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

American Orthodox rabbis are ambivalent about Western Wall controversy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015. Photo by Marc Sellem/Reuters

Bibi hits a wall


When push came to shove, when he had to pick between politics and principle, between personal power and Jewish unity, between his position and his people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved. He picked his position. He showed us his ultimate priority.

Surrendering to ultra-Orthodox pressure, Bibi reneged on a January 2016 agreement to ensure an official egalitarian presence at the Western Wall and, as if that weren’t enough, he supported an initiative to give total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The timing couldn’t have been worse — it happened right when the Jewish Agency was having its annual conference in Jerusalem, with global representatives of the Diaspora looking on.

The moves were so insulting that the Jewish Agency did something unprecedented — it cancelled its dinner invitation to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the moves were condemned virtually across the board. You know you’ve gone too far when a beloved hero like Natan Sharansky goes against you.

Sensing that he may have overplayed his hand, Bibi has tried to do some damage control, but it’s not helping much. I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, Bibi clearly reneged on an agreement. His calls for renegotiation now ring hollow. It took years of hard negotiating, under the leadership of Sharansky, to come up with the compromise that recognized a non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site.

As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”

For those who fought so hard to obtain that agreement, the thought of going back to the drawing board must be demoralizing. As the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said, “To spend four more years negotiating and then not have that implemented, either, is not credible.”

The second reason Bibi will have trouble spinning away from this crisis is that he’s associating himself with an institution with little credibility — the Chief Rabbinate. In the past year alone, two former chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger and Eliyahu Bashki Doron, have been convicted of felonies. And who is the politician leading the charge on these latest moves of intolerance? None other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who spent three years in jail for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Add it all up and there’s not much wiggle room for Bibi to repair the harm done to Israel-Diaspora relations. Until Bibi stands up to ultra-Orthodox forces for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity, they will continue to pressure him for their own divisive agenda, which puts a strict interpretation of halachah above all else.

The tragedy is that Bibi knows better. He’s a cosmopolitan Jew who understands the Diaspora and the importance of tolerance, pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. As the leader of the Jewish state, he knows he has a responsibility to make Israel a unifying force for all the Jews of the world. Once Israel becomes a divisive force that offends the majority of American Jews, what’s left? Startup Nation?

“I’m a Jew first and an Israeli second,” I remember him saying once at a Manhattan synagogue. Will he be able to say that next year at AIPAC, or at an American synagogue? Will anyone believe him? What American Jews are hearing today is that Bibi is an Israeli politician first and a Jew second. That is the price he is paying for appeasing intolerance.

What I find especially sad about this affair is that Bibi knows how to build bridges — with non-Jews. For the past few years, he has done a remarkable job opening up Israel to other countries hungry for Israeli expertise. He has traveled the world and received delegations from places like China, India, Africa and Eastern Europe in an effort to build economic and cultural bridges.

But while he built those bridges, he allowed another bridge to fray—the bridge between his government and the Jews of the world. So many of these Diaspora Jews are deeply in love with Israel and deeply attached to the Zionist miracle. I hate to think that they will now need some kind of financial “leverage” in order to be heard by the country they so love.

If the cause of Jewish unity is not enough leverage, what is?


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

Women of the Wall members bringing Torahs to the Western Wall on Nov. 2, 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Suspension of Western Wall deal leaves Jewish leaders feeling betrayed


They’ve tried strongly-worded statements. They’ve tried private meetings with the prime minister. They’ve tried negotiations, protest and prayer.

But for the past five years, despite broad internal consensus and consistent pressure, the American Jewish establishment has been unable to persuade Israel’s government to create an equitable space for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall.

The latest setback in that fight came Sunday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the suspension of a 2016 agreement to expand the holy site’s southern section, used for egalitarian prayer, and appoint an interdenominational commission to oversee it. The compromise was a result of three years of negotiation between the Jewish Agency for Israel, non-Orthodox leaders, the Israeli government and the Western Wall’s Charedi Orthodox management.

Work to expand the egalitarian section will continue during the suspension.  But a new agreement will now be negotiated by Israel’s cabinet, and will need to come to a new vote before moving forward.

The suspension is a result of pressure from Netanyahu’s Charedi Orthodox partners, who allowed the compromise to pass last year but have since railed against it, blocking its implementation. American Jewish leaders had hailed the agreement last year as a step forward for Jewish pluralism, and at the time, Netanyahu called it a “fair and creative solution.”

Now, the American Jewish leaders who pushed for the agreement say they feel betrayed by Netanyahu. They will be meeting in Israel this week to discuss a response, and the Jewish Agency will hold a special session Monday to discuss the issue. But no leaders committed to concrete plans for a response, beyond continued vocal protest.

“It’s deeply troubling and very disappointing that they would suspend the implementation of this resolution,” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA Sunday. “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.”

Various advocates for the agreement have warned of a crisis among American non-Orthodox Jews should the compromise collapse. Last year, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the collapse of the deal “will signal a very serious rupture in the relationship between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.”

On Sunday, Jacobs expressed strong disappointment in the suspension, but did not say it would lead to any concrete loss of support for Israel from the Reform movement. He included it in a list of recent Israeli government decisions the Reform movement opposes, including recent legislation to bar supporters of Israel boycotts from entering the country, and another law legalizing Israeli settlements’ appropriation of Palestinian land.

“This decision screams out that when all is said and done, the state of Israel and government of Israel is willing to sell our rights and our well-being for coalition politics,” he told JTA. “This does not add up to be a compelling example of what all of us understand Jewish life to be, and if there’s growing dissonance between those who lead the state of Israel and those who lead American Jewry, the consequences are serious.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the best way forward for non-Orthodox leaders may be Israel’s Supreme Court. A court petition filed by a range of Israeli pluralist groups in 2013  seeks to compel the government to provide for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall, but had been tabled while the 2016 agreement was being negotiated and implemented.

Now that the agreement is suspended, Schonfeld feels the Supreme Court may rule favorably on the petition, forcing the government to accede to non-Orthodox demands.

“The Israeli Supreme court seems to be the only governmental venue that appreciates the long-term impact of Israel advocating its role as the home for all Jews,” she said. “Inevitably, we will find our way back to the courts. We will continue to protest.”

A range of other groups have also criticized Sunday’s decision, including the American Jewish Committee, the Women of the Wall prayer group, the Israel Democracy Institute think tank and the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, was one of the architects of the 2016 agreement.

“After four years of intense negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” Sharansky said in a statement. “Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”

Non-Orthodox leaders also decried the Israeli government’s advancing a bill to centralize authority for Jewish conversions under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a Charedi Orthodox body. Silverman compared the bill to a 2010 bill on conversions in Israel, which American Jewish groups also opposed because they argued it would delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions.

“The conversion bill that was approved by the ministerial committee and Knesset is one that definitively changes the status quo in conversions,” Silverman said. “This is something that almost every 10 years comes up, and would have a dramatic effect on who is a Jew, which obviously has a significant impact.”

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

More synagogues are phasing out mandatory dues


“Voluntary dues” may sound like an oxymoron, but the idea soon may be coming to a synagogue near you.

According to a new study by the UJA-Federation of New York, the number of non-Orthodox synagogues nationwide that have eliminated fixed annual dues has more than doubled in the past two years. Instead of charging a set membership fee, these synagogues are telling congregants to pay what they want — and they’re succeeding.

The nearly 60 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues that have stopped charging mandatory dues are just a small percentage of the country’s 1,500 or so Conservative and Reform synagogues. But the number is more than twice the 26 synagogues that had voluntary dues as of 2015. On average, the synagogues reported increases in both membership and total revenue since they switched to the voluntary model. They join nearly 1,000 Chabad centers in North America that always have worked on the voluntary model.

According to the report, the synagogues adopted the new model due to a mix of financial and values-based reasons. Synagogue members appeared increasingly reluctant to pay mandatory dues after the 2008 financial crisis, and a pay-what-you-can system was more appealing to families with less spare cash.

In addition, the report said mandatory dues may have alienated families that want to feel unconditionally welcomed at synagogue or who may have felt uncomfortable explaining to a board why they couldn’t pay the full fee. Engaging members with voluntary dues has caused synagogues to build relationships with congregants so they feel invested in the synagogue, as opposed to feeling obligated to pay an annual bill. The model, according to the report, also drives synagogues to increase financial transparency, so members know what they’re paying for.

“The existing model is no longer really aligning with the values and culture of the synagogue,” said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, a division of the New York federation that advises synagogues on strategy and produced the report. “The process of asking for a [dues] adjustment becomes all about the money, as opposed to ‘you are a member of this congregation and community.’ ”

Of the 57 synagogues included in the report, more than half are Reform, while about a third are Conservative. The remainder are either Reconstructionist or unaffiliated. None is Orthodox. Most have between 100 and 500 “member units” — families or individuals who belong.

While the synagogues don’t charge a fixed fee, many do indicate a “sustaining level” donation — the average amount the synagogue needs from each member unit to reach its goal. On average, the synagogues reported increases of 3.6 percent in total membership and 1.8 percent in dues. What that means is that more total money is coming in from more people but the average annual membership contribution has fallen.

At the Conservative Temple Israel of Sharon, Mass., in suburban Boston, which adopted the voluntary model in 2008 because of the recession, revenue and membership have remained steady. But only about 45 percent of members pay dues at or above the sustaining level — a bit above the average of 38 percent across the 57 synagogues.

“The original goals of switching to this system, creating a model that was financially welcoming and sustainable for both the synagogue and our membership, continue to be met,” Benjamin Maron, Temple Israel’s executive director, wrote in one of the report’s case studies. “In other ways, however, challenges have grown over the last few years. While our membership has grown, the overall income from our voluntary dues has not.”

The 57 synagogues are still less than 5 percent of the country’s Conservative and Reform synagogues, but Frydman believes the number will continue to grow. About 100 synagogues tuned in via livestream to a recent conference on the report.

Studies suggest that millennials are less inclined to become members of old institutions. Jack Wertheimer, a history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that free Jewish programs like Birthright — the 10-day trip to Israel for young adults — get young Jews used to the idea of no- and low-cost Jewish services.

“We’re living in a time when some Jews don’t want to pay anything to go to synagogue and benefit from synagogue,” Wertheimer said. “We’re living in a time today when institutions are held suspect and also seen as rather cold and distant. This whole idea of membership dues reinforces that point.”

Why aren’t Orthodox synagogues adopting the model?

Wertheimer and Frydman suggested that because Orthodox Jews view prayer as mandatory, the obligation carries over to synagogue membership. Even so, Frydman’s office is embarking on a study of young Orthodox Jewish professionals on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who often bounce between a few synagogues rather than sticking to one and becoming a member of it.

