife or children.

Though Twersky misses the food, the music and the sense of community, “I don’t miss the rules or the dogma or any of that, not for a second,” he said.

He drives for Uber to pay the bills, but his acting career is picking up. He often plays Jewish characters, as he did in three episodes of “Transparent” in 2015. Twersky recently shot an episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and is rehearsing for a stage production of “Awake and Sing,” among other projects.

Hershkowitz is currently studying for his GED. Etty is planning to appeal the court’s custody decision. “A woman in Etty’s situation won on appeal,” Grady said, “so there’s a precedent now, a glimmer of hope.

Grady and Ewing have stayed in touch with their subjects, as the film’s release approaches. “Our main concern is preparing them for what’s coming at them,” Ewing said — including both national exposure and the Chasidic community’s potentially negative reaction.

“One of Us” has played at a handful of film festivals, before mostly New York secular Jewish audiences, who Ewing said were “outraged and offended by some of the things they saw.”

The filmmakers are currently developing several projects, including one about “fundamentalists, not necessarily religious” ones, Grady said.

As for “One of Us,” the directors say the film is less about religion than the universal theme of individuality. “I feel that it’s better to shine a light on a community that has been unchecked for so long,” Ewing said, “and have a productive conversation among Jews about these issues.”

“One of Us” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 20.

A scene from "They Father's Chair." Photo by Antonio Tibaldi.

A Story of Orthodox Twins Buried in the Past


The Brooklyn home of two Orthodox Jewish twin brothers is a shocking, chaotic scene that could be straight out of the TV show “Hoarders.” Stray cats roam through the home’s bug-infested maze of garbage and junk. An overwhelming stench of old kitty litter and spoiled food fills the air. A cleaning crew in protective suits and masks begins the Herculean task of cleaning out the place, under protest from the brothers, who had reluctantly agreed to the cleaning only because their upstairs tenant threatened to stop paying rent.

The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers.

This sad state of existence for the twins, Abraham and Shraga, is the subject of “Thy Father’s Chair,” a cinéma vérité-style documentary opening Oct. 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The home, inherited from their late parents, has become a prison for the brothers, who are in their 60s, as they obsessively cling to objects from their past.

“Their parents died. They never married. They were never taught how to take care of a house,” filmmaker Antonio Tibaldi said of the twins. “What I felt was interesting was this attachment to objects. Abraham looks at his father’s chair and says he’s not sure if he’s allowed to sit in that chair, and he’s not sure he wants to. To me, that encapsulates the essence of the film: the weight of what you’re supposed to
carry through.”

Nicole Levine, an Israeli acquaintance who owns the cleaning service Home Clean Home, tried to interest Tibaldi in filming an infomercial for her. He declined, but when she later shared photos of the brothers’ disaster-area home, he was intrigued.

Filming took place over 10 days in late 2014 and three days in 2015, followed by eight months of editing. The shooting conditions were difficult, but extracting a narrative thread from many hours of footage was even more challenging, as Tibaldi had just let his camera roll, with no interviews. “I knew when I had good moments,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure what it would add up to.”

Those moments include Abraham talking about the titular chair, Shraga discussing the existence of God, and the brothers’ interaction with the cleaning crew leader, an Israeli named Hanan Edri.

“[Hanan] became almost a father figure” to them, co-director Alex Lora said.

The epilogue ends the film on a brighter note, showing the twins reading Torah in their tidier home.

But the story didn’t end there: Shraga died in late 2016 from complications after back surgery. Tibaldi has tried to contact Abraham a couple of times this year, to no avail.

Lora and Tibaldi have been collaborators since they met at City College of New York when Lora was a student in Tibaldi’s film class. They hope “Thy Father’s Chair” makes an impact with audiences.

“It’s a claustrophobic story in the sense that it’s one location and these guys are not the most appealing guys on the surface,” Lora said, “but I hope [people] connect with them and their humanity and their wish to get a better situation.”

Tibaldi thinks the film raises provocative questions.

“What is identity in terms of connection to your heritage, whether it’s religious or cultural, and what choices do you have in relationship to it?” Tibaldi said. “How are you able to separate from your origin or what you believe is your identity? What is left if you rebel against these things? All this is very interesting to me.

“What we filmed is very specific to [the brothers], and a Jewish audience may have specific interest, but hopefully the fact that it’s so specific can make it universal.”

“Thy Father’s Chair” runs Oct. 20-26 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, screening at 5 and 7:20 p.m.

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

In defense of Rabbi Joseph Dweck and Orthodox Judaism: An Open Letter to Rabbi S. F. Zimmerman


Several weeks ago Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardic Community in London, gave a bold lecture on Judaism’s attitude toward homosexuality (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPhgFvZPK-o; see my earlier observations: https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/modern-day-inquisition-rabbi-joseph-dweck/). Soon after, a major controversy broke out in which Rabbi Dweck was attacked for his views and for some of his other halachic opinions. Sadly, this controversy spread like wildfire via the media, throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world, embarrassing Rabbi Dweck and even British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. I feel the moral and halachic obligation to defend Rabbi Dweck, especially after the distinguished rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Gateshead Hebrew Congregation (which has the largest rabbinical institutions in Europe), Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, called for Rabbi Dweck’s resignation – also published via the media. Here is my response to Rabbi Zimmerman. (A printed copy was sent to the Rav by postal mail.)  


Dear Rabbi Zimmerman, Shelita,

Shalom u-vracha.

As an alumnus of Gateshead Yeshiva, where I studied for eight years and from where I received heter hora’ah (rabbinical ordination) from its Rosh HaYeshiva, HaRav Aryeh Leib Gurwicz, z”l; and having been very close to your predecessor, HaRav Betzalel Rakov, z”l, and to the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual educator and leader) HaRav Moshe Schwab, z”l, both of whom I greatly admired; and having studied for several more years in Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshivot in Israel; and having been deeply involved in the world of Halacha, Hashkafa, Mussar and Chassidut for more than 50 years (I am 71 years old), I was taken aback by your letter in which you accuse Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community, London, of not being “equipped to rule on Halacha, due to his limited knowledge, weak halachic reasoning skills and lack of training.” You then accuse the rabbi of lacking “fear (of Heaven), modesty, purity, rabbinic training and scholarly interactions with his colleagues,” after which you conclude with the harsh pronouncement that “he is not fit to be a rabbi” (Your letter of 15 Sivan 5777 / 9 June 2017).

This extraordinarily condemnatory letter, which is conspicuously sparse in detail, has sparked several strong reactions in letters by rabbis who seem to have lost all sense of proportion and are now attacking Rabbi Dweck not only for his observations on homosexuality, but also for other halachic rulings and for his critique on the rabbinical establishment’s lack of knowledge. On top of this, in a separate letter, the same (or several other) rabbis have now threatened Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis:

If Joseph Dweck is maintained in office as a rabbi, whether it is fully or even partially, in spite of all the letters received from highly respected Orthodox Rabbinical authorities in Gateshead and in Israel and worldwide, Chief Rabbi Mirvis should realize that he will be responsible for the splitting of Anglo-Orthodoxy and lose his credibility as a Chief Rabbi to a large consensus of Orthodox communities….We remind Chief Rabbi Mirvis… that letters condemning Joseph Dweck and calling for his removal from the Rabbinate have already been issued by the Chief Rabbi of Israel HaRav Yitzchak Yosef, by HaRav David Yosef, by HaRav Shalom Cohen and HaRav Shimon Baadani, by the Beit Din Tsedek of Bnei Brak (HaRav Sariel Rosenberg, Av Beit Din), and by the Av Beit Din of Gateshead (HaRav Shraga Feivel Zimmerman), and it would be incongruous for any decision to contradict the conclusion of any of these letters” (Quoted in The Jewish Chronicle 30 June 2017).

This letter constitutes nothing less than blatant blackmail. Moreover, some other letters attacking Rabbi Dweck reflect shameful cowardice on the part of the rabbis who did not even have the decency to sign their names.

It is a known fact that Rabbi Dweck has already apologized for some of his derogatory remarks (https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/dweck-says-sorry-for-criticising-rabbis-1.440817) about several rabbis’ Torah and halachic knowledge which, it must be admitted, are not entirely untrue. (To my knowledge, Rabbi Dweck never referred to anyone by name, while several of his opponents even deprived him of his rabbinical title!) Rabbi Dweck’s type of rhetoric is commonly used in the Sefardic world. While he was no doubt wrong in making these statements, the problem with these rabbis’ attacks on him is that they (deliberately?) took some of his halachic observations out of context, seemingly did not listen carefully to his words (perhaps having learned of them only by hearsay), and lacked the knowledge to judge these halachic suggestions on their real worth. I became aware of this after I carefully studied the relevant material.

While it may very well be true that Rabbi Dweck made several minor mistakes in his halachic observations (what rabbi doesn’t?), it is most disturbing that you provided the impetus for the rabbis to declare war on Rabbi Dweck, and now on Chief Rabbi Mirvis as well, by declaring that Rabbi Dweck must be removed from the S&P because otherwise British Orthodoxy will be split.

I am astonished at the threats made by these rabbis. Do they not understand that by trying to undermine and blackmail the chief rabbi they have gone beyond the tolerable? Even more than that, they are playing into the hands of those they fear the most – the Reform and Mesorati communities. After all, if Orthodoxy itself has now rejected Rabbi Mirvis’ Chief Rabbinate, these denominations will no longer feel the need to view the chief rabbi as the primary representative of all British Jewry.

There is little doubt that your letter will also push people away from Orthodoxy and right into the arms of other denominations, or even secularity.

I sincerely wonder whether before you made this most offensive observation you were in contact with Sefardic rabbis of the Syrian and Portuguese community (to which I belong), to ascertain what the Syrian or Portuguese-Spanish masoret (halachic tradition) is all about, as it is quite different from the Ashkenazic one, which you are used to, and even from the Sefardic Moroccan tradition. I am referring here to those authorities who have not learned in or been influenced by Ashkenazic yeshivot.

I wonder whether you’ve made an in-depth study of this masoret, which Rabbi Dweck happens to rely on. Were you not able to at least see Rabbi Dweck’s point of view, even if you yourself would not pasken (decide) similarly? Isn’t that an accepted practice in the halachic community?

Such an approach would have been wiser, instead of throwing oil on an already burning situation in which Rabbi Dweck was being attacked even before some of these letters were written.

What seems to be totally forgotten is that Rabbi Dweck’s methodology in studying, understanding, and applying Halacha is very different from yours (and perhaps mine) but absolutely authentic and legitimate.

I would recommend that you and the other rabbis study the halachic works of: Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953), especially Responsa Mishpatei Uziel; Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924), author of Responsa Dor Revi’i; Rabbi Chaim Hirshenson, z”l (1857-1935), particularly his magnum opus, Malki Ba-Kodesh, which is now being reprinted; Rabbi Yosef Mashash (1892-1974), former Sephardic chief rabbi of Haifa, and his highly unusual and controversial halachic rulings in Responsa Mayim Tehorim; and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992), the talmid muvhak (distinguished and brilliant student) of the Sridei Aish, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966), especially his book HaHalacha, Kocha VeTafkida. You would then see that Rabbi Dweck’s approach is surely acceptable and may hold the future of halachic Judaism.

To deny that these great men are supreme masters of Halacha would be a farce.

I must also add that your letter begs the question of why you did not write and circulate similar letters concerning other rabbis, even well-known poskim, who have expressed views that are much worse than those of which Rabbi Dweck is accused. Why did you not call for their resignations? I am willing to send you, privately, their names and piskei din (rulings of law) with exact references. Some of these piskei din are hair-raising and oppose the very foundations of Judaism, having hurt many people, and having given a very bad name to our holy Halacha. I do not want to name these poskim here, as doing so would shame them and add to the great chillul Hashem that has been created around Rabbi Dweck.

Although I am aware that you stated, in 2015, that child abuse in the Orthodox community should be reported to the police, I am puzzled as to why (as far as I know) you did not protest against any of the other scandals that are taking place within the Orthodox communities in England and around the world. They are by now common knowledge, even outside the Jewish community, bringing shame to us and our holy Torah.