One large Orthodox organization that doesn’t charge dues, however, is Chabad, whose centers worldwide rely entirely on voluntary donations. While that means the emissaries who run the Chasidic movement’s outreach efforts spend a significant amount of time fundraising, Chabad spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson said it also removes a barrier to participation in Jewish life — and forces Chabad centers to run programs people want.

“This isn’t a technique or a model that’s devised through a focus group,” Seligson said. “This is about what’s at the [movement’s] core, which is love of Israel.”

Chabad emissary couples, he added, “are not living in an ivory tower. They’re beholden to the community that they’re serving. They need to actually be serving the community.”

While Frydman emphasized that UJA-Federation does not endorse any one dues model, she said the voluntary model is appealing to some synagogues because it ensures that the synagogue has an active relationship with its congregants.

“They’re cultivating the relationship so that people feel a connection, enough to want to be a part of something bigger,” she said. “It’s about that the synagogue should take the time to ensure that they know all the members, that they understand what people are looking for.”

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter of the law

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

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

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

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

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

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

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

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

Walking a fine line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every problem begs a solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Eitan Arom

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

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

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

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

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

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

Taking a pledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

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

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

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

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

A movement in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inching forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Donald Trump in Ypsilanti Township, Mich., on March 15. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Jewish leaders owe an apology to Trump and America


Last month, I wrote a column under the headline, “There Is No Wave of Trump-Induced Anti-Semitism or Racism.” I was right. But my being right is not what matters. What matters is that the mainstream media and the Jewish left — which is now essentially almost all of Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy — were wrong. So wrong that it was morally inexcusable.

Some Jewish leaders need to either publicly apologize — to the Jewish community, to conservatives, to America and to President Donald Trump — or be fired from their positions. 

The entire claim that America was engulfed in a rising tide of anti-Semitism was a lie — “fake news.” And the claim that Trump’s election is what aroused all this anti-Semitism was not merely a lie, it was malicious libel.

No Jew has disseminated this libel as much as Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York, part of a worldwide network. The man has engaged in chillul Anne Frank — a desecration of the name of Anne Frank.

Here are a few examples of Goldstein’s public comments:

“The cancer of Antisemitism has infected his [Trump’s] own Administration.”

“Make no mistake: The Antisemitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.”

“The most vicious antisemites in America are looking at you [Trump] and your administration as a nationalistic movement granting them permission to attack Jews, Jewish institutions, and sacred Jewish sites.”

The entire claim that America was engulfed in a rising tide of anti-Semitism was a lie — “fake news.”

If the organization doesn’t fire this man, it is complicit in his radical politicization of an institution calling itself a center for “Mutual Respect,” and in the misuse of Anne Frank’s name to disseminate political hate.

More important than Goldstein and his so-called Center for Mutual Respect is Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of what is supposed to be the leading American-Jewish organization dedicated to exposing and combating anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League. He has played a leading role in disseminating the narrative that since the Trump election, America has been drenched in anti-Semitism — even comparing its levels to those of Nazi Germany.

As reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in December:

“ ‘Anti-Semitic rhetoric in the United States has reached levels unprecedented since 1930s Germany,’ Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt warned a gathering of Israeli lawmakers in Jerusalem on Monday.

“ ‘Anti-Semitism has wound its way into mainstream conversations in a manner that many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find terrifying,’ he said at the Knesset meeting, which was convened to discuss the plight of American Jewry under the incoming Trump administration.”

Greenblatt’s allusion to Nazi Germany cheapened the evil of Nazism and of the Holocaust; I wrote about left-wing Jews doing this very thing in another column in mid-February.

And note Haaretz’s inflammatory description — “the plight of American Jewry under the incoming Trump administration” — made six weeks before there was a Trump administration!

In December, Greenblatt told NPR:

“We found it so deeply problematic when some of the images and some of the rhetoric [from Trump] seemed to evoke longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies.”

Greenblatt repeated this charge in February in an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post:

“Last year, we watched as the Trump campaign repeatedly tweeted and shared anti-Semitic imagery and language, allowing this poison to move from the margins into the mainstream of the public conversation.”

That whole charge — made by the left within and outside of Jewish life — was false. But the left has always believed it is OK to falsely accuse conservatives of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, bigotry, xenophobia, hate, etc. It’s effective, after all.

Greenblatt also wrote in that Washington Post column:

“Trump could have said he condemns anti-Semitism and takes incidents, such as the dozens of threats made to Jewish Community Centers, seriously. But instead, he lashed out against those asking the question.”

It turns out that President Trump was right: There was no eruption of anti-Semitism in America, let alone in the White House. And “those asking the question” did indeed deserve the contempt the president showed them.

It turns out that some disturbed American-Jewish kid in Israel was the source of nearly all these threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs). And the handful of other threats to JCCs came from a Black radical.

So, it turns out, as I wrote here four weeks ago: “[T]here is no wave of Trump-induced anti-Semitism or racism in America. This is only one more example of left-wing hysteria. … ”

And, it turns out that the conclusion to my column was also valid:

“Jews who think there is such a wave do so because they hate Donald Trump so much, they want to believe it. In other words, a lot of Jews want to believe that Jews are hated in America more than ever. Yet another way in which leftism has poisoned Jewish life.”

That’s the “poison” that ought to concern Jonathan Greenblatt.

In the meantime, he owes the president of the United States and the American people an apology.


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

L.A. Orthodox community hit by measles outbreak


measles outbreak in the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community has prompted measures to contain the serious but preventable disease.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health confirmed 18 people in the county had measles, none of whom could provide a record of vaccination. Among them, “16 of these cases are linked to unvaccinated people in the same social group,” a health department spokesperson told the Journal in an email.

Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten, president of the Jewish health organization Bikur Cholim, said a health department official notified him on Dec. 25 that there was a measles outbreak in the Orthodox community.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can be prevented in most people by childhood vaccination. The disease spreads through interpersonal contact and can linger in an area for up to two hours after an infected person has left. In serious cases, it can lead to brain damage or death.

Ten called the outbreak a serious threat that should be addressed by ensuring every member of the community is vaccinated.

“Our leadership, both in schools and in synagogues, need to educate their parent body and need to create policies that create greater protection for students and their families,” he said.

Some organizations are already taking steps in that direction.

LINK, a synagogue and community center on Robertson Boulevard, sent an email to members noting the outbreak.

“If your child is not immunized for measles, we kindly but firmly request that you do not bring him/her to LINK,” synagogue leadership stated in the email.

Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox elementary school in Hancock Park, wrote to parents that, although Yavneh was not affected, the school had been notified of “a small number of private schools in the Los Angeles area where a few cases of measles have been reported.”

In a Dec. 28 email, Yavneh’s school nurse, Lisette Ohana, said the school follows a new state law, passed in 2015, that requires all students to receive vaccinations before being admitted to schools and daycare centers.

“Here at Yavneh we enforce this immunization law and require that all our students be up-to-date on all required vaccines,” Ohana said. “This law is meant to protect our students and staff, school and Jewish communities, and the larger Los Angeles community.”

Ten, the Bikur Cholim president, said schools that don’t currently go “above and beyond the current legislation” by requiring students to be vaccinated should adopt such a policy immediately.

“We’re hopeful that this [outbreak] will begin a conversation that will go beyond just talking about the medical risks, but of implementing some changes that will provide greater protections for all,” he said.

To jumpstart that conversation, and to educate the community on the risks of measles, Ten convened a Jan. 9 teleconference that included more than 70 Jewish day-school faculty and synagogue rabbis from the greater Los Angeles area, he said.

On the call was Dr. Franklin Pratt, medical director for the L.A. County health department’s immunization program, and other experts. Ten said Pratt confirmed the outbreak on the call and said the health department expects the number of cases to rise before it is over.

Ten said there was no excuse — religious, economic or otherwise — for parents not to vaccinate their children. In the past, Bikur Cholim has brought county health department nurses into community centers such as Beth Jacob Congregation and Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn to administer free vaccinations.

In Judaism, Ten said, “a basic tenet is to lead a healthy lifestyle and to protect one’s family and to protect one’s community.” Vaccinating children falls under that tenet, he said.

Parents with a child showing symptoms of measles — high fever, red and watery eyes, runny nose and a rash — are encouraged to call a doctor rather than bring the child directly to an emergency room or doctor’s office, where they would risk infecting others.

Report: Los Angeles measles outbreak centers on Orthodox Jewish community


A measles outbreak in Los Angeles County, California, is centered on the Orthodox Jewish community, according to reports.

Some 20 people have been infected in the outbreak, with 18 in LA County, 15 of whom, according to the LA County Department of Public Health “either knew one another or had a clear social connection, ” the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend.

None of the 18 people could show proof of vaccination, according to the health department’s interim health officer Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser. Most of those infected were in their 20s but the infected also included young children and older adults, according to the newspaper.

The outbreak comes six months after California passed a strict vaccine law, making vaccines mandatory beginning in first grade.

Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten, president of the Los Angeles Bikur Cholim organization, said in a column written for Jewish Home LA that at the end of December he had received a call from Dr. Franklin Pratt, medical director for the Los Angeles Department of Public Health Immunization Program, “who advised that just days prior, a measles outbreak was identified in the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community linked through epidemiology, social interaction, and geography.  He asked that Bikur Cholim urgently readdress and write about this issue in order to reach as many Jewish communities as quickly as possible.”

Gunzenhauser said county health workers interviewed each infected person to find out everywhere they went during the four days before and after they developed the rash associated with measles.

The county workers ultimately identified more than 2,000 people who may have come into contact with a measles patient, and discovered that about 10 percent  of them had not been vaccinated.

“Regardless of what or when any regulations were implemented or any parents’ personal belief, no child should be allowed to remain at school or enter a play-group, whether at a home or synagogue, without proof that they’ve been immunized,” Ten wrote.

In 2015, a wave of pertussis, or “whooping cough,” appeared in the haredi Orthodox communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Progressive Judaism needs more ‘doing Jewish’


Renowned sociologist Steven M. Cohen recently furnished research showing that the American non-Orthodox population is sharply declining. His recommendations include suggestions that non-Orthodox Jews marry younger, marry Jews, and “raise their children as Jews.” But the critical question is what does it mean to raise one’s children as Jews in a non-Orthodox context?  The answer really is quite simple even if its execution raises complexities. American Jews interested in preservation and transmission need to become more sensitized to making a greater number of affirmative Jewish choices, including choices perceived as more religious than cultural.  In short, they simply need to “do Jewish” more.