Why, for example, do you (and the other rabbis opposing Rabbi Dweck) not voice your condemnation against the abuse of women and the financial corruption in the ultra-Orthodox community in England and beyond? Why do we not hear from you concerning the constant discrimination, in large segments of ultra-Orthodox sectors, against Orthodox converts, Ethiopians and Black Jews, not to mention the enormous suffering inflicted on agunot, or the fact that Israeli Chareidi soldiers are now being harassed by their own Chareidi brothers for having joined the Israeli army so that others can sit and learn in safety in Israeli Chareidi yeshivot? (I myself had the zechut [merit] to serve in the Israeli army for a short period of time, which gave me the opportunity to do a lot of kiruv work by explaining the beauty of Orthodox Judaism.)

Aren’t these scandals much worse than anything Rabbi Dweck may have said? Unfortunately, I could mention many more examples.

Why focus on Rabbi Dweck’s minor mistakes, when the Orthodox community has so many greater and more severe problems (many created by its own rabbis), which have caused incredible harm to Torah Judaism?

Furthermore, I ponder why you did not invite Rabbi Dweck to discuss this matter with you privately. Given the pressing nature of the issue of homosexuality within the Orthodox community, I cannot understand why you would not want to hear his perspectives and ideas on this, as well as on a large number of other subjects, which are of utmost importance to our people and to Orthodox Judaism. This would surely have been a more productive and less destructive way of voicing any disagreement you may have with him. By writing an open letter as you did, you actually dodged the substance of the issue, and it is being perceived as nothing more than an attempt to shame a man of courage who is trying his best to bring people closer to Orthodox, albeit not Chareidi, Judaism.

Have you read Rabbi Chaim Rapoport’s book Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, for which I wrote a letter of approbation and which contains a foreword by Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks? It also includes a preface by Dayan Berel Berkovits, z”l, who served on the beit din of London’s Federation of Synagogues, and with whom I studied in Gateshead Yeshiva. The book in many ways reflects what Rabbi Dweck said.

And even if you do not agree with some of these ideas, is that really a reason to attack him the way you did, undermining his integrity, religiosity and standing in the Spanish-Portuguese community? Do you sincerely believe that calling for his resignation is justified?

You may wonder why I publish this letter to you on the internet. I indeed would not have done so if not for the fact that by now, your letter and those from the other rabbis have had extensive exposure via the internet, giving Rabbi Dweck and Orthodox Judaism a bad name.

So I had no choice but to use that same internet to defend Rabbi Dweck and Orthodox Judaism against these verbal assaults, which came in the name of a complete misrepresentation of authentic Judaism and its halachic tradition.

I feel the need to tell people that real Judaism is far removed from these types of misguided attacks.

I am therefore writing this letter, as an expression of my great love for Orthodox Judaism and Halacha. I strongly believe in their supremacy, their ethos, and their compassion and wish to share this great way of exalted living with others.

I want to tell my readers that I, as an Orthodox Jew, together with many rabbinical colleagues, will have no part in this meaningless condemnation of a qualified rabbi, which is clearly a personal vendetta motivated by power struggles and jealousy among several rabbis and laypeople.

I call on Chief Rabbi Mirvis – who will have to learn that playing it safe is regrettably not always possible – and all decent rabbis and Jewish leaders to end this travesty. I urge the S&P community to continue to stand with Rabbi Dweck and to ensure that he will not appear before any beit din or other ad hoc authority. He must continue to sit on the Sephardic Beit Din, even if its piskei din, including on issues of gittin, will not be recognized by Rabbi Dweck’s opponents.

The time has come to stop giving in to this kind of blackmail, whatever the consequences. In the long run, this policy will be victorious and will save Orthodox Judaism from its downfall. That which is healthy and honest will ultimately win. If Rabbi Dweck and the S&P will be marginalized, so be it.

And if it means that Chief Rabbi Mirvis will have to step down, let him do so with pride. We will be behind him!

But if the S&P and Rabbi Mirvis will give in, rabbis will no longer be able to speak their minds. The S&P and other communities will lose their independence and be subject to censure by all sorts of self-acclaimed rabbinical extremists, creating a situation that will terribly compromise Judaism.

We cannot permit those rabbinic forces that want to own and dictate Judaism to destroy it. Inquisitions do not belong in authentic Judaism. Without strong opposition to this destructive trend the beautiful house of Judaism will collapse; and without proper renovations it will crumble to nothing.

I therefore suggest that you, as one of the most important halachic authorities in England, retract your comments concerning Rabbi Dweck and advise those rabbis who follow you to do the same. It would show great integrity and strength and will be seen as an outstanding example of how a real Orthodox rabbi acts.

Having the courage to admit a mistake is what turns life into unmistakable splendor. Rabbi Dweck did it. Now, those who oppose him should follow suit.

I care as much about your honor as I care about the honor of Rabbi Dweck and, above all, the honor and integrity of Judaism.

Sincerely,

Nathan Lopes Cardozo,

Yerushalayim

Women in Orthodoxy: The plot thickens


Some tense debates are going on right now within the Orthodox movement as it deals with the forces of modernity. Perhaps the most contentious issue among them is whether Orthodoxy should allow women clergy.

The “traditional” camp, represented by mainstream Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, says no. The “open” camp, a fledgling movement of more liberal Orthodox rabbis, says yes.

There are arguments on both sides. The letter of halachah (Jewish law) does not specifically prohibit women clergy. But one of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy is a deep respect for tradition and continuity, to the point that tradition itself can take on a legal status.

The traditional view gives great emphasis to the spirit or the ethos of the law, while the open view looks for legal ways to thread the needle and make tradition more inclusive. It’s a classic struggle, and I see value with both views.

If you go by modern trends, the open view looks like a slam dunk: How can you tell a woman that she cannot do what a man does? This egalitarian mindset has become so ingrained in our thinking that anything less can seem offensive.

And yet, as much as my mind leans toward a more inclusive and open approach, I find myself having a place in my heart for the maintenance of tradition. Maybe this comes from conversations I’ve had over the years with Orthodox women who live happily in the traditionalists’ camp.

Let’s take one example of an Orthodox custom that can offend non-Orthodox Jews — the physical barrier (mechitzah) between men and women in synagogues. This feels like another slam dunk: Why separate men from women?

Here’s what one woman told me who moved from the Reform to the Orthodox camp: The separation helps her better connect with God. Sitting next to her husband can distract her from that intimate moment of prayer. You can disagree with that sentiment, but still respect it.

Similarly, why would so many Orthodox women be OK with only men being officially part of the rabbinate?

Again, it’s because they see something holy in the notion of separation. Shabbat, for example, is a sacred separation from the rest of the week; so is the home from the outside world and so is the bedroom from the rest of the home.

In a marriage, this sanctity of separation means embracing different roles for men and women. Because the woman feels dignity and fulfillment within the roles that she has, she feels no inclination to appropriate the man’s roles. In her eyes, “different” doesn’t mean superior or inferior, it means holy and equal.

In other words, what may look like retrograde to you is sanctity to them. At least with the women I spoke to, they associate this sanctity of difference with holiness in the home and harmony in their lives.

Still, it’s worth noting that Orthodoxy has not been immune from the forces of modernity. In recent years, Orthodox women have become more and more engaged in areas that traditionally have been more associated with men.

Even the statement earlier this year by the Orthodox Union opposing female clergy noted “the important and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars.”

It is the role of women in synagogues, rather than in schools, that is especially sensitive. As is often the case with these debates, it comes down to red lines. Traditionalists want to draw a red line at women clergy; the Open camp doesn’t feel this is necessary.

If no compromise is reached, Open Orthodox institutions, although still a small minority, may end up being excluded from Orthodox umbrella groups — something that would open a permanent breach in the movement. I hope leaders on both sides will struggle to find an arrangement for the sake of heaven.

Maybe each side can give a little. The Open camp can create a spiritual leadership role and a title for women that pushes the halachic envelope yet still falls short of the traditional clergy position, while the Traditional camp can tolerate this arrangement for the sake of communal harmony and broadening the Orthodox tent.

It would be like saying: “We agree to disagree on this one issue, but for the sake of a higher ideal, we have both compromised a little and will coexist under the same Orthodox tent.”

I have dear friends on both sides. When I see the deep attachment to Torah in both camps, it strikes me how much they’re really all on the same side.


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

Letters to the editor: Prager receives some criticism, readers criticize Journal characterizations


Health Equipment Option

Your recent article about Yad Sarah, an Israeli organization that provides services such as low-cost rentals of wheelchairs and other medical equipment, suggests that the United States could learn from this Israeli group (“Israel’s Yad Sarah Has Prescription for U.S. Health Care System,” March 10).

I think your readers would like to know that we have similar nonprofit organizations in Southern California. What American organizations seem to lack is publicity. 

For more than 90 years, the Convalescent Aid Society has served Pasadena and other cities in the San Gabriel Valley. There is no means test and no time limit on the free delivery, setup, loan and servicing of used medical equipment, including special beds, wheelchairs and canes.

In Los Angeles, we also have the Durable Medical Equipment Society, headquartered in, but not limited to, the San Fernando Valley.

Both groups are operated by volunteers, who maintain the equipment and staff the offices.

Both groups accept donations of re-usable medical supplies and give donors a note for a tax deduction. As American Jews age, I think we need to know of and donate to local charities that support our health care. They help us heal the world (tikkun olam)! 

Joel Peck, Culver City

Grammar Police to the Rescue

Beryl Arbit needs to vacate that glass house (Letters to the Editor, March 17). Whatever Nicholas Melvoin’s linguistic shortcomings, she should be declaring that hers will be one fewer, not one less, vote for him. 

Geoff Neigher, Los Angeles

Dennis Prager’s Logic Is Faulty

Dennis Prager is at it again (“There Is No Wave of Trump-Induced Crime in America,” March 10). He cherry-picks a few incidents of, what appear to be, Trump-induced hate crimes. Upon further investigation, these crimes were committed by people who dislike Trump. Prager, in order to fill the role of loyal lapdog for him, extrapolates these few incidents into a general conclusion that the left is committing these crimes to falsely accuse Trump’s election of unleashing a wave of hate crimes.

Clearly, there are those on the left who engage in such tactics. These people should be condemned. However, the right is equally guilty of engaging in such tactics. 

Bottom line, while the numbers are still being deciphered, anecdotally I would argue that there has been an increase in hate crimes because of Trump. I don’t recall the same number of such crimes when George W. Bush or Barack Obama were elected president.

Andrew C. Sigal, Valley Village

Columnists are supposed to be swizzle sticks, stirring the political waters and the sediment that lies below. The Jewish Journal has its share of such columnists, and they can be divided along the following continuum: Gina Nahai occupies the center, while to the left are Rob Eshman and Marty Kaplan, and to the right, David Suissa and Shmuel Rosner. The only outlier, the Pluto in a universe by himself, is Dennis Prager.

Prager is a one-themed writer, viewing the left as the scourge and plague that separates and decimates humankind from its senses, and if not eliminated, from its very existence.

Those of us who embrace a progressive stance will fight, in both print and in the street, for the 4,000-year-old Jewish mission of truth, justice, morality and community that Dennis and his acolytes seem so intent on distorting (and in many ways destroying) for their own self-aggrandizing ends.

Marc Rogers, North Hollywood

Don’t Misrepresent Orthodox Judaism

Given that all halachic authorities agree that Open Orthodoxy is not an expression of Orthodox Judaism, please defer from slurring Modern Orthodoxy by accusing it of harboring Uri L’Tzedek and its ilk (“Orthodox Rabbis Urge ‘Spiritual Resistance’ Against Trump Policies,” March 10). They are members of a different branch of Judaism.

S.Z. Newman, Los Angeles

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea. Photo courtesy of bnaidavid.com

Women leaders respond to prohibitive Orthodox ruling


Modern Orthodox community leaders who favor women serving as clergy say they intend to continue advocating for them despite a ruling by the Orthodox Union (OU) last week that bars member synagogues from hiring women.

“My response is to continue teaching Torah and inspire others to connect to our mitzvot, to each other, and to HaShem,” said Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea, the first woman to serve as an Orthodox clergy member in Los Angeles.