There can be no doubt at this point that most American Jews do not believe strict religious observance is fundamental to their Jewish identity.  The 2013 Pew Report, the most recent comprehensive study of the American Jewish community, found that “observing Jewish law” was “essential to Jewish identity” for only 19% of the respondents. But if observing the laws of the Jewish religion is not important to the vast majority of American Jews, how would they define Jewish identity?  The answer to this question is far from clear in the Pew Report and other sources.  At best, we know that American Jewish identity is multi-faceted and fluid, particularly among Millennials.

We also know that, despite the dwindling numbers of non-Orthodox, the majority of identified Jews in the United States still fall somewhere along a spectrum ranging from fairly traditional (although not Orthodox) to self-denominated purely cultural. Paradoxically, even many cultural Jews many feel it is important that their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren share their Jewish identity and cultural affiliation.  The Pew Report also shows that today’s American Jews are proud to be Jewish. They seeing being Jewish as an important part of their lives and they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.     

Unless these Jews, and their progeny, can find a way of practicing and transmitting a meaningful form of non-Orthodox Judaism, the result will indeed be an eventual disappearance of many, if not the majority, of Jews into the greater vortex of American culture. This result is unthinkable, as it would mean that so many Jews would lose not only any remaining ties to their religion, but also to the culture and identity they claim to love and cherish.

For many Progressive Jews, the concept of faithfully following Jewish law in its entirety, simply because God commanded that we do so, is foreign. We live in an age where many people do not respect the authority of religious figures, particularly the rabbis who shaped Jewish law hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Our society prizes autonomy and customization. Most people pick and choose that which feels meaningful and have no second thoughts about discarding everything else.

Although Progressive Jews may be uncomfortable with the largely unfamiliar language of “Jewish law,” they respond far more positively to the concept of “Jewish tradition.”  I first noticed this distinction during the time I directed a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at my law school.  I soon began to appreciate that although the language of Jewish “law” suggests hard and fast rules and consequences for disobedience that are alien to most non-Orthodox Jews, Jewish “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission

So exactly what is Jewish tradition and how does it differ from Jewish law? The Jewish tradition can be analogized to an umbrella that covers both the concrete legal components formulated by the rabbis as well as the more amorphous cultural aspects of the religion practiced by the people over the centuries. In other words, Jewish tradition includes both Jewish law and culture.

Most people do not recognize this interconnection between Jewish law and culture.  Throughout history, the rabbis shaped Jewish law, halakhah, in response to their surrounding cultures.  These cultures included both the cultures of the Jews specifically as well as the host nations in which Jews have lived for centuries.

Similarly, what we think of as Jewish culture has been greatly influenced by the existence of the law the rabbis formulated. When self-denominated cultural Jews will soon light Chanukah candles, they may see this activity as purely cultural.  The same is true for celebrating a Passover Seder.  Yet, the roots of these behaviors come from Jewish law even if many Jews do not recognize this origin.  In short, Jewish law and culture are completely intertwined. Today, the majority of Jews see Judaism as more cultural in nature, and many do not appreciate the law’s impact upon this culture.

The Jewish tradition can serve as the foundation for inspiring and educating Jewish adults and children to appreciate the beauty of the religion.  I believe most Progressive Jews feel, or can be educated to feel, a responsibility to perpetuate the tradition even if they do not see Jewish law as “binding” or representing the direct word of God. It is enough that one appreciates the beauty of the Jewish tradition and desires to benefit from its content and wisdom.

It is vital for all Jews to be taught why and how Jewish tradition can provide the basis for the particulars of the culture about which they do care. This tradition has played a pivotal role in shaping the Jewish people over the millennia.  It has allowed Jews to connect the past with the present, and it can furnish a path to the future.  Elements of the Jewish tradition can touch the heart, soul, and mind of every willing Jew, and add meaning to life.  

All identified Jews, including the Orthodox, have a stake in this enterprise because its success will result in the preservation of a rich and vibrant Jewish tradition for a greater number of Jews. Many conventionally religious Jews understand that a stronger appreciation for Jewish tradition across the board will strengthen the Jewish community on a global level, despite inevitable differences in degrees and manners of observance.  Several years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony, and therefore, all parts are needed for the whole to function well.  I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth.


Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is currently working on a book about transmitting Jewish tradition in a diverse world.

Betsy DeVos, Trump pick for education, pleases Orthodox, spooks church-state separationists


Add sweeping school reforms – and with them, funding for private schools that Orthodox groups embrace and secular Jewish groups fear — to the campaign promises that Donald Trump plans to fulfill.

Last week, just before Thanksgiving, the president-elect named Betsy DeVos, a billionaire education reform activist and champion of charter schools and public funding for private schooling, as his education secretary.

As leader of the American Federation for Children, a group that promotes charter schools, DeVos promotes exactly the model advanced by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., at the Republican convention in July. The elder Trump has said he would earmark $20 billion in federal money to charter more independent schools or for vouchers for poorer families to pay for private schools. By picking DeVos, whose advocacy and funding for lobbying has led to sweeping changes in her home state of Michigan and elsewhere in how schools are funded, he seems to be moving in that direction.

“Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families,” Trump said Nov. 23 in announcing the DeVos nomination.

“School choice” is music to the ears of Orthodox Jewish groups, sometimes joined by other proponents of Jewish day schooling, who have argued for decades that constitutional church-state separations should not cut off day schools from public funds. Jewish day school tuition can cost $14,000 a year, and at least twice that for Jewish high schools, especially in the New York area.

Agudath Israel of America, welcoming the announcement, said it has worked with DeVos for years “to give parents educational options for their children.”

Opponents of the broader choice DeVos favors have illustrated flaws in the Michigan model to make the case for the public school system and its regulatory oversight. Michigan’s national ranking has dropped commensurate with the expansion of charter schools and vouchers as a result, in part, due to her advocacy, critics point out.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, called the DeVos nomination “encouraging.” He said that parental oversight would act as a corrective once parents have a broader range of school choice.

“The regulators of the schools should be the parents, the parents who care for their children,” Diament said. “They’ll see if the school is making a good education and if it’s not, they will move their child to another school.”

Jewish groups that advocate for stronger church-state separations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, were silent on the DeVos pick, declining JTA requests for comment. That’s not in itself unusual, as Jewish nonprofits generally observe the “if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” rule when it comes to presidential personnel choices.

General church-state separationists were less circumspect.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the DeVos nomination an “insult to public education.”

“Private school vouchers violate the fundamental principle of religious freedom because they fund religious education with taxpayer dollars,” it said in a statement.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and heir to a long tradition of Jewish advocacy in and for public education, said the DeVos appointment is “about the decimation of a public school system for children.”

“I’m not surprised those who want vouchers are celebrating this choice,” Weingarten said in an interview.

She said the inequities that Orthodox Jews say are embedded in restrictions on public funding for religious education — high taxes for services they don’t or can’t use — are better addressed through government paying for nonsectarian activities and needs.

“We found ways to spend public dollars for remedial education, for transportation, for special needs” for Orthodox Jewish day schools, Weingarten said. “We found ways to ensure that people who had reason to want religious education and yet at the same time … were entitled to public dollars, to get them.”

In recent years there has been a softening of opposition among non-Orthodox groups to government-funding ideas for parochial schools, as the cost of day schooling has soared and its benefits in building Jewish identity are seen as incalculable. Jewish federations have been active in efforts to obtain state money for things like technology and textbooks, while some Jewish groups are supporting state programs that provide tax credits for donations to private schools.

Nevertheless, in May, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, representing a network of local Jewish community relations councils and national agencies, reiterated in a policy compendium that it “opposes policies that divert resources from public schools, such as voucher programs that provide public dollars to non-public schools, whether secular or sectarian; we strongly support private funding for Jewish day school education.” The Orthodox Union dissented.

Fears of sweeping changes may be overstated. Democrats, while in the minority in the Senate, are still able to filibuster laws, and much of the education system is run at the state and local level.

Diament said he saw the DeVos choice as one of setting a tone encouraging broader school choice through advocacy and federal funding incentives.

“Even without legislation, first of all, from the bully pulpit, she can be an advocate to the states and local government agencies to do more in terms of school choice,” he said.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said the changes that DeVos hoped to achieve would face a number of practical hurdles. The expansion of the use of vouchers for private schools, for instance, would invite greater government scrutiny, he said.

That could meet resistance among the haredi Orthodox, whose schools emphasize religious studies over secular studies. Last year, the New York City Department of Education launched an investigation of three dozen yeshivas suspected of failing to meet standards in secular subjects such as English, math and science.

“It may have some implications for the Hasidic community, where accountability has been a hot-button issue in recent years,” Stern said.

Church-state separationists would also likely seek to enforce anti-discrimination laws on schools benefiting from vouchers, Stern said, leading to battles over whether schools must hire staff or admit students whose families deviate from conservative moral codes.

“What if you have to admit children of gay marriages?” he asked.

Stern said a Trump administration could learn, as it facilitates public spending for private schools, that not all comers would be to its ideological liking – but there would be little the administration could do to discriminate.

“Who’s to prevent Farrakhan from applying” for public funds for schools, he said, referring to the leader of the radical anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement.

Dance studio has the right moves for Orthodox girls


For Orthodox girls and women, dance lessons aren’t as easy as learning a plié here and a relevé there. Classes might be mixed-gender, the outfits aren’t always modest, performances can take place on Shabbat and the music may be suggestive. 

Growing up in an observant family in Atlanta, those were always constraints for Sheila Asher Meyer. 

“My mother signed me up for dance when I was 5,” she said. “But we were Orthodox and I didn’t have the same opportunities.” 

Meyer, 38, who now lives in the La Brea neighborhood of Los Angeles, wanted other frum girls and women to be able to experience the power of dance. So, 13 years ago, she opened A Time for Dance, an 1,800-square-foot studio on Beverly Boulevard, where she provides ballet, pointe, tap, Middle Eastern dance, Zumba, and jazz classes for girls and women. The students also put on performances as a culmination of everything they’ve learned. 

“It’s an opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise because they wouldn’t fully be able to participate in a dance program,” said Meyer, who has three daughters and who started by teaching a class for her daughter and her friends. “We provide an exposure to the arts and it opens up a whole new world for them.”

A Time for Dance, which serves between 150 and 200 girls and women annually, also offers classes in gymnastics, singing and yoga.

Kids’ classes (ages 2-16) are held in three sessions throughout the year: September through December, January through March, and April through June. There’s also a fine arts summer camp that runs for seven weeks. Though most classes are hosted in the La Brea location, Meyer travels to North Hollywood and Pico-Robertson for additional group lessons. 