Her view was echoed by Rabba Sara Hurwitz, co-founder and dean of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox Jewish clergy, including Thomas-Newborn.

Hurwitz said in a phone interview, “We remain resolute to continue to train and ordain and place our women in synagogues, college campuses and organizations, and we also know that there is a communal need for the voice, the unique voice that women bring to communities, and we think that the communities will be better off with male and female leadership.”

While Yeshivat Maharat is not governed by OU policy, B’nai David-Judea is, and its decision to ignore the ruling could have implications for its future relationship with the OU, a New York-based umbrella organization for Orthodox life with approximately 400-member synagogues as well as programs related to kosher food, youth and college campus life.

“BDJ has a longstanding positive relationship with the OU, and we hope to continue to in the future,” Thomas-Newborn said.

B’nai David-Judea is the only Los Angeles Orthodox synagogue with a female clergy member and one of only four in the United States.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), which advocates for an expanded female leadership role in Orthodox life, denounced the OU ruling, saying, “We are confused as to why this is being raised now after women have been serving as halakhic spiritual leaders in OU synagogues for well over a decade.”

JOFA Executive Director Sharon Weiss-Greenberg said female clergy members can often serve in ways in which their male counterparts might be less effective, such as counseling women on issues pertaining to sexuality.

“There are various topics where women would rather speak to women, especially given the gender dynamics in the Orthodox community,” she said. “Certainly I would say it’s true when it comes to laws about sex and … family purity.”

She said she also found it troubling that none of the seven members of the OU panel that decided  against female clergy were women. Nor, she added, were women even consulted. “That speaks to the problem,” she said.

The OU’s self-described mission is “to engage, strengthen and lead the Orthodox Jewish community, and inspire the greater Jewish community.”

According to its 17-page ruling on female clergy, “Legal sources, historical precedent and the halakhic ethos” informed the panel’s decision, which echoes a 2015 statement by the Rabbinical Council of America, an association of Orthodox rabbis.

“We feel that the absence of institutionalized women’s rabbinic leadership has been both deliberate and meaningful, and should continue to be preserved,” it said. “This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis — even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title.”

Thomas-Newborn’s responsibilities at B’nai David-Judea include delivering sermons, providing pastoral care and officiating lifecycle events. She is excluded from being counted toward a minyan, leading services and reading from the Torah before the congregation.

She said she has received widespread support from her community, following the OU’s decision “from BDJ and beyond, including from other Orthodox individuals in L.A. as well as from those of other denominations.”

She addressed the ban briefly at the beginning of her most recent Shabbat sermon, while the synagogue’s head rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who has also denounced the OU ruling, was in Israel on a study trip. (In an opinion piece published on page 12, he called her sermon “an act of sacred civil disobedience.”)

“Over the past Shabbat, I expressed my gratitude to our community, and then taught on the Parsha, which is my duty and great joy,” Thomas-Newborn said.

Women have served as rabbis in the Reform movement since the 1970s and in the Conservative movement since the mid-1980s. While Orthodox Judaism has traditionally resisted naming women to clergy positions, an activist strain of Orthodox Judaism, known as Open Orthodoxy, has attempted to transform attitudes toward female leadership within the movement.

The OU ruling says women play an important role in Jewish life. It describes ways women who are interested in leadership positions can be involved, whether it is serving as a scholar-in-residence, working as an educator or being a synagogue staff member. Furthermore, it encourages women to educate themselves — to learn halachah — and use that knowledge of Jewish law to serve in leadership positions in their respective synagogue communities.

“The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence,” the ruling says.

A synagogue faces two requirements in becoming eligible for OU membership: the synagogue must use an Orthodox siddur, and the synagogue must have in its worship space a mechitzah, a divider between male and female worshipers. Therefore, to issue statements regarding the hiring of clergy at synagogues is “not what the OU is really here for,” Weiss-Greenberg said.

Some critics of the ruling and accompanying statement have said it undermines the autonomy of individual synagogues. OU Executive Vice President Allen Fagin, however, disputes that.

“It’s important to stress the determination of the OU’s board was to adopt those responses [the OU ruling] as a statement of OU policy. We weren’t there to define for any particular synagogue how it was required to behave — that’s a determination the synagogues and their lay leadership need to make,” Fagin said in a phone interview. “What we were defining is OU policy.” 

Modern Orthodox Jewish life blossoms in Berlin


A few years ago, Yael Merlini wasn’t sure she and her family could stay in Germany. Her children, ages 7, 11 and 15, were the only Jews in their school in Giessen, a town near Frankfurt. The Jewish population numbered fewer than 400, mostly elderly Russian Jews. She also experienced anti-Semitism in the form of social slights from colleagues she described as “liberal” Germans.

“Our first thought was to go to Israel,” the Italian-born Merlini said in an interview in Hebrew over the phone in Berlin, where she and her family settled a few weeks ago. “But in Israel, with our professions, it’s very hard.” Her German-born husband is an academic; originally from Florence, she’s a teacher. Both had lived in Israel for 10 years, where they met, and together converted to Judaism.

I first met Merlini, visibly Orthodox with her tichl (religious headscarf), at the Orthodox Shabbat minyan held in the historic Rykestrasse Synagogue in the upwardly mobile neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, in former East Berlin. Having survived Kristallnacht, the synagogue today serves as the campus for the Lauder Beth-Zion Elementary School, while its ornate main sanctuary offers a more Reform Shabbat service, equipped with a microphone.

At the morning kiddush, as children played and congregants vied for the meat cholent, Merlini effused how members of Kehillat Adass Jisroel (KAJ) community cooked kosher meals for them upon their arrival, helped them find an apartment and came to their rescue when their car broke down. KAJ was officially incorporated in 2013, named for the Orthodox community that once thrived in Berlin. Today’s KAJ has 75 member families.

Fifteen years ago, Orthodox Jewry in Berlin consisted of only a handful of families, situated mostly in west Berlin. At that time, philanthropist and cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder recruited American-born Rabbi Joshua Spinner, today the executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, to revive Jewish life in Germany.

 Orthodox Jewry in Berlin, seen here at a wedding, consisted of only a handful of families 15 years ago. Today it is experiencing a renaissance.

“The first thing we did was open a yeshiva, which was very important because it all starts with learning — learning and personal growth,” Spinner said during an interview at a cafe near the Brunnenstrasse shul. Inside the synagogue’s main hall, tiles in the ceiling are still visible from its days as Synagogue Beth Zion serving Mitte’s Orthodox community. During Soviet rule, the building served as headquarters of an East German cosmetics factory, an auspicious sign. Today, the expanded, multilevel complex houses KAJ’s administrative offices, the Lauder Nitzan Kindergarten, the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, and a slew of Jewish outreach organizations, most of which have been enabled by the Lauder Foundation.

For the foundation, rebuilding German Jewish life was not an act of defiance against Nazi Germany or an act of nostalgia for the illustrious Jewish community that once was. “It’s entirely idealistic, and the ideal is that every Jew, wherever they live, should have the possibility of living as a Torah Jew if they so choose. Period,” Spinner said. “Whatever is necessary to make that happen should be done. No Jews in Germany, I could leave tomorrow.”

The impetus for the Lauder initiative was Germany’s decision to welcome Soviet Jewry after the fall of the Iron Curtain, part of its attempt to repopulate the country with members of the faith it had decimated. Today, the official government count includes more than 100,000 Russian Jews, only a fraction of whom are actively affiliated in Jewish, let alone Orthodox, communal life.

KAJ grew along with Spinner’s own family. Spinner’s first daughter with his Swiss-born wife, Joelle (whose brother and extended family live in Los Angeles), was the first in the family to attend the Lauder preschool, which opened with 11 children but now boasts 95 and a waiting list.

During the interview, Spinner took off his hat, which concealed his black velvet kippah. The longstanding community advisory has been not wearing kippahs in public, but in cosmopolitan Mitte, he said he felt at ease. KAJ would rather not risk verbal or physical attacks in other neighborhoods, such as Wedding, a few blocks down, a stronghold of Turkish immigrants where some member families live because its housing is more affordable. Spinner has accepted this European mode of caution, since living Torah-observance is much more important to the community than parading it.

“This is part of the Torah-value orientation,” he said. “For us, halachah governs what’s important. So I won’t go bareheaded on the street, because it’s unhalachic to do so.”

Doron Rubin, one of the community’s founders, similarly took off his beret at Café Einstein, near the tourist-heavy Brandenburg Gate. He said some considered loosening the advisory until last year’s major influx of Muslim asylum seekers prompted a “wait and see” approach. German politicians, he said, expressed surprise at the vulnerability Jews feel in displaying their Jewishness publicly, an unfortunate damper amid the community’s progress. 

“If you’re thinking strategically into the future, then obviously it’s a problem,” he said, adding that Germany is among the safer countries for Jews in Europe.

Rubin fits another target demographic of KAJ. He was born in Germany to an Israeli and German-Jewish mother; trips to Israel led him toward Jewish observance. When he and his wife returned to Berlin in 2011, he realized he must take active part in building the community he sought.

At the cafe, Rubin was joined by Anna Segal, a Jewish educator and political assistant for the community, sporting a dirty-blond sheitel (wig) not recognizable as such to the average German. Segal is a community success story, having moved with her family at age 12 from St. Petersburg, Russia, to a small German town. Educated toward observance through Lauder programs, she eventually settled with her husband in Leipzig, where fulfilling Jewish community life eluded her. They moved to Berlin two years ago.

Grateful for the opportunities her adopted country and KAJ have given her, Segal believes the community serves as an important educational tool.

“I’m interested in showing German society that there is Jewish life, and not just Jewish history in Germany,” she said. “There is a fascination with dead Jews in Germany.” 

Having lost family to the Holocaust, Rubin sees the revival of KAJ as a historical correction, but life in Berlin is not driven or constantly escorted by the memory of German atrocities. As families prepare for a bar or bar mitzvah celebration, or for a Shabbos kallah or aufruf, or, these days, Rosh Hashanah meals, their pressing concern is for the present and future generations.

“We are a pretty young community and we’re the third generation, and our children are the fourth generation, so while it’s a very important part of our community and ourselves and history, I think most of us are focused on the fourth generation and making them live here in the positive, Jewish way,” Rubin said. “That’s the best way of dealing with the Holocaust.”

Orthodox life in Berlin is not without challenges. No strictly kosher restaurants exist near the communal institutions, and the lack of an eruv (a makeshift city enclosure that works around the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat) means women must generally stay home with children on Shabbat. In contrast to cities such as Los Angeles or New York, Spinner calls Berlin Orthodox life “mesiras nefesh” — sacrifice.

“We do it because it really matters,” he said.

Workshop aims to change Orthodox LGBTQ conversation


If you type “Orthodox Judaism” into the Google search engine, the first suggestion that comes up is “Orthodox Judaism food” (nothing like Mom’s matzo ball soup!), the second is “Orthodox Judaism rules” (we certainly have a lot of them) and the third is “Orthodox Judaism homosexuality.”

What is the place within the Orthodox community for people who identify as LGBTQ? If Google doesn’t clarify the issue, Jewish law, or halachah, provides more questions than answers, as well. The topic was uncomfortably brushed aside by rabbinic authorities until the gay rights movement gained traction across the United States. Now, the Modern Orthodox community is beginning to openly discuss how to reckon with its LGBTQ members. Indeed, Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, in an op-ed on his school’s student news website, called the issue “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.” 

In Los Angeles, following last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Eshel, a national support and advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ Jews that offers programming in Los Angeles, convened a group of Orthodox community members in the Pico-Robertson living room of Harry and Dorit Nelson to address the changing landscape, and an official LGBTQ Allies steering committee emerged from a subsequent meeting. The committee then teamed up with JQ International, a non-denominational, West Hollywood-based organization, to organize an Allies workshop event that took place on Sept. 18 at the law offices of Nelson Hardiman.

Some 45 people participated in the program, including mental health professionals, Jewish educators and members from multiple Los Angeles congregations, as well as Rabbi Steven Greenberg, a co-director of Eshel and the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. Steering committee member Julie Gruenbaum Fax (a former staff writer for the Journal) said she was pleased but not surprised by the turnout. 

“What was so clear to me from putting this event together is that people are thinking about this,” she said. “We tapped into something that already existed.” 

Even as LGBTQ rights have expanded within the secular community, the Orthodox community has relied on biblical and rabbinic ordinances that appeared to leave little room for interpretation within the framework of traditional halachah. As a result, many Orthodox LGBTQ Jews have felt there is no place for them within their communities.

For Fax, this was a major motivating factor for getting involved. “It hurts me that the community that I love, the Orthodox community, would be causing such despair,” she said.

At the workshop, Greenberg painted the broad strokes of the halachich issues plaguing Modern Orthodox poschim (legal scholars), then shifted the conversation in another direction.

“OK, that’s the halachah,” he acknowledged, recounting a conversation with a fellow rabbi. “But have you heard the stories?”

Greenberg offered his own story about coming out publicly in 1999 after struggling with his conflicting identities for 15 years. Other personal stories cropped up over the course of the workshop. One man told of his sister coming out to their parents an hour before Shabbat, and how their Charedi brother refused to accept her until his own son came out many years later. Joseph Harounian, a gay Persian Jew from West Hollywood, said how difficult it was for him to come out to his community 17 years ago and spoke of his hopes that his visibility will make it easier for the youth of today.

Micha Thau, an out senior at Shalhevet and an intern at Eshel, said he hopes more LGBTQ Orthodox people will begin to open up about their experiences. “Everyone has a different story,” he said. “My story is different than everyone else’s, and everyone has their own points of tension. My story doesn’t connect to everybody, but someone else’s story may.”

After Greenberg’s presentation, the group divided up to role-play three potentially difficult scenarios: engaging rabbis and other community leaders over coffee, talking with kids during a car ride home from school and navigating a dinner conversation that turns homophobic. The goal was to learn to assert oneself as an ally, to open lines of communication and promote a culture that is welcoming to LGBTQ congregants. 

In addition to promoting personal stories, the steering committee also emphasized the importance of initiating change at the grass-roots level as a means of spurring rabbinic authorities into action. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea recently hosted a panel at the synagogue titled “Coming Out and Opening Up,” but his work in this area has been at the forefront among Orthodox religious leaders.

“We all know that a grass-roots, lay-led movement is much more effective than waiting for the rabbis to change their perspective,” said Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, a Conservative rabbi and JQ International’s helpline director. “And I say this as a rabbi,” she said, smiling.

Eshel founder and co-director Miryam Kabakov singled out parents of LGBTQ youth as “catalysts for change.” While alienated kids coming out often seek out more accepting communities, their parents often will want to remain in their own communities, and this can stimulate change from within.

“The kids go away and don’t come back, and the parents are deeply disturbed by that,” Kabakov explained. “So they’re the ones who are pushing the rabbis.”

According to Kabakov, seeds have already been planted for future action. Eshel, which is in the midst of a multi-year cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Commmunity Foundation, Los Angeles, has held one-on-one meetings with many Orthodox rabbis around the Los Angeles community and led training sessions with educators at Shalhevet, a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school, and Pressman Academy, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth-grade day school that employs several Orthodox teachers. Also, a committee was recently formed to organize social gatherings for LGBTQ members in the Pico-Robertson area. 

For resources online, go to eshelonline.org or jqinternational.org.

The rabbi and the yogi


My husband, Jeremy, and I first met Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in Pershing Square in 2010, when we were just dating. Two years later, when we talked about getting married, I decided to convert to Judaism. Jeremy was born Jewish and I was eager to join the tribe. So, I looked up Rabbi Moshe (the only rabbi I had ever met at the time). I was prepared for a very traditional experience — like Charlotte from “Sex in the City” — with the three refusals and all. But that’s not what I got. 

The rabbi and I met, and he heard me out, and then he suggested I set aside the idea of conversion for the moment and start by learning as much as I could about Judaism. 

But then I mentioned I was a yoga teacher. He said he was trying yoga for the first time in hopes of getting in shape. He’d chosen Bikram yoga — a practice completely void of any religious teachings with an emphasis on physical stamina. For those who aren’t familiar, Bikram yoga is intense. And he was struggling with it.

He proposed a trade. He would make himself available to answer all of my many, many questions if, in return, I would act as a kind of yoga consultant, offering him explanations, tips and context to help make the practice more accessible. This sounded like a really good deal to me. He would offer me guidance in whatever I wanted to learn — prayers, Hebrew, Jewish culture, whatever. And I would help him deepen his yoga practice.

But here’s the thing: I’m me. And he is an Orthodox Chabad rabbi. 

So there would be rules. I would just have to figure out what they were. 

I had no way of knowing this agreement would evolve into a limitless exchange of emails, texts and sidebar conversations during Shabbat dinners. And in those exchanges a friendship was born. We shared experiences as a way of cracking open the wisdom and traditions in which we were each versed. 

He taught me about the importance of drawing spirituality into the physical world.

And I taught him to be patient and compassionate with himself. 

This wasn’t like any friendship I had ever known. Usually, when you become friends with someone, you are drawn together by a common experience — like school or work. We seemed to come from two polar-opposite worlds. And yet, when we shared yoga and Judaism, our very different worlds didn’t highlight the ways in which we were different. They did the opposite — they showed us how much we were alike. I was a daydreaming, soon-to-be-engaged, L.A. yogi. He was family man leading a congregation in one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. 

But, at the end of the day, we were just two people trying to figure out life in the best way we knew how — two people trying to balance obligations and forgive ourselves for being imperfect. 

Despite connecting on a very human level, there were these rules that seemed to draw boundaries around our relationship. Like, touch. In case you aren’t familiar with the rules of Orthodox Judaism, an Orthodox man will not touch a woman unless he’s married to her. To Rabbi Moshe, touch was reserved for his wife only. 

But I’m a really affectionate person. I hug my friends. A lot. Shoot, I’ll hug a complete stranger. In the time we spent together, I felt the impulse to hug him as I would any of my friends, male or female. Because touch wasn’t allowed, and my primary concern was always acting out of respect, I became clumsy and stupid around him, literally leaping out of the way when he passed by, or dropping books because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my fingers when handing one to him. Over time, I was able to relax because I realized it wasn’t all that hard to live within this boundary. 

There’s this other rule. As an Orthodox Jew, not only was Rabbi Moshe prohibited from officiating at my wedding, he couldn’t even attend the ceremony because I ended up converting to Judaism under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, not an Orthodox rabbi. I learned this long before my husband and I were engaged, so I never even asked. Though when we finally announced our engagement, he called to congratulate us and wish us a lifetime of blessings. He expressed a desire to be there. But he couldn’t be. 

Though I wasn’t surprised at all by this, I was disappointed. People asked if I was offended. I wasn’t. 

I don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew to relate to one. I don’t need to live in that world or follow those rules. 

To take this one step further — I don’t need to be gay, or Asian American, or transgender, or living below the poverty level to connect to those experiences. I only need to be human. 

I may not agree with all the rules of Orthodox Judaism. But I can respect them. And that’s enough.

The truth is, we all have rules we live by. We may not be wearing outward signs of them everywhere we go, but they’re there. And sometimes we hate the rules. Ask any teenager, and she’ll tell you rules suck. But without them, we wouldn’t know what’s important, what’s sacred, what’s worth drawing a boundary around. Whether we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or speeding down a highway or exploring a relationship, without rules, we might not know when we’ve gone too far until it’s too late.

This year, on the first night of Passover, my family gathered in the ballroom of the Alexandria hotel to celebrate with the entire downtown Jewish community, with Rabbi Moshe at the helm. I witnessed one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen — Rabbi Moshe swooped up my toddler son in his arms and began to sing “Oseh Shalom.” My husband joined, and very soon a small group of men were circling in the center of the room. 

But then a young woman approached the circle of men to join in. So, right — women cannot dance with Orthodox men. Without missing a beat in the song, my rabbi kindly told her the circle was only for men. It was an easy mistake to make. She was moved by the spirit of the moment and wanted to join. Her only mistake was in not knowing the rules. 

An embarrassing moment for sure, but a human one. Looking back, I wish I had jumped up to dance with her. Women can start their own circles and dance separately.

But it was OK. She’s learning the rules. We’re all learning the rules. And in doing so, we often come right up against the edge of our comfort zones. Sometimes we even step out of them. 

Shoot, I practically live in that space, teetering on the edge of my comfort zone. And I’m happy for it. Because as a result, I have a lifelong friendship with, yes, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi that both thrives within the boundaries and transcends them. 

Jazmine Aluma is a Los Angeles-based writer, yogi and mother. Her blog, WritingInBold.com, is where she explores and shares all the ways in which she gets life wrong and the truths she discovers along the way. Her work has been seen in The Huffington Post, Bust.com, LA Weekly and LA Yoga magazine, among others.

Why I take personally chief rabbi’s criticism of non-Orthodox school visit


At the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly this year, it was made clear that a healthy Jewish community does not have to have unanimity on all issues, but we do need to be unified and, above all else, have civility in our discourse.

It was obvious this week that Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, missed the message.

It wasn’t that long ago that Rav Lau met with federation leaders and rabbinic leadership from across the denominations in JFNA’s New York offices. Calling himself “your brother in Israel,” the rabbi was extremely warm and welcoming. Given the frustration and anger that many non-Orthodox Jews feel when it comes to the myriad ways Israel’s religious establishment treats them as second-class Jews, we took his visit as a positive step forward.

That’s why it was so stunning and frustrating week to see Rav Lau publicly criticize Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a New York City day school affiliated with the Conservative movement.

“You cannot go to a place where the education distances Jews not only from the tradition, but also from the past, and therefore from the future of the Jewish people,” Rav Lau said, terming the visit “unacceptable.”

What makes those remarks all the more dismaying and perplexing is the double standard. He also recently visited a non-Orthodox school, one that originally held classes in a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. During his October visit to the pluralist Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Rav Lau reportedly spoke of the “connectedness of all Jewish people” and told the children: “You are Jewish life in this city.”

It’s difficult to understand how Bennett’s visit to Schechter is any different.

Instead of criticizing Bennett, who also serves as Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Rav Lau should be praising him for reaching out to the non-Orthodox Jewish community, for recognizing that there is more than one way to be Jewish, for understanding that we are all part of the community of Israel. Isolating and denying recognition to non-Orthodox Jews will not inspire people to move toward the tradition, as Rav Lau would like.

Israel’s core mission is to welcome and embrace all Jews, and we should be proud that a leader of the Jewish state is engaging Jewish students fortunate enough to attend any type of religious school. I encourage Rav Lau to listen to the speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave last month at our General Assembly, when he said that he was committed to ensuring that all Jews — regardless of denomination — feel at home in Israel.

Just as all Jews should feel at home in Israel, so should all Israeli leaders feel comfortable getting to know Diaspora Jewry at any institution without fear of reprimand.

It is difficult for me to reconcile Rav Lau’s disparaging comments about Bennett’s visit with the rabbi I met a year ago, who talked about reaching and connecting with the Jewish community. And I take such disparagement personally.

While my wife and I belong to and attend an Orthodox synagogue, we sent our five children to the Solomon Schechter school in Boston. We found our children’s education to be Jewishly inspiring and enriching, and it helped them build a strong foundation for their ongoing Jewish identity and love for Israel.

As an observant Jew myself, I take no issue with Rav Lau encouraging Jews to become more observant and follow Jewish law more closely. I do take issue with his saying that anyone on a different path is “on the wrong path.” Such comments are alienating and serve only to exacerbate tensions between non-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and the Israeli religious establishment.

Bennett’s interest in learning about Jewish education modalities was absolutely appropriate, and visiting a school that promotes Jewish education, Jewish learning and Jewish living is in line with his ministerial responsibilities. We hope all Israeli leaders follow his example of reaching out to all Jews wherever they are — including at religious schools, day schools and camps affiliated with all Jewish streams.

Rav Lau should follow suit. He would see, as Bennett tweeted after his visit to the school, “so much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.”