There also is an annual musical for girls that takes place in June. This year, it was “Aladdin,” and past shows have included “Neverland” and “Alice in Wonderland.” 

To ensure that it’s “kosher,” Meyer will take out anything questionable from the script — like the romantic relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine — and make sure all the costumes are appropriately modest, or tzeniut. The musical is held on three different dates for the various age groups, and men are allowed to attend the performance by the youngest group only; the shows for girls ages 7-12 and 13-16 are only for women.

The strictly female rule goes for the women’s productions, as well. In 2011, there was a performance of “The Crown of Creation,” an interpretive dance about the women of the Tanakh. The most recent one, held in 2012, was a full-length original ballet called “The Spirit of Shabbos.” Julia Berger played the Shabbos Queen and danced alongside her daughter Aliza Sebban, who was 9 at the time. 

“There is a very strong feeling of women sharing creativity and expressing themselves,” Berger said of A Time for Dance.

Now 13, Berger’s daughter is taking hip-hop lessons at the school. The classes are taught by backup dancers for Jason Derulo and Rihanna, but the moves of those artists aren’t taught if they’re not modest. 

“I love the fact that young girls, especially the ones learning hip-hop, get to revel in the creative aspect and not in the exhibitionist aspect,” Berger said. 

“Hip-hop culture isn’t necessarily in sync with strong Jewish values,” she continued. “The girls get to learn dance moves and enjoy the rhythm of the music without any words or messaging that’s inappropriate. It’s a really wholesome environment and it encourages all the great things about dance.”

Karen Fishof, whose 9-year-old daughter has taken drama, tap and ballet classes and was Iago in the production of “Aladdin,” said the performance on a nearby school stage was a confidence booster and a great way to learn public speaking.

“She absolutely blossomed and loved it,” Fishof said. “The girls feel very professional because they get miked up by professional companies and have tech rehearsals, and they’re on a real stage.” 

Meyer said she teaches individuals who range from Modern Orthodox to Chassidic and live in various neighborhoods across Los Angeles. 

“It’s really nice to see all the community come together,” she said. “There are students from the city, the Valley, and all different types of schools.”

Meyer said her studio offers an important outlet for frum girls, who often don’t have much time to themselves in general.

“They’re in school all day, then they go home and help out, and then they have Shabbos. Life is busy with other pressures,” she said. “At my studio, they have an opportunity to develop another side of them. They may not love school, but they thrive in the dance studio.”

The Pledge


I am a gay Orthodox Jewish teen. That in and of itself may be one of the most controversial sentences in modern Jewish history, but it’s also simply my life. I daven, or pray in com-munity, and I am part of the honors Judaic program at my school. I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep all the fasts, and I celebrate the holidays. However, I also spent my summer in Israel interning for the LGBT wing of the political party Yesh Atid, attended the gay pride parade and am an intern for an organization called Eshel, a group that specializes in Orthodox inclusion for LGBT Jews.

This spring, as an intern for Eshel, which is funded by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, I was privileged to take part in an informative course on community organizing through a Jewish lens titled Join for Justice (www.joinforjustice.org). When the course ended, each participant was encouraged to take on a summer project and, using the information gained in the course, make a difference in whatever way we could in the world.

Although I knew my project would have an LGBT focus, I couldn’t seem to figure out in what direction I would take my project until I was inspired by Gandhi’s famous adage, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is when it became clear to me that I was that change I wished to see in the world, not in a self-righteous sense, but in that I am far luckier than other LGBT members of Orthodox communities. I have been blessed with loving and supportive family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and a community that has allowed me to find myself Jewishly as a gay man in a healthy manner. 

Unfortunately, I am the exception.

Homosexual Jewish teenagers across America remain fearful that they will be shunned by their community and expelled from their homes or schools. In extreme situations, some have taken their own lives in a state of perpetual hopelessness.

Being a closeted gay person proved to be the most difficult challenge I have faced in my life. High school workload, SATs, peer pressure and the many other issues high schoolers are subject to, all paled in comparison to being in the closet. I kept a part of myself under lock and key, hidden in the darkest and deepest depths of my psyche, because I believed that opening that Pandora’s box would rob me of everything I cared for and loved. My religion, my family, my friends, my presence at my school, would, in my mind, all be in serious jeopardy if I dared to reveal the truth to anyone.

However, it came at a terrible price. My frustration with keeping my sexuality a secret eventually spread into other areas of my life like an infectious disease. It poisoned my relationship with my parents and friends and forced me into a constant state of fear, sensi-tive to anything that could in theory “give me away.” I was mentally unstable. I finally reached my breaking point at the end of my 10th-grade year. I realized that nothing could be any worse than staying in the closet, and I took a leap of faith. One by one I told my friends, community leaders, rabbis, teachers, the principal, the head of school, and, of course, my family. Surprisingly, each and every one of them was supportive and loving. At that moment, when I was finally “out,” I instantly felt free, as if a weight I had been carrying for so long that it had become part of my everyday life, had been lifted off my shoulders.

However, at the realization that those who mattered to me did not at all care about my sexual orientation, and in fact, were there every step of the way on my coming out journey, I felt I had wasted years of my life suffering the burden of carrying this secret when I could very well have been what I am now: happy. I loved my school, I loved my friends and my family, and I sacrificed my own sanity in a bid to protect those pillars of my existence. Had I known from the beginning that my friends, school and everyone I loved would support my coming out, I would not have had to endure the unbearable struggle of staying in the closet.

Gay students exist in the Orthodox Jewish School system, and I guarantee you that your local school is no exception. They stay hidden, like I did, out of fear. It was a fear that proved inaccurate, but it feels valid and very well may be for others like me. I am not alone. We are among you.

Will my school be OK with my sexuality? This was a question that haunted me for years, and yet there is a very simple solution that would have addressed this burning question. If students were to know that their school supported them, it would ease many of their anxieties and bring them one step closer to being freed from the life-sucking prison known as the closet.

This is why, when Eshel asked that its interns create a project, I sat with the leadership of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I am currently a senior, to create a Pledge. The Pledge is an à la carte series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to protect their students. With the support of my parents, I worked together with the leadership of Shalhevet High School and authored the Pledge, available online (www.jewishschoolpledge.com), which will be shared with the entire Shalhevet family, to let every student who is like me know that he or she is not alone. Some examples of our Pledge include a promise that no student will be expelled for his or her sexual orientation, that harassment or bullying of any student by another student, teacher, or administrative member will not be tolerated, and that no one will be pushed toward “conversion” therapy. Additionally, the Pledge warrants that the school will strive to connect gay and lesbian students with a support network that is either on- or off-campus, and will provide religious guidance to students throughout the coming out process with trained staff.

As the Pledge was adopted, Rabbi Ari Segal, the Head of School at Shalhevet High School, published an article in our student newspaper where he shared his perspective on how he, as an Orthodox rabbi and the Head of School at Shalhevet, finds a way to support LGBT students at Shalhevet. Rabbi Segal’s beautiful words truly hit home for me, and I pray that every school looks to him as an example of what it means to be a halachically committed and sensitive rabbi.

Every child and teen (and adult) deserves to know that his or her school is a safe environment. Shalhevet turned out to be an incredibly welcoming and supportive place but, for a long time, I did not know that would be the case.

The Pledge takes a necessary and mean-ingful step in bettering the lives of all Jewish students. Furthermore, we wrote the Pledge with the express purpose of creating the perfect balance of protecting gay Jewish teens while not threatening Jewish law, and I firmly believe we have accomplished that. This is not about being politically correct, progressive, or even “LGBT friendly” — the Pledge is about the health and safety of our students.

I am gay. I am Orthodox. I am not seeking to change the halacha and I am not seeking to subvert Jewish values. Quite the contrary: I am seeking to make it possible to be an observant Jew in the Orthodox community regardless of one’s sexual orientation. I invite you to join me on this quest. I invite you to make sure gay students feel as cared for and appreciated as their heterosexual counter-parts. The longer we sweep this issue under the rug, we as a community become com-plicit in the sufferings of our LGBT members. The Torah tells us we are all created, b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we therefore all deserve a fair chance to be a contributing part of God’s nation. So, won’t you join me in making this happen? Won’t you join me in protecting Orthodox observance among all our students? Won’t you join me in making Judaism accessible to everyone? I urge you to reach out to me via this newspaper at editor@jewishjournal.com if you would like your school to sign this Pledge or to find out more about the project. Together we can make a difference, stand hand in hand and show what it truly means to be a light unto the nations.


Micha Thau is a senior at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and student author of The Pledge.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“IT'S A DESERT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After closing, rallying cry for Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy


For more than 20 years, a Jewish Orthodox day school in West Hollywood strived to provide a quality education to children from immigrant families who couldn’t afford to pay a private school tuition. 

But in recent months, Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy fell behind on rent payments and it was forced to close in July. Now, supporters are fighting to reopen its doors somewhere else. 

“I want to cry when I think about what happened,” said Kenneth Lowenstein, 35, an alumnus who is trying to raise money for the school. “Where is the outcry from the philanthropies? Where is the community outrage?”   

The academy’s financial troubles started a few months ago, after its landlord raised the rent, Lowenstein said.

The school occupies a corner near the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just a short walk from the glitz and glam of The Grove and other luxury boutiques that have popped up in the vicinity. The academy paid $8,000 a month until its landlord nearly tripled the rate to $22,000 earlier this year, according to Lowenstein. 

 A representative of Hayworth Property Management, the leasing management company, declined to comment for this article, and Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, who has been the principal of the school since 1994, said he preferred not to discuss the reason for the academy’s closure.

Bernard Suissa, president of the school’s board, said rising costs forced the academy to close but there are no hard feelings. The property’s landlord has been Jacob’s biggest donor for many years, he said.“Sometimes we didn’t pay for many months and they looked the other way,” Suissa said. “They were incredibly patient and gracious with us.”

More than 80 percent of the school’s income came from donations and only 20 percent from tuition, Harrosh said. On top of that, the majority of students whose families struggled with financial problems received a significant discount. The tuition was set at $10,000 a year, but only a fraction of students paid the full amount, according to Harrosh. “If you could pay $600 a month, they would take you,” Lowenstein said. “If you could afford only $200 a month, they would still take you.”

That proved to be an unsustainable business model.

“Rabbi Harrosh has never been a successful fundraiser, but he has always been an excellent teacher,” Lowenstein said. “He has touched so many lives though his education and impacted so many children.” 

The Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, named after Holocaust survivor Rachela Silber Perutz, was founded in 1993 by Rabbi Rubin Huttler as an emergency school for children who immigrated from Russia and Iran. It enrolled 55 students last year in grades one to eight, some of them with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

“We took in children who other schools couldn’t handle,” Harrosh said. “We enrolled children who struggled emotionally, academically and financially.”

Since the school’s closure in July, some families placed their children into public schools, while others are still scrambling to find a new school.

One parent is Ross, the father of a 9-year-old son who has a pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, characterized by delays in the development of social and communication skills. (Ross preferred his full name not be published in order to protect his son’s privacy.) 

He reached out to the academy two years ago after other Jewish Orthodox schools refused to accept his son, and was welcomed. Over time, he said, his son fell in love with Perutz Etz Jacobs. Once a day, the boy spent at least an hour studying one on one with Harrosh or other teachers. During holidays, the boy begged Ross to take him to school. 

In August, Ross found out that the academy was forced to close, news that his son didn’t take well. Now, Ross is scrambling to find a new school for his son. 

“It was very traumatic for him,” Ross said. “He has nowhere to go now, and he is very upset about it.”

Unlike some other schools, Perutz Etz Jacob, situated in an unimposing, one-story structure, could never brag about a state-of-the-art building, spacious grounds or classrooms equipped with iPads, said Lowenstein, who spent two years there before graduating in 1995. 

But its teachers provided plenty of love and support for their students, according Harrosh. 

“Our students saw Judaism in action,” the rabbi said. “When you care about every child, you see Judaism in action.”

Lowenstein, who now runs a security firm, said he was a troubled child with learning disabilities when he was accepted to the school, which quickly became his second home. 

“I had combative relationships with my parents and sometimes I asked my teachers to stay a little longer,” he said. “The school became my home away from home.” 

Many other children had similar experiences, said Ross, who reached out to the academy after several people told him how Harrosh changed their lives. “More than one person told me something like, ‘When I was a kid, Rabbi Harrosh saved my life,’ ” he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the yellow one-story stucco building located at the intersection of Beverly and Hayworth Avenue showed no sign of the day school. Construction materials were seen in empty rooms through a dusty window. 

Just recently, Lowenstein posted a message on Facebook about the closure of the academy, calling on the school’s alumni, including lawyers, doctors and real estate developers, to give back to the school that “has done so much for so many families.” His hope is that with the community’s support, the school will find a new building so that it can relocate.  

“I want to reach as many people as possible, make phone calls, and track alumni via social media,” he said. “I want to do as much as possible to help the school.” 

In the meantime, Harrosh is planning to meet and work with some students one on one. He said it breaks his heart knowing that some children still have not started the school year. 

“Those children need more love and attention,” he said. “I don’t blame other schools, but they are too big to give attention that those children need.” 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They perceive it as political,” Yardena said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem Pride stabber beaten in prison over murder of teen girl


The man who is serving a life sentence for killing a 16-year-old girl at least year’s Jerusalem gay pride parade was beaten up by fellow inmates during an argument over the murder.

Yishai Schlissel, a Charedi Orthodox Jew, was hospitalized Wednesday after being assaulted by the two inmates at the Ayalon Prison.

Schlissel went on a stabbing spree at the annual march through Israel’s capital in the summer of 2015, killing Shira Banki and injuring six other marchers.

On Wednesday, Schlissel was treated for his injuries, which reportedly were light, at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center outside Tel Aviv. Police opened an investigation into the incident.

According to the initial findings, Schlissel was allowed to go into a courtyard with the two prisoners, who are serving sentences for convictions related to organized crime. An argument broke out between Schlissel and the men regarding his murder of Banki. The two prisoners punched Schlissel in the face until guards separated them.

After a stabbing attack at the 2005 Jerusalem gay pride parade, Schlissel served 10 years in prison. Weeks after being released, and days ahead of the 2015 parade, he wrote an anti-gay diatribe calling the event “shameful” and “blasphemous” and alluding to plans to carry out another attack.

After his arrest, Schlissel refused legal counsel and said he did not recognize the legitimacy of the court as it does not abide by Jewish law. At his June sentencing hearing, Schlissel broke his silence in court for the first time, explaining that his crime was motivated by “love for God.”

Israeli religious court goes off the deep end


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

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

This is taking chutzpah and arrogance to another level.

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

How could they be so tone deaf?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn pool can keep women-only swim times


Women-only swimming hours will be allowed to continue at a public pool in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The New York City Parks Department decision on the indoor pool at the Metropolitan Recreation Center in Williamsburg closes a chapter on a controversy that erupted in May. It follows a revision of the gender discrimination policy by the city Commission on Human Rights announced Wednesday.

However, the special hours, which have been in effect since the 1990s without complaint, will be reduced from 7 1/4 to 4 a week in an effort to appease those who felt the program was unfair, the website DNAinfo reported.

The hours cater to Hasidic women, who may not swim with men under strict religious law.

The Parks Department had canceled the women-only hours when an anonymous complaint was filed with the city’s Commission on Human Rights. The decision was put on hold following objections by local politicians and activists, including Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician from nearby Borough Park.

The controversy inspired a strongly worded editorial in The New York Times asserting that the special hours were unconstitutional and against the principals of fairness and equal access. The editorial itself drew a backlash from some in the Jewish community, who accused the Times of being selective in applying its commitment to pluralism.

In a letter to the Times, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents haredi Orthodox interests, called the hours a “reasonable accommodation.”

On Wednesday, Hikind released a statement praising Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Commission on Human Rights and the Parks Department.

“I’m so proud that NYC is making separate swimming accommodations kosher not just for the Hasidic community, but for all women,” including Muslims and the elderly who also might prefer such privacy, Hikind said.

“By respecting everyone’s differences, NYC sends an unequivocal message encouraging and promoting citywide cultural diversity.”

Hundreds turn out for Israel funeral of ex-Hasid who apparently killed herself


Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of a formerly haredi Orthodox Israeli woman who was found dead in what is believed to be a suicide.

Esti Weinstein, 50, was buried in Petach Tikvah on Tuesday, the Times of Israel reported.

Weinstein’s body and a suicide note were discovered in her car at a beach in Ashdod on Sunday, a week after she went missing.

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,” Weinstein wrote.

Six of her seven daughters had refused contact with their mother after she left the Gur sect of Hasidic Judaism eight years ago.

Tami Montag, the daughter who stayed in touch with Weinstein and who also left the haredi Orthodox community, gave a eulogy at the funeral in which she said, “You were everything to me, a friend and mother.”

According to Haaretz, Weinstein wrote a short memoir titled “Doing His Will” about life in the Gur community, her decision to leave it and the pain she felt after her daughters severed their relationships with her.

Weinstein, who married at 17, also wrote about her unhappy marriage in which she was required to follow numerous strict marital guidelines that are unique to the Gur sect. According to her memoir, the guidelines restrict couples to having sexual relations only twice a month.

In the book, Weinstein wrote of her ongoing pain at being cut off from her daughters.

“I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop,” she wrote.

Estranged family members also attended and spoke at the funeral, according to the Times of Israel.

“It’s hard for me to speak about you. For me, you will always be like your first 43 years, when you were pure,” said her father, Rabbi Menachem Orenstein, according to Ynet.

Weinstein’s boyfriend also spoke at the funeral, The Times of Israel reported, but did not identify him.

“At the heart of every religion is a kernel of unity, and that’s the source of life. But unfortunately it’s turned into ideology,” he said. “Don’t let any rabbi lead you to hatred and to alienation. The pain from being cut off by your kids is massive.”

Orthodox groups file petition to stop egalitarian section at Western Wall


A group of Orthodox Jewish organizations is hoping Israel’s High Court of Justice will stop a non-Orthodox prayer section from being added to the Western Wall.

The group filed an urgent petition Wednesday opposing a government plan that was announced in January but has not yet been implemented, the Kol Hazman news site reported.

According to the petition, the government’s decision, setting aside a section of the holy site where men and women can worship together and women can read from the Torah, is invalid because neither the government nor its advisory committee consulted beforehand with the Chief Rabbinate.

LIBA, an organization that promotes Orthodox Judaism in Israeli society, filed the petition along with several other religious groups, according to The Times of Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate has been outspoken in its opposition to the plan. Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said earlier this month that liberal Jewish proponents of a non-Orthodox prayer space are “wicked” people who would “find themselves outside” the Jewish people if their lineage was examined. Allowing such a space, he said, would be an “unforgivable wrong.”

Amar, now the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, earlier this month also led an Orthodox prayer service at a space near the Western Wall that for years has been reserved for egalitarian worship. That prompted a protest egalitarian prayer service later that week, which haredi Orthodox Jews disrupted by throwing bottles, singing loudly and shouting “You are not Jews.”

Meet the Orthodox ‘American Ninja Warrior’ training to be a rabbi


Like his fellow competitors on “American Ninja Warrior,” 25-year-old Akiva Neuman pushed himself to his physical limits — climbing, jumping and running through an intense obstacle course — in the hopes of making it to the national finals in Las Vegas.

But unlike the dozens of athletes who competed with him at the Philadelphia qualifiers, which will air June 27 on NBC, Neuman prepared by saying the Shema. He also wore tzitzit and a kippah throughout the competition.

Dubbed #ninjarabbi for the occasion, Neuman is an Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. He will finish his smicha while he starts a full-time job at Deloitte in the fall —  yes, in addition to “Ninja” training and studying to be a rabbi, Neuman is also pursuing a master’s degree in taxation at St. John’s University.

 

Tune in to watch the sure-to-be compelling profile of Neuman — after all, the show’s emotional, behind-the scenes stories have been parodied by Drake on “Saturday Night Live” — and to witness his supporters cheering “rabbi, rabbi,” while he shows off his strength, speed and agility.

As of press time, we don’t know whether or not Neumanwho lives in New York, makes it to Vegas. In the meantime, read on for six interesting facts about the “ninja rabbi.”

He found out about the show while at the gym.

Neuman was working out at the gym with a friend when he saw “American Ninja Warrior” for the first time. (The show, which was based on a Japanese competition, is now in its eighth season in the U.S. and has something of a cult following. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently asked “Is ‘American Ninja Warrior’ the Future of Sports?”)

“It had my name written all over it — it’s competitive and athletic, but it’s not cutthroat, and there’s a certain level of camaraderie required,” Neuman tells JTA. (The coaches, contestants and viewers cheer each other on.)

“I thought, what’s the worst that happens? I get rejected? So what?”

Neuman also figured that being an Orthodox Jew could be his hook. He submitted a video that showed him sitting with an open Talmud surrounded by religious books; it also shows him rock climbing and running.

“I love ‘American Ninja Warrior,’” he says in his video. “But I also do this stuff because if I didn’t I’d be onshpilkes!”