We are hopeful that these comments criticizing leaders who believe in Am Echad, One People, will end, and we will move toward unity with civility.

Jerry Silverman is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Jennifer Lawrence’s image erased from ‘Hunger Games’ posters in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak


Posters promoting the final “Hunger Games” movie in Jerusalem and the coastal Israeli city of Bnei Brak have scrubbed star Jennifer Lawrence from the main image.

The posters for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2” in these cities contain only the fiery crow from the original advertisement and exclude the foreground image of Lawrence posing as protagonist Katniss Everdeen with a bow and arrow.

“We discovered that public posters with the image of a female are often torn down in Jerusalem, while Bnei Brak does not allow posters with female images,” a representative of the film’s Israeli PR firm told Ynet.

Bnei Brak, a densely populated city with a high haredi Orthodox population, has a municipal regulation that prevents the hanging of posters of women that “might incite the feelings of the city’s residents,” according to Haaretz.

The issue is hotly contested in Jerusalem, which does not have any municipal rules against posters of women.

Liron Suissa, a marketing executive for the company hanging the film’s posters in Israel, said it was far from the first time his firm has felt this “unofficial coercion” from the haredi community.

“We have had endless vandalization, and clients prefer not to take the chance,” Suissa said.

The three previous “Hunger Games” films, which all star Lawrence, have grossed over $2 billion.

Feminism isn’t kosher


Fierce debates this month over women clergy represent the most fractious internecine conflict in the Orthodox Jewish community in a generation. After the progressive movement known as Open Orthodoxy ordained its first women, denunciations by centrist and right-of-center Orthodox rabbis alike were inevitable.

Written and verbal critiques of the ordination of women have largely focused on its propriety in the halachic (Jewish legal) system. But the halachic arguments miss the most important reason advocacy of women’s ordination smells treyf (not kosher): Open Orthodoxy seems largely motivated by the ideology of a certain f-word.

And feminism is not Jewish. 

Feminism has a well-developed set of beliefs, the most important of which run counter to our tradition. It’s not sufficient to bandy about platitudes like “feminism simply means women are fully human” or “anyone who thinks women are equal is a feminist.” Doing so grossly oversimplifies a sophisticated Weltanschauung by defining it as something with which nearly everyone – including Crown Heights Hasidim – would agree. If everyone is a feminist, then feminism is meaningless.

Here, I will not address specific practices and ideas by Orthodox Jews who identify as feminists, like prayers purged of supposedly sexist language and the mantra “if there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Writers before me have demonstrated well why those are bogus. Instead, I will show how three core feminist beliefs are incompatible with the Torah’s worldview: 

• Gender is a construct. Feminists have long embraced Simone de Beauvoir’s radical idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Women and men, they believe, are socialized from infancy into preconceived, arbitrary, hierarchical, pernicious roles. Gender differences don’t exist; they are learned. With enough educational, social, and political effort, our sexist society can let go of its gendered baggage. 

Yet in Judaism maleness and femaleness are real, and men and women are not interchangeable. The rights, responsibilities, expectations, and roles assigned to each are different, though the sexes are equally valuable. Contemporary Jews who complain of “unfair” Jewish laws (broadly speaking, only men can be witnesses and only men can initiate a divorce) must understand that such halachic differences are hardwired into the system, and cannot be overcome by declaring that gender is only in our heads.

• Women control their own bodies. “Reproductive rights” dominate today’s feminist agenda. Women supposedly must be the sole decision-makers regarding contraception and abortion because they are the ones who undergo the ordeal of pregnancy. No man – and certainly no law – may overrule a woman who feels contraception or abortion is best for her.

Nobody has reproductive rights in Judaism, though. To delay or cease procreation, a couple must ask a rabbi for permission. He considers the circumstances of both the wife and the husband and consults the sometimes-complicated Jewish laws on the subject. If he determines that halacha forbids contraception in their individual case, the woman cannot veto her rabbi’s ruling. Similarly, Jewish law is not “pro-choice.” There are times when abortion is prohibited (a pregnancy whose existence threatens no one) and times when it is required (to protect the life of the mother). Here again, couples approach rabbis. The woman may not simply choose to terminate a pregnancy.

• Heterosexuality and homosexuality are equivalent. As early as 1971, the National Organization for Women declared “a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle.” Since then, the feminist embrace of LGBT rights has only accelerated, with special emphasis on “marriage equality.” 

But Judaism’s prescription for opposite-sex bedroom and family life is consistent, running from the second chapter of the Torah (“A man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”) through Leviticus, the Talmud, the rishonim (earlier halachists), and the acharonim (later halachists). Our faith tradition cannot abide any change to the Torah’s demand for heterosexual behavior.

If you doubt that those three beliefs are central to feminism, ask any feminist outside of the Orthodox world whether a movement rejecting even one of them, much less all of them, could legitimately be called feminist. Or try asking a ”Jewish Orthodox Feminist” to denounce all three. Good luck.

Nobody should be blamed for trying to harmonize powerful ideologies which speak to them. For those who grew up in or chose traditional Judaism, the beauty and power of that lifestyle is difficult to drop. And for citizens of the modern West, no good person could dispute women’s basic equality and reproductive and sexual autonomy. But given the vital feminist planks listed above, anyone who insists they can articulate a formula that makes Judaism feminist – and feminism Jewish – doesn’t really understand either.

None of this means women’s roles in Judaism cannot expand. Perhaps the greatest Jewish innovator of the early 20th century was Sara Schenirer (), who founded the Bais Yaakov network of schools educating Jewish girls in Tanach (Hebrew Bible), halacha, Jewish history, and Hebrew, and well as secular subjects. Though pioneered by Schenirer’s insight, dedication, and perseverance, the change operated with the blessing of the greatest rabbis of her day. Feminism had nothing to do with it.

Some Open Orthodox Jews have argued, implausibly, that their ordination of women isn’t actually about feminist ideology. But feminism has been the engine driving their movement’s approach to women’s issues. Most of the women clergy associated with the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat seminary explicitly identify as feminists. Its dean, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, told Buzzfeed last year she “embraces” the term. Others, like Maharat Rori Picker Neiss list “Orthodox feminist” on their Twitter profiles. The seminary’s scholar in residence, Rabba Anat Sharbat, says the school’s leadership program is “halachic but also social and emotional and feminist.” 

I don’t know if Orthodoxy will ever ordain women rabbis. But if it does, the change will to develop organically – explored and embraced by the generation’s leading rabbinic authorities as an expression of precepts ensconced in the Torah all along. If Judaism wishes to continue providing authentic responses to the needs of today’s women, it needs feminism like a fish needs a bicycle.

The essential lesson of Chanukah is to shield Judaism from foreign contamination. Change within Orthodoxy regarding women’s learning and leadership must come from within, based on values and texts and ideas with ancient pedigrees. We needn’t rush to accommodate a value system that’s only a few decades old in which the dirtiest word is literally “patriarchy.” 

Abraham was a patriarch. So were Isaac and Jacob.

I’m sticking with them, thank you very much.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter or E-mail him at DavidBnekof@gmail.com.

Avi Weiss on living the ‘dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open’


Rabbi Avi Weiss, the man who coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” — referring to a more inclusive and liberal version of Orthodox Judaism — is no stranger to controversy. 

He left his post at Yeshiva University in 1999 and founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox yeshiva in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, N.Y. And when the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the country, didn’t budge from its refusal to accept rabbis ordained solely by his school, Weiss allowed his membership to lapse. 

Ten years after opening Chovevei, Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a female Orthodox seminary that trains women as Jewish spiritual leaders. When he gave Sara Hurwitz the title “rabba” in 2010, the right wing of the Orthodox world sharply criticized Weiss. He has since stopped using the title, but the school’s graduates continue to take up clergy positions at Orthodox synagogues across the country. In May, B’nai David-Judea Congregation announced the appointment of Morateinu (“our teacher”) Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a Maharat graduate, to the synagogue’s clergy. 

Weiss, 71, also has been an outspoken pro-Israel activist, even getting arrested in 2011 when he protested a Palestinian statehood bid outside the United Nations building. Like many Jews of his generation, his activism began with the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s; Weiss recently published a memoir of his work during that era, “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.”

Although he no longer runs either Chovevei or the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the synagogue he led from 1973 until this past July, don’t ask Weiss if he’s in retirement. “I don’t think of myself as retired,” he said. “I’d like to retire the word ‘retire.’ ” 

Weiss, who lives in New York, met with the Journal during a recent visit to Los Angeles and spoke about the evolution of Orthodox Judaism as well as where he thinks things are headed. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Jewish Journal: You said you’re living a dream come true. What is it?

Rabbi Avi Weiss: The dream of seeing an Orthodoxy that’s open, that’s inclusive, that on the one hand is Orthodox, but [also] open and nonjudgmental and pluralistic. In 1990, if somebody asked me what would the scene look like 25 years later, I couldn’t have imagined the growth that we’ve had.

JJ: What does “open” mean as it pertains to Orthodox Judaism? Yeshiva University (Y.U.) is Modern Orthodox — isn’t it pretty open?

AW: The term “Modern Orthodox” has not been used by Y.U. for a long time. Y.U., since 1978, has been using the term “Centrist Orthodox.” … Modern Orthodoxy was created in the ’50s and the ’60s to make a statement that you could be Orthodox and yet modern — you could embrace secular studies. … I think there are different strains within Orthodoxy. There’s Chasidic Orthodoxy, there’s Agudah Orthodoxy, there’s this and that Orthodoxy, and I think, for me, what an Orthodoxy that’s open is about now, the primary issue is inclusiveness. That’s what it’s about — who is in and who is not in. 

And for me, Open Orthodoxy … is Orthodoxy [that] is uncompromising in its Orthodox commitment. I believe in what’s called Torah min hashamayim. I believe the Torah was written by God. I believe in the process of development of the way halachah evolves based on prior binding law and how change comes about. When we gave the Torah to women to carry throughout the women’s section, I wrote … a very carefully thought-through halachic piece on the right of women to carry the Torah, to read the megillah, to engage in prayer services. 

So I can’t talk about “open” without talking about doing it within the ambit of Orthodoxy. It’s often the case that when you say “Orthodox,” the last thing you think is “open,” and when you say “open,” the last thing you think about is “Orthodox.” Normally, Orthodoxy is associated with “closed.” To me, that’s the challenge. Can I be uncompromising in my halachic commitment and yet open and inclusive of women in spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding … what the Torah says about homosexuality — inclusive of the gay community, [too]. 

JJ: Some leaders in the right wing of the Orthodox movement would say that you’re deviating from tradition too much to be called Orthodox. What would you say to them?

AW: Look, the leadership within the RCA is made up of some of my dear friends. I was a member of the RCA, until recently, for 47 years. I can only tell you that the RCA never once visited Chovevei Torah, and it’s irresponsible on their part. They lose out. They’re losing out on some of the finest rabbis who are now serving in the Orthodox Jewish community in America. … It’s more political than anything else. The RCA’s got a voice and I’m glad there are other voices, like the voice of the IRF [International Rabbinical Fellowship, co-founded by Weiss] and Chovevei Torah.

JJ: How do you respond to the argument that having women play a larger spiritual role in shul is a deviation from tradition and therefore not Orthodox?

AW: There are many women who are serving in spiritual leadership positions who have come out of Maharat, and the school is growing and there are more leaders who are going to come out. And it’s not just Yeshivat Maharat. … The truth of the matter is, in the RCA itself and in the Charedi world, there are many women … who serve as spiritual leaders and it’s a matter of, what do you call it? … There is no barrier that would prevent a woman from studying what a man studies for semichah [ordination], and unapologetically we grant semichah; we ordain women. What they’re called? That’s a matter that communities have to decide.

JJ: Could this be construed as watering down halachic standards?

AW: Quite the contrary. I think it’s sanctifying halachic standards. Halachah is not a noun; it’s a verb. Halachah comes from the word halach, which means it’s supposed to take us somewhere and it’s supposed to take us to living a life of kedushah [holiness], living a life of tzedakah and mishpat, righteousness and justice. … And without compromising halachah, I think one can and must live halachah within that larger context.