But most of his working out is done at home.

Neuman says he’s always been athletic and competitive; he was the captain of the soccer and hockey teams at his yeshiva high school, where he also played basketball. But considering that he’s studying for his master’s and rabbinical ordination — and he has a young child at home — his workouts usually have to be done early in the morning or at night.

“I’m probably only working out four or five hours a week, but to build muscle it’s all about consistency, even if you’re just doing a little at a time,” he says.

In Neuman’s must-watch submission video, he’s seen at home making impressive use of a pull-up bar and doing pushups while his 6-month-old son, Yaakov Shmuel (aka Koby), reclines on an activity mat.

And he really does that stuff, he tells us.

“Just 10 minutes a day of physical activity can change your attitude, your health, and it gives you more energy,” he says.

He’s also a synagogue youth director — with an athletic streak.

“I have my days, nights and weekends covered,” says Neuman, who in addition to studying works as the youth director at the Young Israel of Holliswood in a suburban Queens neighborhood.

He’s known for getting the kids active.

“We usually start with a game, so the kids can connect, and then we go from there,” moving on to prayer or studying texts, Neuman says.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut he organized an Israeli army-style boot camp for the kids.

“He is always combining physical activity with Torah in ways that motivate and inspire the kids,” says Ronit Farber, a member of the synagogue.

“The first time we met Akiva, we had him and his wife for dinner,” says Rachel Klein, another Young Israel congregant who was one of several community members who traveled to Philadelphia to cheer on Neuman with posters that said “Team Akiva,” as well as “American Ninja Warrior” in Hebrew letters. “After dinner, his wife had to drag him home because he was busy playing soccer with our kids all over our house.”

Neuman is also a star performer in the annual Purim shpiel, adds Klein, “dazzling the audience every year with his dance moves, flips, tricks and splits.”

Akiva Neuman, center, with his wife, Chani, and son, Yaakov Shmuel. Photo by Emuni Z.

He takes the fact that he’s representing Jews seriously.

“I know that the general feeling is that Orthodox Jews aren’t fit — especially not rabbis. And I wanted to show that that’s not always the case,” Neuman says.

But he knows that by wearing religious garb while filming — it was his idea, and the show was fine with it — he instantly becomes a national symbol of observant Jews.

“I bear it with great responsibility, and I’m also really nervous about it,” he says.

That’s part of the reason Neuman said the Shema right before he started the course.

“I wanted one more experience to be closer to God, and was thinking, ‘You have to help me through this, because I’m not just doing it myself,’” he says.

He sees physical fitness as a matter of Jewish principle.

“We’re the people of the book, and that’s our focus. My intellectual growth — both in terms of my Torah learning and secular learning — is the focus for me, too. But we also need to take care of ourselves physically,” Neuman says.

“There’s a commandment that says we have to guard our souls, and the Rambam [Maimonides] elaborates that we’re also commanded to take care of our bodies. We’re scoring points by exercising, and fulfilling what God wants of us.”

Athleticism runs in the family — hopefully.

Neuman and his wife, Chani, grew up near each other in Highland Park, New Jersey. She’s sporty, too.

“When we were dating, we used to go to Dave and Buster’s a lot,” he says. “She always beat me in basketball.

“We keep joking that next year it’ll be the rebbetzin’s turn,” he adds.

And the two are banking on the fact that their athleticism will carry on to the next generation.

“We’re waiting for him to crawl first, but as soon as that happens, we’ll have a soccer ball at his feet,” he says of Koby. “We’re actually hoping he runs before he walks.”

Swiss Jews oppose punishing students who refuse to shake teachers’ hands


Swiss Jews spoke out against a regulation that makes it illegal for schoolchildren to refuse to shake hands with their teachers because of religious reasons.

A regional school board last month ruled that schools in Basel Country can fine parents up to $5,000 if their children refuse to shake hands with teachers, as is customary at graduation ceremonies.

The ruling was in reaction to the refusal of two Muslim boys to shake hands with female teachers at a public school in northern Switzerland. Like with devout Muslims, some devout Jews also refrain from touching members of the opposite sex because they view doing so as inappropriate.

Switzerland has approximately 400,000 Muslims, who constitute 5 percent of the population, and 20,000 Jews.

“We think that students, in public, should shake their teachers’ hand,” Jonathan Kreutner, secretary general of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, said in a statement sent in an email Wednesday. “But imposing a compulsory handshake under threat of sanctions is not the right way.”

The affair generated considerable attention in the media and among politicians in Switzerland, where many residents oppose societal changes connected with the arrival of many Muslims in recent decades. In 2009, a majority of Swiss voted in a referendum against the construction of minarets. Shechitah and dhabihah, the Jewish and Muslim traditional ways of performing ritual slaughter of animals, respectively, are illegal in Switzerland.

Last month, Kreutner told the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly in a first reaction to the handshake affair that whether pupils shake their teachers’ hands or not, what really matter is that students “show respect for their teachers.”

Most Jews have no Jewish message to the world


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

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

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

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

Then ask any Jew the same questions. 

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

Here are likely responses:

Response 1: “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Czech Torahs reunite at Holocaust Museum


One day in 1965, Ruth Shaffer opened the front door of the Westminster Synagogue in London to find David Grand, an Orthodox Jew with a long beard and a tenuous grasp on the English language.

Es gibt Torot?” he asked in Yiddish. “Do you have Torahs?”

Grand was a soffer, a biblical scribe, lately arrived from Jerusalem in search of employment repairing Torah scrolls — and he was in luck. On a morning not long before, in February 1964, a pair of trucks had pulled up to the synagogue while members waited anxiously in the damp to unload more than 1,000 scrolls, a collection believed to be the largest ever gathered under one roof.

“One by one they were carried into the synagogue and placed on the chequered marble floor of the hall,” congregation trustee Philippa Bernard wrote in a 2005 book on the scrolls. “Higher and higher the pile rose, spreading out across the floor like shrouded bodies, treated with the reverence that such bodies deserved.”

The lot of 1,564 Torahs had lately been discovered in a rundown warehouse in Prague. In the early 1940s, the Nazi occupiers of former Czechoslovakia had forced Jewish archivists to bring together the scrolls from the districts of Bohemia and Moravia and catalogue them. At one point, they demanded a showing curated for SS officers. The Zentralmuseum der Juden was planned as an exhibit on an extinct race.

Many of the scrolls were partially burned or bloodstained and most were in dire need of care. The soffer spent much of the next 30 years repairing the scrolls, readying them to be shipped for ritual use or memorial display around the world, according to Bernard’s book, “Out of the Midst of the Fire.”

The majority of the Torahs followed European-Jewish émigrés across the Atlantic, finding new homes in the United States. Several scrolls ended up in Southern California, and in an exhibition continuing through May 9, dozens of those scrolls will be on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).

The scrolls began to gather in the museum’s lobby area on April 15, the same Sunday morning more than 3,000 Angelenos marched through neighboring streets for the annual Walk to End Genocide. Several groups who came in to drop off their Torahs were still wearing team T-shirts from the walk.

Despite never before having seen one of the scrolls, or even hearing of them, museum volunteer Edith Umugiraneza, a devout Christian, regarded them with a sense of familiarity.

In common with the scrolls, she too had been through a holocaust: A Tutsi, she is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. In 1994, having lost most of her family when she was just 17, she immigrated to Los Angeles. She now worships at the West Angeles Church on Jefferson Boulevard

For Umugiraneza, the Torahs tell of “how God created us and what suffering the people of God went through when they were in Egypt and the roads they were given to follow.”

She is all too familiar with woe and redemption. Tutsis, she said, were seen by Hutu genocidaires as ethnically Ethiopian and, therefore, Israelites.

“They said they were going to exterminate all Tutsis like they did the Jews,” she said. “That was idea.”

Adam Siegel arrived at the museum that recent Sunday in shorts and a baseball cap; he came with a group of housemates from Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish addiction treatment center where he serves as a chaplain. They came to drop off a Torah the house uses weekly for services. For this community, the scrolls speak to the many different ways of attaining holiness, Siegel said.

“As much as each Torah is identical with the same words and the same text, each one is also individual — it has an individual sacredness to it,” he said.

The Torahs are indeed a motley mix. The text in each is identical down to the proportions: Lines are no longer than three times the length of the longest word, l’mishpachotechem [to your family], according to Bernard’s book. Ten letters are written larger than the rest. But much like the members of Siegel’s community, each scroll has a perfectly unique set of blemishes and imperfections.

“We all share common struggles as humans,” he said, shortly before hopping into the driver’s seat of a large white van full of Beit T’Shuvah residents. “We each have an individualized sense of our holiness.”

The Torah housed at Beit T’Shuvah is logged as “Scroll No. 773” in the records of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, an organization that grew out of the Westminster Synagogue to care for and distribute the scrolls. It comes from the Strašnice area of Prague and was written in 1850. That information is recorded on audio guides available for public use while viewing the scrolls, which are displayed on stands in the museum lobby.

Not many other details exist about the Strašnice Torah, though the trust is raising funds to digitize its records and make available what information it has.

Although the scrolls were saved, miraculously and ironically, by the Czech Nazi administration, they were collected under fraught circumstances from the Czech countryside and Prague’s many synagogues while the war raged around them. Sorted and logged by a Jewish staff subject to close Nazi supervision and continually being thinned out by deportation, they were sometimes labeled haphazardly or in bulk, which means identifying information is hard to come by. In some cases, the ID tag fell off entirely, rendering those Torahs anonymous, or so-called “orphan” scrolls.

One of these orphans ended up in the care Rabbi Stan Levy, founding rabbi of the B’nai Horin congregation in Los Angeles. In 1991, Shaffer sent a Torah from London to Southern California aboard Air New Zealand, shipping it express freight in response to Levy’s request on behalf of his young congregation. He said Shaffer, who died in 2006, told him it was the first scroll she’d sent out knowing it was meant for regular ritual use.

The scroll arrived the morning of the last day of the Jewish year.

“We had it at High Holy Days that evening,” Levy said. “And of course the congregation went ballistic that we got it for erev Rosh Hashanah.”

B’nai Horin’s orphan scroll is among those on display at LAMOTH.

Rabbi Stan Levy of B’nai Horin with his congregation’s Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia during World War II.

When the soffer showed up at Westminster Synagogue, the idea that one day someone would be gathering tattered scrolls for a museum exhibition must have seemed inconceivable.

In the early 1960s, the synagogue had gotten wind of the scrolls via a member who collected art in Europe. Congregation elders sent a biblical scholar, Chimen Abramsky, to Prague to investigate. Arriving at the dank and broken hull of the Michle Synagogue in a Prague suburb, he found a “heartrending” sight, Bernard wrote in her book.