I think it’s going to be left up to historians to look back and see and decide what happened. … We’re right in the midst of something that’s evolving. Something is clearly happening. … When Rabbi Mark Dratch of the RCA appears at a memorial service held in memory of the young woman who was murdered at that gay pride parade [in Jerusalem], that’s an enormous step forward. It’s something the RCA never did. … There’s no doubt that we’re having [a] larger impact. …

The reason there’s such a pushback is because the ideas really resonate. … Around the country, I find that Jews are looking for a Judaism that’s anchored, that has tradition, that has history as long as it’s not frozen, as long as it’s not stagnant. And the flip side of that is people want something open, as long as it has parameters. They’re looking for that balance, and that, for me, is what we’re about.

JJ: What do you predict is the future of Orthodox Judaism and denominational Judaism in the United States?

AW: I think that Yeshiva University Orthodoxy — let me call it that for a moment — over the years has been moving precipitously to the right. … That’s why Chovevei was created. At the same time, I do think that the Conservative movement has moved left and I think Reform is moving right, certainly in the area of ritual. And I’m one of those who does believe that Conservative and Reform [are] coming closer and closer, and in the breach I think lies what I call “Open Orthodoxy.” 

It’s not easy to create a new rabbinic institution. It’s not easy to create a Chovevei, a Maharat — especially when one considers the politics of our community. And what we’ve done in 15 years, you could only have had the success that, thank God we have had, if the ideas resonate. It struck a chord.

In life-or-death legal dispute, modern medical ethics, Jewish law and civil law clash


***This story has been updated (Sept. 11, 12 p.m.)

As David Stern, a 61-year-old Orthodox Jew suffering from a rare neurodegenerative disease, lies conscious and hooked up to a respirator at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, the hospital and lawyers for two of Stern’s children are battling to determine whether the hospital should remove Stern from life support — as administrators say they are obligated to do — or perform a life-saving tracheostomy, as Stern’s family demands.

The dispute highlights a conflict at the intersection of modern medical ethics, Jewish medical ethics and civil law as it pertains to the validity of a living will and the extent to which “quality of life” measures should impact whether a life-saving procedure is appropriate.

In 2011, two years after he was diagnosed with cortical basal ganglionic degeneration (or CBGD, an incurable and ultimately fatal disease), Stern signed an advance medical directive. The directive names Shirit Gold, one of his two daughters, as his agent in medical emergencies where Stern is unable to make his own health decisions, such as this one. But it also stipulated that “life-sustaining procedures” that would only “artificially prolong” his life when he’s suffering from an “incurable and irreversible condition” should not be pursued.

Gold and her brother, Rayi Stern, argue that their father, who became Orthodox in 2003, never would have knowingly signed an end-of-life document that would violate Jewish law. The directive he signed allows for an autopsy, which is forbidden under Jewish law in most cases, and for organ donation, also forbidden in most cases (the directive did not account for the few instances in which an autopsy or organ donation would be permitted under Jewish law).

The family asserts he could not have understood the contents of what he was signing, and both Rayi Stern and Gold said their father was already two years into his neurodegenerative diagnosis, which has resulted in dementia and extreme loss of motor function, when he signed the directive. “I am 100 percent certain” he didn’t know, Rayi said. “He lived his life as a Jew. He wouldn’t want to end it in any other way.”

Stories of Jewish Conversion: Frank Siciliano


Hearing the name Frank Siciliano, you would probably not immediately think “Orthodox Jew.” But this Jew by Choice, who has lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past three years, is as passionate about his religion and his people as one can get. 

Siciliano, a 30-year-old insurance broker, is a born-and-bred Italian from New York. His family was Roman Catholic, and with that came trips to church every Sunday, and celebrating the religious aspects of the mainstream holidays. Christmas was about Jesus, as was Easter. There was “no real ‘pressure’ to keep the faith, as it is assumed you just will,” he said. “You went to church, [and] that was the end of it.”

However, Siciliano said, he never quite clicked with his inherited religion. “You don’t start your studies with the New Testament,” he said. “You start with Genesis, Exodus, etc. I couldn’t reconcile that if you started with all these books in the first half, why did God change His mind in the second half? If Christianity teaches that God is infallible, why would He have to adjust His rules in a whole new set of books?”

His lack of enthusiasm for Catholicism, and an ever-growing zeal for Judaism, emerged after college, when Siciliano began working at his uncle’s grocery store in the Five Towns of Long Island, where there is a strong presence of Orthodox Jewish life. “I learned that the delivery truck had to be loaded by 1 p.m. on Friday,” he said. “As my exposure to Judaism and frum communities grew more and more, I started to say to myself that this makes sense, and where I’m at does not. I wasn’t sure how to proceed with all of that, but I knew that was where I wanted to wind up.”

At the grocery store, Siciliano learned the rules of kashrut, which would help him later on. After he left the store and found a new employer, he met Kelila Green, a co-worker who lived nearly 3,000 miles away, in California. Green, as it turns out, was Jewish. He fell in love, packed his bags for the West Coast a year later, and moved to Wooster Street in West Los Angeles to be closer to his future wife. “I had been with a few girls, and they just weren’t right for me,” he said. “Kelila made sense. Judaism made sense. And, luckily I had a supportive enough community to make that happen.”

As Green and Siciliano’s relationship blossomed, the topic of conversion came up. “I wanted to make sure [Frank] was doing it for himself and not for me, so I didn’t really say much at the beginning,” Green, now a stay-at-home mom, said, adding that they “were planning on getting married whether he converted or not; we knew it would be difficult, but we also knew we were meant to be together. When I realized he was serious about converting, it was like a weight was lifted, and we both knew that a life together with kids was going to be much easier coming from the same beliefs.” 

While settling into his new neighborhood, attending his first Shabbat dinners and going through a full festival cycle, Siciliano decided to meet with Rav Yosef Kanefsky at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox shul, to discuss what he needed to do to convert. After a few meetings, Kanefsky became his sponsor and introduced him to Beit Din Los Angeles. The whole process was put into motion soon after he set foot on California soil, in March 2009, and by the end of the year he would be able to apply for conversion. “The L.A. beit din asked me how serious I was and why I was there,” he said. “They laid out a very detailed syllabus and told me what I needed to know. Conversion, I’ve learned, is not a finish line. It’s getting to the starting line.”

Daily exercises Siciliano was required to learn included saying the brachot (blessings), which Green taped to the walls; keeping kosher; and, of course, studying. He took private lessons and a course with Judaica teacher Adaire Klein. Early in the process, Siciliano and Green got into a car accident on Shabbat, which they interpreted as a sign to end their driving on the day of the rest. 

To this day, the act of wrapping tefillin still trips Siciliano up, he said, and Hebrew has been hard for him to grasp (along with any foreign language, for that matter, he said). Going from praying once a week for 45 minutes at church to praying every day was not easy to schedule at first, either. 

“Along the way, as anxious as I was to finish, and as important as I knew it was to take my time, the predominant feeling was, ‘This is right,’ ” he said. “Not once did I think I was headed in the wrong direction. I was determined to make this work. Every Shabbat, every yontif, every meeting with the rabbis was one step closer, and I’d take as many steps as was needed to get it right.”

During the conversion process, the rituals and practices became second nature, and Siciliano blended into the community. “You have to change a lot, and you want to get it changed in a relatively short amount of time,” he said. “I put the cart before the horse many a time. Patience was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. I wanted to get it all done quickly, and that’s just not smart.”

As Siciliano grew into his newfound lifestyle, Green, for her part, was coming back to Orthodox Judaism. As a child she had attended an Orthodox day school, though she was raised in a Conservative/Reform household. “I remember many times learning something in school and being confused as to why we didn’t do that at home,” she said. “The Modern Orthodox lifestyle and beliefs always made sense to me; I just needed a push in that direction.” During the process, the couple learned from each other. Green’s strength was Hebrew, and Sicilano’s kashrut. 

They scheduled their wedding for Aug. 29, 2010 — that was, if everything went according to plan. “The mikveh was set for Aug. 24,” Siciliano said. “A successful conversion would have resulted in a wedding, and a failed one would have resulted in a funeral. Our families would have killed me if they had to come out to a wedding that wasn’t happening.”

On Aug. 24, 2010, Siciliano sat before the L.A. beit din and was tested and asked to respond to their questions. They could see that he was committed. Afterward, he went into the mikveh and came out a Jew.

Transitioning from the life Siciliano used to know into one of an observant Jew did not come without its difficulties. “My family was, daresay, apathetic about the whole thing,” he said. “Obviously, they weren’t in a celebratory mood. They were relieved I was still in a God-fearing position, and my dad reassured me that ‘there wasn’t going to be any garment rending’ over my conversion.”

However, Siciliano said he always feels particularly welcome when he and his wife visit his uncle’s home. “When we are back on the East Coast, my father’s younger sister, the wife of my uncle who has the store, is so on top of Shabbat that by the time we get to their house, the food that she bought from the glatt kosher joint in Cedarhurst is there. Kelila knows where her candles go. My aunt has cleared out a space for our stuff. It borders on convenient.”

Green said her parents were happy either way, as long as their grandchildren were raised in a Jewish household. But when she told them that her partner was converting, “They were overjoyed, especially knowing how much easier it would be for everyone. When I told them he was converting through the Orthodox beit din, I think they were still thrilled, but there have been some challenges that we have all had to deal with — mainly stemming from a lack of knowledge or understanding of the halachah (Jewish laws).” 

Of course, throughout the process, Siciliano’s biggest cheerleader was, and still is, Green. Today, they have one child, Yoella, who is 15 months old. They continue to attend B’nai David-Judea, and Siciliano, who calls himself “the guy with the hat” at shul, is just as, if not more so, excited about Judaism as he was when he first dove into the conversion process. “When you love your job, you feel like you never work a day in your life,” he said. “It’s kind of like that.”

Helping mothers have it all


The much-discussed article in the July/August Atlantic magazine begins with a story that likely will be familiar to any working mother. The author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is at an evening work event talking to very important, very professional people, and all that’s really on her mind is the plight of her teenage son, who’s floundering at home without her. At the time, Slaughter was serving as a top official at the State Department, working under Hillary Clinton, who famously wrote “It Takes a Village,” but Slaughter’s greatest preoccupation in that moment was with mothering, and despite all her professional success, she was still wondering how to be a successful working woman.

Welcome to the club. Or, should I say, I’m with you, sister.

Slaughter’s article, aptly titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” addresses a certain sector of women — the well-educated, ambitious, talented and highly likely to advance type. The women who succeed, but nevertheless don’t reach the top of the work chain, largely because of excruciating choices that they find themselves compelled to make: Volunteering at their kids’ school versus traveling with the boss. Being there at 3 p.m. for pickup and soccer delivery versus writing an extra exposé. It’s not that men can’t face these dilemmas, too; it’s just a fact that most don’t feel they need to at the same level.

Slaughter, an academic specializing in foreign affairs, admits that her two-year term working in the 24-hour work cycle of
government was an eye opener; her life at Princeton, despite a full teaching load, administrative duties and prolific publishing, allowed her flextime that most jobs don’t.

I remember the day I came back to work as a newspaper editor after the brief weeks of leave I took when my husband and I adopted our infant daughter. A parade of women dropped by my office to congratulate, and console, me. Life had changed for the better — and the worse, they advised. Welcome to the world of eternal guilt, was the message: You will never again feel you’re completely giving your all to your work, nor will you, as long as you continue to work, ever feel completely sure you’ve done enough for your child.

There is no single answer to the work-life balance when it comes to children — I have found that it’s a day-by-day process of trying to avoid the tipping point. Each woman finds her own way.

Today, as our daughter is about to turn 17 and I see her slipping away toward adulthood, I still feel the pull. Now it’s not so much about being a necessary presence anymore — she can drive herself where she needs to go — but I still need to be a presence in her mind, so that she knows I can be there quickly when needed. That I am there for her. And that’s what still haunts me as I stay extra hours at the office.

Slaughter writes of the deference people in her office felt for an Orthodox Jewish man who made a point of leaving early on Fridays to observe Shabbat with his family. And, she noted, no such respect would likely be given to a mother who simply wanted to skip Saturday meetings to spend time with the kids.

The gift of Shabbat turns out, for me, to be the resounding message of Slaughter’s piece. Shabbat teaches us that, religiously observant or not, we ought to set aside some special time — time to interact, to find peace, perhaps even joy, in our lives — time that is not work time.

I often hear younger women today talking about “feminism” as if it’s a bad word. A big part of what many of my generation fought for over the past three decades was the ability to achieve what men have — executive offices, respect and equal pay. And feminism represented that movement, for us. Today’s young women want something more — to avoid the guilt of the balancing act, as well as, perhaps, the identification with a sisterhood. They imagine a working world defined by a kind of human-ism that is not gender-defined.

And they share this vision with many younger men who are, as well, more drawn to engage with their own children. Willing to change diapers, to get home in time for dinner and to find some flextime.

What we all need, Slaughter argues, is what flextime allows: valuing that other part of our lives. Shabbat’s regularity offers this to us, but we also must assume the mantle throughout our lives. To believe that a deep breath can benefit all parts of our lives, including our interaction with our children, our spouses and friends, and even our workplace.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes brilliantly about the science of the brain, explains in his new book, “Imagine,” how great creativity often occurs when the mind is at rest. Plowing through those extra work hours without a break is not always productive; in fact, it’s often over that glass of beer, or in the shower, that the light bulb turns on. Perhaps even at the moment of stopping to watch your child play.

Lehrer’s brain science offers the answer to what true work-life balance might look like. If we can close the door on the office and go home — without turning on the computer and checking our phones and e-mail obsessively — we might find clearer minds in the morning to get it all done. We also might appreciate our families and friends more.

But as working women, we can all begin, at least for now, by taking a lesson from Torah: by requiring Shabbat observance — secular or religious — for us all. So you’re not just thinking about where you wish you could be, but can actually be there — in the present.

Finding the sacred in the mundane


My grandparents were not big readers. Their English was slightly accented but fluent — they both left Poland in their early teens and came to America in the 1920s. But like many Orthodox Jews of their generation, when they had “leisure” time (although I’m not sure they knew the concept), it was spent reading Tehillim. They would sit at the table or on the bus or on the wooden bench outside their two-family brick house in Brooklyn chanting psalms from a weatherworn leather book.

Jewish presses hadn’t yet emerged as an industry, and the publishers at that time printed prayer books, Hebrew holy books and explications of the Hebrew holy books. Half a century later, the market was thriving for Jewish books in English: novels, kids’ books, poetry and non-fiction — clean and kosher enough for a religious, somewhat sheltered audience.

Now, following the latest publishing craze of themed Jewish anthologies comes “Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday” (Urim Publications, 2008), edited by Rivkah Slonim (with consulting editor Liz Rosenberg). The 400-page compilation features writings from 60 women on topics including modesty, faith, childbirth, prayer, family, community, feminism and, in one way or another, Orthodox Judaism.

“What can it mean to be a Jewish woman today? Does the Jewish tradition offer ways in which a contemporary woman can bring spirituality and meaning to her life? How and where does one begin in a practical way?” writes Slonim, a lecturer and Chabad shaliach, or emissary, of the Lubavitcher movement who works with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim in Binghamton, N.Y. Slonim also edited “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” (Jason Aaronson, 1996, Urim, 2006).

“We all have moments of existential reflection. We might question why we are here. We might doubt our ability to make a difference, or despair of connecting to our inner self and to God,” she writes.

But this is not a book about existential reflection, doubt or inner despair. It’s not even a book about questions. It’s more of a collection of writings from people who have already found the answers. Some have had questions in their past — a number of the writers are ba’alei teshuva, or newly religious.

In Elizabeth Ehrlich’s essay “Seasons of the Soul,” on gradually becoming kosher over the course of a year, she writes: “Here are the things I have to give up: lobsters in New England, oysters sensually slithering down my throat, the French butcher. I give up calamari on Christmas Eve with a favorite friend, a traditional meal that links her to her Italian grandparents, and thus connects me to my friend’s childhood. I sacrifice bacon at my aunt’s house, crisped and greaseless beside a home-baked corn muffin, forgo Western omelets at diners I once loved to frequent. I give up being able to eat comfortably anywhere, able to make casual assumptions. It is like being an immigrant, maybe; never quite feeling at home.”

There’s the famous modesty queen Wendy Shalit, in a excerpt from her book “A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” on her fascination with “modestyniks” — her word for young single women raised secular who decide to become religious, wear long skirts and abstain from touching men until marriage.

There’s also Jan Feldman’s essay, “How a Daughter of the Enlightenment Ends Up in a Sheitl”: “I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though perhaps irrational to others,” she writes.

First Feldman focuses on family purity and mikvah, then starts keeping kosher and finally becomes shomer Shabbat. When she and her family moved to Montreal, she decided to cover her hair, first with a tichel (kerchief) and later with a sheitl (wig).

“Donning a sheitl represented the seriousness of my commitment to Hashem,” she writes. “The sheitl will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing.”

Most of the notes of controversy — on covering hair, being modest, keeping kosher — while mentioned, are explained away in each essay. But that’s OK; these are women who have chosen to lead a religious lifestyle and to air their thoughts and feelings on subjects by which they are disturbed (Passover cleaning), pained (circumcision), inspired (chevra kadisha, or burial preparation) and awed (birth).

“Birth transforms the birthing couple and their caretakers. Meeting the dangers with awe, stepping out of our normal realms of control into God’s vast and magnificent dance, can renew all involved,” Tamara Edell-Gottstein writes in “Birthing Lives.”

This is an anthology for anyone interested in religion, in the religious experience, in a community of women who have chosen to live differently from the norm. Varda Branfman, for example, in “The Voice of Tehillim,” writes that during her first year in Jerusalem she was “peeling off the layers of my American cultural identity until I was left with what I had been all along, a Jew.” She discovered a custom of saying the psalm that corresponds to the number of years one has lived. At 29, she recited psalm 30:

“Hashem, my God, I cried out to You and You healed me. Hashem, you have raised up my soul from the lower world, You have preserved me from my descent to the pit…. Hashem my God, forever I will thank You.”

Perhaps this is what my grandparents had been doing all that time — they were reciting Psalms, although I am not sure they’d have been able to express it in Branfman’s words: “Even before we begin to say them, the act of taking the Tehillim down from the shelf returns us to the calm at the center of the storm. By saying these words, we climb into a lifeboat that carries us beyond this moment, beyond peril, beyond our finite lives.”

Letters


The Gaza Fight

Imagine a person’s agony when the doctors tell him that in order to save his life, he must amputate a limb. (“The Battle Over Gaza in America,” June 17). Imagine the increased agony when a second group of doctors tells him that not only will amputation not help his condition, it will actually worsen it.

I think this is an apt analogy when thinking of the imminent withdrawal from Gaza.

Regardless of a one’s political and/or religious sentiments, every Jew should feel a great sense of agony over what is occurring to our brethren in Gush Katif. Necessary or unnecessary, it is nothing less than an amputation of our people from their land.

That is why I appreciated your fairly written cover story on Jon Hambourger and savegushkatif.org. Hambourger is a level-headed, pragmatic person, who respects and loves all Jews regardless of their political and religious affiliation. Despite the fact that his political views may not exactly coincide with yours or mine, he has earned my respect as a Jew who will not stand by silently amidst his brothers’ and sisters’ pain.

We stand together with Hambourger and savegushkatif.org, and pray on behalf of our troubled brethren in Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Kehillat Yavneh
Los Angeles

In February of this year, I traveled with my sister to Gush Katif. My life changed. My main mission became how I could help save this precious place. In the Gush (Kfar Darom) I saw schools, shuls, factories and, most important, a people who are dedicated in their belief in God, surrounded by a murderous enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy them. Please all God-fearing Jews and non-Jews, help save the Gush and Shomron. Without them, there goes Israel!

Mimi Matasar
Via e-mail

I just don’t understand what drives people like Jon Hambourger and his anti-Gaza disengagement group. They use two lines of argument to base their insistence on retaining Gaza: 1) Eretz Israel, including Gaza, was given to the Jews by God, and 2) Gaza is needed for Israel’s security. The first argument is weak, and the second is incorrect.

How good is a biblical claim from more than 3,000 years ago in the modern world, especially considering that the claim was not maintained for most of those 3,000 years. It is true there have been Jewish residents of Jerusalem, Hebron and the Galilee continuously since before the Babylonian exile, but except for about 100 years during the first century B.C.E. Hasmonean (Maccabee) Kingdom (which did include Gaza), there has not been Jewish control of the land until the U.N. partition in 1948. The land was controlled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks and the British.

Israel’s right to exist comes from the U.N. separation, and the fact that for almost 60 years, millions of Jews have lived on the land and built a democratic, economically successful nation. But we must not forget that Palestinians have lived in the region for far longer, and they, too, have earned rights to the land. And that brings us to the security question.

Israel’s security ultimately relies on Israel being a democratic society. Sure a strong military can maintain control in the short term of an Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza. But a Palestinian population that is treated as second-class citizens and feels dispossessed will be a continual security threat. To control that population, the Israel government will continue to get less democratic. The Palestinian population will develop into the majority over the few years, which brings up the very worrisome demographic problem.

Surely the demographic problem is one of the reasons that pushed Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to back Gaza disengagement. It puts off the demographic problem for about 15 years.

So why do anti-Gaza pullout people like Jon Hambourger want to retain Gaza? It will surely make them feel good. But, as a Jewish American, I worry that if they are successful, it will result in a weakened Israel and will end Israel’s being a Jewish homeland.

Jeff Warner
La Habra Heights

The Real Brains?

After reading this article in the June 10 edition of your newspaper, I was hard-pressed not to think it was racist (“Rare Ailment Occurs More in Ashkenazis”). Yet, in a strange way, I was also flattered, as my husband and I are both Tay-Sachs carriers, and I can only think that some other “sphingolipid-storage”- challenged researchers came up with the tests to determine if a fetus has the disease. Thanks to them, we have three healthy, intelligent kids.

Amy Schneider
Northridge

The question of Ashkenazi intelligence has previously been discussed by Max Dimont in his book, “Jews, God and History,” where he connects it to genetics and social values, coupled with natural selection and Darwinian evolution. If finches in the Galapagos can evolve into different species within generations, then Jewish intelligence can be linked to the tradition that sends the first-born son to the Yeshiva and marries him to the daughter of a rich father who can support him and his family while he devotes his life to study. All of which is in contrast to the Catholic tradition of giving the first-born son to the church and a life of celibacy without issue.

E Richard Cohen
Encino

Correction

In “Israeli Artist Paints a Path to Healing” (June 17) Rhea Carmi’s age should have been listed as 63. Her relative who died in the Yom Kippur War was her brother-in-law.

Merchant Mistake

I read your article in an April 1 issue titled, “Zucky’s Counter Culture,” where you quote Zucky Altman as saying that in 1954, “Santa Monica had one Jewish merchant, a dress shop.”

Altman’s memory is incorrect. I can remember at least four Jewish merchants in Santa Monica in 1954, and I believe there were a number of additional ones:

1. My mother (Rose Gold) and uncle (William Shalat), who had a ladies’ clothing store at 1431-1433 Third Street (I count these as “one merchant”).

2. Adolph Braun (my godfather), who owned Braun’s Men’s Wear next door to my mother’s store.

3. Marty Goodfriend, who owned Goodfriend’s Jewelers.

4. The Jewish owner of another ladies’ clothing store across Third Street from my mother’s store. I cannot remember that person’s name.

Arnold H. Gold
Studio City

Chabad Necessity?

I wish I could agree with Jacob Neusner’s praise of Chabad in your June 17 article (“Why Reform, Chabad Are Necessary”). I find them to be a bigoted, self-servicing religious body best described as a cult with lots of chutzpah, and whose pockets are lined with lots of money, and no lay board to govern them. Nor do we need ghetto living in America.