“On wooden shelves from floor to ceiling were hundreds upon hundreds of Sifre Torah, untouched for twenty years, still in their wrappings as the Jewish workers had tenderly laid them. He was not ashamed to weep.”

The scrolls, she wrote, were in various states of disarray. Some were tied shut with prayer shawls, and two were secured with women’s corsets. Seven had been buried at some point. When the soffers who initially worked on the project began examining the Torahs back in London, a note fell out of one that read, “Please God help us in these troubled times.”

The synagogue took ownership of the entire lot of them from the cash-strapped government of the Czech Republic in exchange for just $30,000. As the massive restoration effort got underway, it turned out that acquiring the scrolls had been the easy part.

In London, the multiple soffers didn’t seem to be able to get along, and the repairs went along haltingly until Grand arrived. Shaffer later called him “the answer to all our prayers,” according to the book.

But in the meantime, the demand for Torahs was dizzying from congregations of European Jews who had settled around the world.

“They needed scrolls — they didn’t have them,” said Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Since 1964, all but 130 scrolls have found new homes with congregations, schools, museums and other Jewish organizations, most of them in the United States, with the balance being housed in a small museum in London.

One is in the care of Queen Elizabeth II in the Royal Library. Others have been sent to Mexico, the Channel Islands, Brazil, Crete and Ireland. Fifty went to Israel. Trust records show that California received 103 scrolls, 81 of them in Southern California.

The spiritual practice around the Torah varies as widely as the congregations where they are housed.

University Synagogue in Los Angeles uses a 19th-century scroll from Boskovice for a traditional Reform service called confirmation, wherein teenagers receive the legacy of the Five Books, according to its rabbi, Morley Feinstein. Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills only uses its scroll during bar and bat mitzvahs of those descended from Holocaust survivors; the Torah sits on rollers still tagged with an archive number from the Zentralmuseum. The congregation hired local soffer Ron Siegel for a repair job that finished in 1996.

Even after years of restoration, the Torahs remain in varying conditions. Some were sent by the trust more or less ready for ritual use, while others are meant only for memorial purposes. Others, though technically possul, or non-kosher, are nevertheless used by less-observant congregations.

Unrolling a scroll he was lending to LAMOTH for the show — Scroll No. 1255, from the village of Dobris — Cantor Richard Bessman of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, a Reform congregation, unrolled the Torah and scrutinized the intricate letters, turned reddish-brown by years of oxidation.

He remarked on the clarity of the writing, but pointed to a letter that was unintelligible, rendering the entire Torah technically unfit for ritual use.

“It doesn’t negate any of the wonderfulness of it,” he quickly added.

Some local synagogues have undertaken projects to restore the scrolls on their own, hiring soffers and involving the community in their efforts.

Levy oversaw the restoration of the B’nai Horin Torah. Some of the bindings where individual pieces of parchment are woven together had come loose, so the congregation hired a scribe who “carefully brushed it and tightened all the pages.”

The congregation fashioned a yad, or pointer, using quartz crystals found on top of Mount Sinai by a member on a camping trip, and built a portable Holy Ark — the B’nai Horin congregation eschews a permanent facility to save on dues for members. Now, the scroll is used only for bar and bat mitzvahs for which the reading is in or near Deuteronomy to prevent wear and tear on the 225-year-old scroll.

“Think of all the lives they’re impacting,” LAMOTH Director Samara Hutman said, standing in front of the museum’s own Czech Torah, rolled open and encased in glass.

Like human survivors of the Holocaust, the scrolls represent for her “all the people who came before them and all the people who come from them.”

Inspired originally by her daughter’s bat mitzvah, in which she chanted using B’nai Horin’s orphan Torah, Hutman conceived of the idea for the exhibition and contacted Ohrenstein, who helped put her in touch with the Torahs’ current homes.

In honor of its 24th annual Yom HaShoah celebration, the museum is using videos and “the visual stories and oral stories of the people and communities who steward these scrolls and their mournful and remarkable histories,” she said.

Following the exhibition of 18 scrolls this year — the Jewish number representing life — Hutman intends for the museum to gather an additional 18 scrolls every year from California and the neighboring area, and to illuminate each of their histories.

For his part, Ohrenstein, Westminster Synagogue’s chairman, spends a lot of time these days getting in touch with “scroll-holders” who may not be familiar with their Torah’s history.

In addition, he’s become “a bit of a detective,” tracking down scrolls that go missing when a synagogue shuts its doors or merges with another one. He’s also encouraging synagogues that have Czech Torahs to create webpages with information about them so that he can assemble the links into a single, centralized database to keep from losing track of any more scrolls.

When he visits the United States, Ohrenstein, a bald man with a white beard who is also Westminster Synagogue’s trust chairman, looks out for displaced Torahs and sometimes gives them a ride home.

Recently, while in St. Louis for a bar mitzvah, he found a rabbi who had come into possession of a scroll but didn’t need it. Ohrenstein agreed to bring it back to London in a metal golf case provided by the rabbi.

“It fit in perfectly,” he said. “I’ve got the golf case in the museum — we need to use it again.”

After carefully packing the Torah and wrapping the package in duct tape, he put it in the underbelly of a plane. When it arrived on the luggage conveyer belt in the United Kingdom, it was covered in stickers where American customs officers had cut it open.

Ohrenstein chuckled, “They must have had a shock when they looked inside.”

Sanders returns to childhood home in Brooklyn


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he was brought up as a child, kicking off his New York weekend with campaign rally outside his childhood home on E. 26th street in Midwood.

“Thank you for coming out to my old neighborhood. I spent the first 18 years of my life in apartment 2C right here,” Sanders said standing on a stage outside 1525 East 26th street. “Right on this street, I spent thousands of hours playing punch ball.”

As Sanders gave his traditional stump speech, some local Jewish teenagers yelled, “We love you, Bernie,” as one of them waved a campaign poster with “Shabbat Shalom” scribbled on the top.

“>fired back at the Jewish senator’s critics, accusing them of distorting his comments. “As many people know, Sen. Sanders, as a young man, spent months in Israel and, in fact, has family living there now. There is no candidate for president who will be a stronger supporter of Israel’s right to exist in freedom, peace and security,” Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement. “The idea that Sen. Sanders stated definitely that 10,000 Palestinians were killed is just not accurate and a distortion of that discussion. Bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not be easy. It would help if candidates’ positions on this issue are not distorted.”

The clarification wasn’t good enough for Assemblyman Hikind. After attempting to 

Jewish education for a two-figure tuition


Late one recent afternoon in Beverlywood, a first-grader named Ben was learning about the story of the golden calf. Not happy about what he was hearing, Ben asked his teacher, incredulously: “They made a new god?!”

Across the hall, eight fourth-graders were learning the Purim story, calling out as many characters as they could from the Megillah. One boy, Yagel, who wore a kippah and tzitzit, excitedly yelled out names in a perfect Israeli accent while correcting his fellow students’ “mis-annunciations.”

These scenes are noteworthy because they didn’t take place at any Sunday school, day school or yeshiva. They took place at Nagel Jewish Academy, a  daily after-school Orthodox program, which officials believe offers a solution to the problem of expensive tuition for private Jewish education.

Unlike a traditional day school, Nagel Jewish Academy, which has three locations, operates two hours a day Monday through Thursday, after public schools let out. It focuses exclusively on Jewish and Hebrew education and costs only $25 per month, per child, for supplies and snacks provided by the school. Its budget this year is $400,000, a 166 percent increase from the 2014-15 budget of $150,000, which was financed almost entirely by founder Levi Nagel. 

Nagel said he has wanted for years to create an academy serving Jewish children who attend public schools. He says thousands of Jewish parents who want to send their children to Jewish schools don’t, and that high tuitions have other negative impacts on Jewish families, particularly Orthodox ones. 

“Families have been shrinking. People are having much [fewer] kids now than they used to because of the cost of tuition,” Nagel said in a recent interview at Shiloh’s restaurant in Pico-Robertson. 

Betty Winn, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), said annual K-8 tuition for the 37 private schools in L.A. within the BJE network range from $6,000 to $34,700, with a median tuition of $20,185. She also pointed out, though, that over half of families receive financial aid.

“So many of our schools really have extended the amount of need-based assistance that they give … so I think some of the families that are choosing other avenues may not have even explored the day school options,” she said. “I’m sure some have, but I’m also sure some haven’t.”

Nagel, 36, who is married and lives in the Hancock Park/La Brea area, knows all about the expense of Jewish education from personal experience. The financial manager — who was named No. 2 by business website On Wall Street in its 2015 list of top 40 advisers under 40 — pays $80,000 in annual tuition for his four young children to attend Jewish day school.

He opened Nagel Academy’s first location in September 2014 at the property owned by Chabad of Beverlywood. It has since expanded to two more locations — in Beverly Hills and Tarzana — serving a total of 265 students. They come from families with different levels of religious observance and range in age from 5 to 12 and grades kindergarten through sixth.

Nagel’s goal is for his schools’ students to be as well-versed in Judaism as students at any of the local Orthodox day schools. Its curriculum includes written and spoken Hebrew, the Jewish prayer book, the annual holidays and the weekly Torah portion. He said Nagel Academy is “still a little behind,” but argues that the two hours a day of Jewish studies students get at his schools isn’t much less than the proportion of each day spent on Jewish studies at day schools, where each day is split between Jewish and secular studies, not to mention things like lunch and physical education. 

At the school’s Tarzana location, which is provided rent-free by the Beith David Educational Center & Synagogue, more than 40 students were split up and learning in four different classes one recent afternoon. The class with fifth- and sixth-graders was learning in the synagogue’s spacious beit midrash, with five girls and one boy seated at a long table while the teacher walked her students through the Hebrew alphabet and vocabulary.

“Not only can I read this, I understand what it means!” exclaimed Eden, an 11-year-old girl whose sister, Lea, is in fourth grade and also attends Nagel Academy. 

Shlomo, an 11-year-old student in fifth grade, told the Journal that he attends Wilbur Avenue Elementary School during the day. He briefly tried another Hebrew school before his parents found Nagel Academy, which has helped him learn to read and write Hebrew words as long as four letters (so far). 

Elsewhere, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders were making their own tzedakah boxes and the second- and third-graders were playing a game of trivia about tzedakah (the theme of the week) and kashrut. 

“When do we give tzedakah?” the teacher asked one team.

After deliberating as a group, Team Tzedakah gave the correct answer: Jews traditionally make a donation every day before the morning prayer service.