Hyman H. Haves
Pacific Palisades

As I read Jacob Neusner’s column I was reminded of the old adage, “Those who know, do; those who don’t know, teach). It is a shame that one who teaches Judaic studies apparently knows so little about Orthodox Judaism. I am a member of both a Conservative and a Chabad shul and have attended a Reform synagogue a few times in order to say Kaddish and as a bar mitzvah invitee. Contrary to Neusner’s assertion that the Reform movement is “willing to cope with problems that Orthodox reading of halacha treat as cut and dried, and which they botch completely,” and that “there is a human dimension to take into account,” which Reform takes into account completely misstates the Orthodox and especially the Chabad movement. The non-Jewish woman he cited who raised “three Jewish children” and could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery did not raise Jewish children. She gave three children, born of a Jewish father, a Jewish education for which Hashem should bless her. She had the chance to become Jewish by converting prior to her death but, for whatever reason, she did not do so and therefore cannot be buried in a halachically Jewish cemetery. It is not a matter of being heartless but of observing Torah Judaism. If you want to be buried with your spouse in a Jewish cemetery you should marry a Jew. It is one of the things that people intermarrying should discuss beforehand but probably never do.

Morton Resnick
Oxnard

 

Attack on Writers Verges on Ridiculous


 

This past week, the New York Times Book Review ran a lengthy essay by writer Wendy Shalit titled “The Observant Reader.” In it, Shalit harshly criticized books she deemed to be unfriendly to Orthodox Judaism. Even worse than the books, she asserted, were some of their writers, including such literary luminaries as Tova Mirvis (“The Outside World”) and Nathan Englander (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”).

Shalit’s chief complaint against these writers is that they are frauds.

“Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism,” she wrote, “or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with — have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light.”

If these writers were actually observant, Shalit seems to reason, they would never depict the world of the religious as they do. Needless to say, Shalit’s essay has sparked a controversy in the Jewish literary world.

The author of a nonfiction book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue” (Free Press, 2000) and a ba’alat teshuvah, Shalit was raised as a Reform Jew and entered the ultra-Orthodox world only after spending time in Israel as an adult. Her criticism reflects this. It reads as the musings of someone who, though the analogy may be strange, has found Jesus and become more Catholic than the pope. For Shalit, there is one correct way to write about Judaism and infinite ways to transgress. For her, anyone who has left the fold is unworthy to write about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been, nor ever will be, part of the ultra-Orthodox world. But as a writer and a Jew, I feel strongly that Shalit’s statements are dangerous. Should we lower our standards on having rich, multifaceted literature in order for Jewish books to function as a public relations vehicle? The Jewish community should laud, not condemn, the grappling of writers who chronicle the nuances and workings of Jewish life in all of its varieties.

Debating the religious credentials of Englander and Mirvis — both of whom were raised in Orthodox communities — is a fruitless argument. It could go on forever and never be proved or disproved to someone with an agenda. What does matter, and is shocking, is that Shalit, a writer herself, believes you can and should set standards on what constitutes “appropriate” writing about an ethnic community. Instead of admiring the intricacies of Orthodox life that Englander’s imagination reveals, Shalit can only comment that Englander’s work is invalid because he “publicly boasts about eating pork.”

Since when is literature concerned with propagating the status quo? Great writing reveals a rich inner life fraught with complexity and difficult situations, and allows readers a greater understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. The more unexamined a person or community is, the more it needs a mirror to be held up to it. Jewish writing is no exception to this rule.

A topic that Shalit might have legitimately explored is the creation and marketing of literary personas for Jewish writers. The media does seem to be awfully fond of writers who seemingly coalesce out of some mythic shtetl and are dropped onto a bookshelf (an image that perhaps fulfills some deep post-Holocaust longing). Instead, Shalit spends her time making personal attacks.

In any case, I would hope that Shalit could find within her piety the strength to believe that Judaism is strong enough to hold up to whatever depictions of complexity come its way. I, for one, have faith that it can.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (August 2005, Dutton).

 

Life of a Footsoldier


Shmuel Marcus is a bit like the lucky son of an ambitious frontier storekeeper, who relies on family to staff a second storefront.

Since January, Marcus, 27, has operated Orange County’s newest Chabad from a living room alcove of the second-floor Cypress apartment he shares with his 25-year-old wife, Bluma, and two young children.

Scion of an unusual family, Marcus has joined the equally unusual society of shluchim (emissaries). They are foot soldiers for a powerful ideology of outreach by the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism. Trailblazers like Marcus must solicit their own financial support and, with their wives, make a lifetime commitment to remain in often-remote areas, ranging from Armenia to Zaire. In not-so-remote California, 20 new sites are planned this year alone in places such as Calabasas and Monterey. The Golden State already has the largest concentration of Chabad centers outside of Israel.

Orange County is already home to 18 synagogues of various denominations and now 10 Chabad centers, including Cypress. No. 11 is to open in Santa Ana this month, manned by Rabbi Yehoshua Eliezrie, son of David Eliezrie, Yorba Linda’s Chabad rabbi.

“California is the new frontier,” Cunin said. Innovations from its centers, such as demonstration “factories” for shofars and matzah, become models used at Chabad sites in 56 countries.

“By giving so many young couples the honor of being shluchim, they are responsible for bringing the love of the Rebbe to anybody we come in contact with,” said Cunin, referring to the Lubavitch spiritual leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

For Chabadniks, being an emissary is a central life goal, so they open centers to satisfy this personal as well as ideological need, said David Berger, history professor of New York’s Brooklyn College and author of “The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference” (Littman Library, 2001).

Stagnating Jewish population figures suggest Chabad’s explosive growth is not reflected in a revival of Judaism. Instead, its popularity reflects heightened interest in religious beliefs and practices, said Sue L. Fishkoff, whose book, “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch,” will be published by Schocken Books in April.

The proliferation of Chabad sites, which generally do not charge membership dues, can siphon members from existing institutions and cause friction, but also attract the unaffiliated, said Fishkoff, who cited anecdotal evidence. The rivalry, cordial in some communities and contentious in others, often prods greater adherence to Jewish practices by non-Chabad groups. “Hillel consciously adapted Chabad programs on campus because they are so vital,” she said.

Chabad’s brand of low-cost Judaism may be its initial draw, she said. “But nobody stays for that reason. Those who stay are finding something they like.”

Shmuel is the third Marcus son to become a Chabad rabbi and take the career path of the family patriarch, Yitzchok. He is the 17-year rabbi of Congregation Ahavat Yisroel in Los Alamitos. Together, he and his wife, Ita, have seven children. Another son, Zalman, is the spiritual leader of Mission Viejo’s Chabad.

“It’s a very unusual family,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Newman, dean of Huntington Beach’s Hebrew Academy, where Ita Marcus teaches. “It’s a sign of dedication. It’s not there was a flourishing community; it’s dedicating themselves to the Jewish cause.”

The youngest Marcus rabbi was deployed to a “red zone,” mapped at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Cypress is considered a battlefield because of its extremely high intermarriage rate. Seeing a need to cultivate relationships with a more youthful audience, his father suggested the daunting assignment.

Without a building, Marcus organizes events in people’s homes or at his father’s center. So far, he has taught five Hebrew classes for three students. His wife taught a women’s group to make kreplach, meat-filled dumplings. Fifteen children registered for holiday-crafts classes.

“Many Chabads started with one kid,” said Marcus, seemingly unfazed by the meager start.

“You can’t educate a 25-year-old,” his wife said.

“Unfortunately, you have to start when they are 4,” he added.

Marcus, who holds a second job as director of outreach and marketing at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters, wrote about his 1996 stay in the former Soviet Union as an assistant rabbi. Safire of San Francisco published “Chicken Kiev” in February. It’s based on epistolary e-mail snapshots of modern Jewish life in a spare, verse-like text. Posted at Chabad.org, it generated enough interest he figured it had book potential.

He’s not anticipating a best seller, though.

It ends on a conversation with a poet, who notes Shakespeare has been translated into Ukranian. “It would only be fair, wouldn’t it, for them to publish my work in English?”

Marcus writes: “He would be astounded to hear that in America verse writing is not a particularly lucrative profession, unlike the Ukraine where poets are respected as heroes and pillars of society.”

Searching for ‘Esther’


Wendy Graf’s new comedy “The Book of Esther” focuses on a central character named Mindy, who, like Queen Esther, bravely declares her Jewishness in the face of opposition. Unlike Esther, Mindy doesn’t save the Jewish people, but confronts her ardently secular family and friends when she discovers her religion.

Young Mindy and Adult Mindy are portrayed by two different actors, who sometimes share the stage. Young Mindy was raised by somewhat self-hating Jewish parents — they sent her to a Christian Science Sunday school. The spiritual void of her childhood follows young Mindy into adulthood.

After a ’70s-era fling with guru-style enlightenment, Adult Mindy settles down, marries and has children. When an acquaintance dies, the rabbi’s comforting words and in-depth knowledge of the departed has Mindy questioning, “Who’s going to know me when I die?”

What follows is a rapid engagement with Orthodox Judaism, plunging her Christmas tree-decorating family into chaos. Torn between her mother’s distaste for “those real Jew-y Jews on Fairfax Ave.” and her Chasidic mentor’s “Ya wanna do it right, or ya wanna do it all facockta?” Mindy searches for a balance of tradition and contemporary life.

Throw in a fashion-conscious friend who disapproves of Wendy’s tzniut-conscious style, a daughter who expects presents for the holiday of Shabbat, and a brief argument with Santa Claus, then “The Book of Esther” becomes at once an introspective quest and a whimsical contemporary tale.

Playwright Wendy Graf has done her own share of searching. Her current careers as private investigator and playwright follow stints as a teacher, actress, comic and TV writer (“ALF,” “Murder, She Wrote”). Graf also shares with her protagonist a rabbi who helped her discover Judaism. The spiritual discovery in the play is based on Graf’s experience with Kehillat Israel’s Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. In 1998, with Reuben’s guidance, Graf became a bat mitzvah in a joint ceremony with her daughter.

“The Book of Esther,” through Aug. 5. Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. For reservations or more information, call (818) 788-4396.

Enthralled by Talk


Award-winning mystery writer Rochelle Krich, the “Orthodox Agatha Christie,” has a confession: “I became a talk show junkie during the O.J. Simpson trial,” sheepishly admits Krich, 52, the author of nine whodunits in as many years. “When the trial was over, I still needed my fix.”

So the Beverly-Fairfax resident began flipping her radio dial and discovered a whole new obsession: The microwave-psychology “advice” shows of Laura Schlessinger, Toni Grant et al. Mostly, she listened with jaw dropped.

“I was fascinated by the people who revealed their most intimate problems to millions,” confides Krich, who has six children and wears an auburn sheitel. “I was fascinated that people would call, knowing that nine out of 10 times, they’d get verbally spanked. Then I started thinking, what if a caller became enraged by the host’s advice and decided to take revenge? … because while I never heard anyone expressing anger at Dr. Laura, it struck me that somebody had to be angry.”

The result is “Dead Air,” Krich’s fourth novel featuring LAPD homicide Det. Jessie Drake, who is inching toward Orthodox Judaism as she rekindles her friendship with estranged pal Dr. Renee, a smug talk show host whose daughter has been kidnapped by an angry listener.

Renee’s advice sounds more than a tad like Dr. Laura’s; the fictional host, for example, is a working mother who criticizes other moms for working outside the home.

As research, Krich, who began writing books at age 40, sat in on talk shows and spoke to psychologists about just why callers are willing to risk radio shrinks’ abuse. The reason, she learned, is that each caller believes his question is better than those of the others. Callers, moreover, crave contact with the guru-like figure of the host, because it makes them feel special.

Critics of Dr. Laura and company will be amused by Krich’s assessment of Dr. Renee. It turns out she suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, “the inability to tolerate criticism, the lack of empathy for others, the patronizing attitude,” according to the book’s fictional LAPD psychologist. Not that Krich is implying Dr. Laura suffers from NPD.

“It would be ridiculous for me to say that my character doesn’t share something with Dr. Laura,” the author says. “But I’m not trying to denounce anyone. I’m just trying to explore the phenomenon of talk radio.”

+