In the main entrance hall of Beith David, Mahnaz Danyan, a Jewish woman from Iran, waited for school to let out at 4 p.m. Two of her children just enrolled at Nagel Academy. During the day, Melody, 11, attends Gaspar De Portola Middle School in Tarzana, and Michael, 9, goes to Nestle Elementary School.

“They need to know they’re Jewish. We were looking … everywhere, so we found out here are Hebrew classes,” Danyan said. “[Jewish day] school is perfect, but it’s expensive for us, so here is better.”

Yulia Edelshtein, who lives in Pico-Robertson with her husband and two children, enrolled her son Eli, 7, in Nagel Academy’s Beverlywood location when it opened in 2014; her daughter Ziona, 6, followed in kindergarten this year. During the day, both of them attend Canfield Elementary, a public school in Pico-Robertson with relatively high numbers of religious Jews. 

Edelshtein described herself and her Israeli husband as a “traditional, observant” family that observes Shabbat and keeps kosher. She said they would send their kids to Jewish day schools if they could afford it.

“We’re a young family and still building ourselves, so it would’ve been impossible for us to go to a private school,” Edelshtein said. “I really feel like it’s the best of both worlds — and I really love Canfield — to give the kids a secular education and a Hebrew education, and I feel that Nagel makes this possible.”

For parents like Lisa Arnold, Nagel Academy’s appeal isn’t just its affordability. The Beverlywood mother of three said that two of her children, Noah, 10, and Shaine, 8, have learning needs that local Jewish day schools haven’t been able to meet. So, for general education, her kids go to charter schools, and they use Nagel Academy for their Jewish education.

“What’s so unusual about it is the excitement and the joy for learning that’s showing itself,” Arnold said. “It’s not associated with school. It’s almost like a preferred activity if you’d drop your kid off at karate or dance.”

Is it possible that Nagel Academy could lead to an exodus of students from private Jewish schools to public alternatives? Nagel and the school’s head educational consultant, Rabbi Leibel Korf, said the answer is a resounding “no” and that it was never the intent. 

“The naysayers, before we started … they were saying, ‘Hey you’re going to take kids out of private schools and move [them] to public school,’ ” Nagel said. “The fact is every one of the kids came from public school. We didn’t take [them] from private school.”

Nagel cited one example in particular that he feels shows Nagel Academy is helping families that simply can’t afford private school, rather than giving parents an excuse to save money on tuition they’re already paying.  

“What was [a] little sad was the majority of the women dropping off their kids [at the Beverlywood site] are so religious that they cover their hair. But their kids did not know the Aleph Bet or know how to read Hebrew,” Nagel said, an indication, he feels, that their children only attend public school during the day because there’s no other option. 

Korf, who runs the Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, where Nagel attended before he moved in 2005, said the school exists because it’s needed. 

“The reality is so many children are not getting Jewish education because of the fact that people who would [otherwise] send [their children] to Jewish schools are not sending them. This is the fact,” Korf said during a recent interview at the school’s Beverlywood location. “We’re not creating an alternative for Jewish schools. We’re [responding to] a fact.”

That said, Korf suggested that nothing can completely substitute for a Jewish day school education, which is what his four kids receive at Cheder Menachem and Bais Chaya Mushka, which are Chabad boys and girls schools, respectively. 

“I’ll take the shirt and pants off me and I’ll sell my house and I’ll live in a small apartment,” Korf told the Journal. “You can’t send your kids to a public school and not jeopardize basic Jewish observances.”

Students at Nagel Academy in Beverly Hills. 

For their part, Nagel and his wife, Chaiky, send their four kids, ages 4 to 11, to Maimonides Academy. And while he said he’d rather send his kids to public school and Nagel Academy — and use the difference to sponsor more Jewish students at Nagel Academy — his wife insisted on private school.

“It’s a waste of money … but my wife has the final say,” Nagel said. 

Nagel Academy’s main expense is its teachers. Right now, there is only one full-time employee, and all of the 15 Orthodox teachers work on a part-time basis. Nagel approximates that one student costs about $1,250 per year, and he said he is working furiously to raise enough money to open three more locations for the 2016-17 academic year — in Westwood, Santa Monica and another in the San Fernando Valley.

He’s been pitching Nagel Academy to major local donors with the goal of each one sponsoring at least 100 kids a year. Nagel said philanthropist and entrepreneur Frank Menlo recently came on board, and businessmen and philanthropists Sam Nazarian and Shlomo Rechnitz have made pledges.

One way Nagel Academy keeps costs down is having a very low ceiling for rent expenses. The only location where it pays a usage fee is the Beverlywood location, which Nagel Academy Director Chana Leah Margolis said is “super-minimal rent.” Nagel added that, going forward, a condition of using any facility is that it’s provided rent-free.

“There are millions of square feet of empty Jewish real estate during those hours,” Nagel said, referring to the time of day Nagel Academy is operating. “So if it’s a community that needs it, they have to invite us in and give us a location for free. What we’re doing is paying for the teachers.”

He thinks Nagel Academy could grow to 1,000 to 2,000 students per year with enough word of mouth and enough fundraising, and he’s already talking about future locations in Brentwood, Los Feliz and even more throughout the Valley.

“We should, at a minimum, provide enough space for a thousand kids,” Nagel said. “We have the obligation to make it available.” 

Netanyahu taps point man to resolve ‘difficulties’ with Western Wall deal


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed the head of his bureau to help work out “several difficulties” that have arisen in the deal establishing a separate egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall.

David Sharan will “coordinate discussions on this issue with the various elements” and present recommendations within 60 days to resolve the difficulties, Netanyahu said Sunday.

“Approximately two months ago, the Cabinet decided to implement the recommendations of the advisory committee on prayer arrangements at the Western Wall,” Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office. “Since then, several difficulties have arisen. We are working to resolve them.”

He added: “I would like to reiterate my commitment to resolve the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall in the aforesaid direction.”

The deal announced at the end of January expands the Western Wall’s existing non-Orthodox prayer section and creates a shared entrance with the Orthodox main section to its north. Women of the Wall, which holds women’s services in the Orthodox section, eventually is to move to the non-Orthodox section as part of the deal — which originally  was backed by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Israeli government and the wall’s haredi management.

Earlier this month, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, withdrew his support for the plan and called on haredi Orthodox party leaders to introduce legislation to cancel the deal, as well as cancel a 2013 district court ruling allowing the Women of the Wall group to pray in the main Orthodox section of the wall.

Several haredi Orthodox leaders and the Chief Rabbinate have publicly opposed the plan.

Senior Brussels rabbi: Belgian authorities know nothing about security


Amid revelations of perceived failures in Belgium’s handling of terror threats, a prominent rabbi from Brussels said Belgian authorities “have no understanding of security issues.”

Rabbi Menachem Hadad of Brussels’  Shomre Hadas haredi Orthodox community made the remarks in an interview Thursday with Israel’s Army Radio about concerns that Belgium lacks the counterterrorism capabilities of other Western European countries grappling with home-grown jihadism of the kind on display on Tuesday, when a series of explosions in Brussels killed 32 people.

Hadad said that soldiers who were posted outside a synagogue and the city’s Chabad House following the slaying of four Jews in Brussels’ Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014 told him that for months, they used to guard the area with no bullets in their rifles. “It was just a show. It’s not normal,” he said.

Hadad’s rebuke follows reports of omissions in how Belgian authorities handled security issues, including a failure to follow up on warnings by Turkey about one of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s attacks.

Belgium’s interior and justice ministers on Thursday offered to resign.

Belgium’s counterterrorism abilities are limited by a constitutional ban on ethnic profiling and other laws, including a ban on home searches between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Following the attacks, Israel’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, said at the Knesset that, “If Belgians continue eating chocolate and enjoying life and looking like great democrats and liberals, and not noticing that some of the Muslims there are planning terrorism, they won’t be able to fight them.”  His remark was widely criticized as undiplomatic and insensitive in Belgian media.

Charedi lawmaker in Israel compares Reform movement to mentally ill person


A Charedi Orthodox lawmaker in Israel reportedly compared the Reform movement to a mentally ill person.

[MORE: Knesset members react]

Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism party made his remarks Tuesday in the lead-up to a Knesset debate the next day on the Supreme Court’s decision that non-Orthodox converts can immerse in a public mikvah, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works,” Eichler was quoted as saying. “The High Court can’t force a hospital to allow the court’s surgeons and the court’s medicines into the operating room. And so it is intolerable that the directors of ritual baths will have to allow organizers of Reform religion-changing ceremonies into a Jewish ritual bath.”

Eichler also reportedly said the Supreme Court has “no authority to enforce Jewish law, whose source of authority is the Torah, which the High Court does not recognize as a source of its legal authority.”

He also said: “The High Court decision to force the members of the Jewish religion to carry out ritual bath rules and conversions according to the Reform religion, which does not believe in the purity of the ritual bath … is a serious infraction of freedom of religion for the members of the Jewish religion, which has clear laws. Religious freedom is promised in the Declaration of Independence to the members of all religions in the State of Israel, including the believers in the Jewish religion.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that mikvahs in Israel must open to non-Orthodox conversion rites. Previously, Israeli mikvahs have denied access for conversion immersions to Reform and Conservative converts. Israel’s mikvahs are run by Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, which operates in lock-step with the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement Wednesday called Eichler’s remarks “another example of the extreme intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. Clearly they feel a seismic shift in their decades-old monopoly on Judaism in Israel. Their stranglehold on Judaism is being loosened, and their response is desperate and pathetic.

“It is hard to imagine what twisted Torah MK Eichler studies when he characterizes the largest movement in Jewish life as ‘mentally ill.’ Our Torah teaches us the values of pluralism and of tolerance — and it teaches us not to use phrases like ‘mentally ill’ as an epithet.”

Rabbis Denise Eger and Steven Fox, president and chief executive, respectively, of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, called Eichler’s comments “disturbing and ignorant,” adding that they are “insensitive and backwards.”

“At the very moment that hundreds of Reform rabbis from North America are in Jerusalem celebrating the vibrancy of Reform Judaism in Israel and calling for tolerance, the MK’s comments are an unfortunate reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve equality for all Jews in Israel and around the world,” they said in a statement. “We condemn these comments and the worldview they represent.”

In an Op-Ed posted Wednesday on the website of the Jewish Press, an Orthodox Jewish weekly newspaper, Eichler asserted that “the prime minister, the supreme court and the secular establishment are subservient to the Reform millionaires.”

He added that Reform clergy are “investing millions in bribing Israeli public opinion shapers, something the Christian missionaries and certainly the Muslim preachers would dare to do.”

The Kotel decision: A Sephardic Jew responds


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

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

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

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


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