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.

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.

Mixed emotions about the Kotel compromise


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jewish community foundation gives $1.1m in Israel grants


Efforts in Israel to bring Jewish ceremonies into the public sphere; to prepare Ethiopian Israelis for careers in technology; and to offer job training to young people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities are set to get a significant funding boost.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) recently announced it is awarding $1.1 million in grants to six Israeli organizations whose work helps strengthen the country’s Jewish identity and supports economic development.

Awarded annually, this year’s Israel Grants will provide between $150,000 and $200,000 each over three years to a wide range of initiatives. Money for the grants comes from charitable assets the foundation manages on behalf of Jewish philanthropists in the Los Angeles area.

“The Jewish Community Foundation is fortunate to be able to support programs and initiatives that strengthen the fabric of our community and of the Jewish people living in Israel,” Elana Wien, director of JCFLA’s Center for Designed Philanthropy, said in an email. “We award these grants so that organizations conducting important work on the ground in Israel have the resources to make an even greater impact on the country.”

This year’s grant recipients include Beit Tefilah Israeli, a Tel Aviv-based organization that hosts Shabbat and Jewish holiday celebrations in public places, such as the Tel Aviv Port and public parks. Launched in 2004, Beit Tefilah Israeli attracts approximately 40,000 people a year to its events, co-founder Rabbi Esteban Gottfried told the Journal by phone during a recent visit to the United States. 

Celebrations organized by the group include a weekly Shabbat service at the port that attracts about 1,000 people, and a giant Sukkot festival that includes prayers, concerts, lectures and children’s activities and brings in about 15,000 people over the course of a week, Gottfried said.

The goal is to provide a way for Israelis to connect with their Jewish roots and foster a Jewish-Israeli identity, even if they are not Orthodox Jews and don’t regularly attend religious services at a synagogue, Gottfried explained. He said the idea is to create a model of community that’s inclusive, pluralistic and open to people of different backgrounds.

“Many people come to pray but they’ve never been in a synagogue before. They feel at home in these kinds of prayer events,” he said. “It’s really a slow revolution that is happening in Israel.”

Gottfried said Beit Tefilah Israeli will use the $200,000 from JCFLA to support the existing Open Tent Shabbat and Holidays: Israeli-Judaism in the Public Sphere program, as well as efforts to expand it beyond Tel Aviv.

“We really welcome this grant because we need more support for what we are doing,” Gottfried said. “We are very happy … (The Foundation) saw that we are touching so many people and bringing them relevant and meaningful and happy Jewish ways to celebrate the holidays and celebrate Jewish life in Israel.”

Other organizations receiving grants include Tech-Career, which runs a vocational training and job-placement program for young Ethiopian Israelis. Titled Closing the Digital Gap – Empowering Ethiopian Israeli Young Adults, the program focuses on training participants for careers in Israeli technology and software companies. The program will receive $200,000. 

The grant “will assist us in providing a unique opportunity for young Ethiopian Israeli men and women to develop a technological career, to integrate into the high-tech industry, and ultimately into Israeli society,” Avigail Harel, Tech-Career’s resource development director, said in a statement.

Another grant recipient is Hillel – The Right to Choose, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young adults who have left the ultra-Orthodox world through services including psychological counseling, housing, educational scholarships, vocational help and mentorship. The foundation’s $200,000 grant will support Hillel’s Workforce Integration and Facilitation Program, which provides job training to help participants integrate into the Israeli workforce and broader society.

The other grant recipients include Jerusalem-based Beit Midrash Elul, which will get $150,000 toward its work engaging Israeli Jews in public events related to Jewish identity, and through the exploration of modern and traditional Jewish texts. Hut HaMeshulash, also based in Jerusalem, was awarded $150,000 toward programming to strengthen Jewish identity among at-risk youth through learning Jewish text, art, music, creative writing, and Shabbat and holiday-based activities. The Joint Council of Pre-Military Leadership Academies will receive $200,000 to expose high school graduates to Jewish literature, holidays, history, practice and communities through a one-year leadership-training program.  

Wien said the wide-ranging grants aim to help Israelis from different regions and walks of life, including immigrant groups, underserved populations and low-income women.

“Through our grant-making, it is our goal to increase Jewish knowledge, cultural understanding, engagement and practice for all Jews living in Israel as well as to promote economic self-sufficiency,” she said.

Women of the Wall decries report that PM promised Charedi parties no change at Kotel


The Women of the Wall group vowed to continue reading from the Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel in the wake of a report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Charedi Orthodox parties that it still would not be allowed.

Army Radio reported Tuesday that Netanyahu met last week with the Charedi parties and promised there would be no change to the current status quo at the Western Wall, which prevents women  from reading a Torah at the religious site.

The state must respond to a petition filed by the Center for Women’s Rights, an Israeli NGO, asking the Supreme Court to remove impediments to women bringing private Torah scrolls to the Wall.

In the past, the Women of the Wall has smuggled a mini-Torah scroll into the women’s section. During a service in April, male supporters of the group who hoisted a scroll over the divider between the men’s and women’s sections encountered violent opposition.

The Women of the Wall in a statement referenced a speech given by Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly in November in which he called for more efforts to make the Western Wall a place of inclusion.

“Apparently when Netanyahu spoke of ‘all’ Jews in November 2015, he forgot that women make up half of all Jews,” the group said. “No Israeli Prime Minister has the right to take away Torah from half of all Jews.

Women of the Wall said if Netanyahu “does bend to the pressure” of the Charedi parties, its members will continue to read Torah in the women’s section.

“Even if we must hide our Torah scroll and smuggle it past the guards, we will do so just as Jews have been forced to do so many times before us in exile,” the statement said.

Women of the Wall gathers at the Western Wall at the start of each Jewish month for the morning prayer service. Its members have clashed frequently with staff from the office of the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites of Israel, and with police for holding services that violate the rules enforced by the office.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling acknowledged the women’s right to pray at the Western Wall according to their beliefs, claiming it does not violate what has come to be known as “local custom.”

Regulations at the site set by the office have allowed women to wear prayer shawls and kippahs, but prevented them from using a Torah scroll in their section.

US Orthodox rabbis slam wedding video calling for revenge against Palestinians


The main modern Orthodox rabbinical group in the United States expressed its “outrage” over a video that shows Jewish revelers at a wedding celebrating the murder of three Palestinians in a West Bank firebombing.

“The vigilante and lawless calls for revenge and dancing with machine guns and knives are anathema to Jewish morality and religious standards,” Rabbi Shalom Baum, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said in a statement issued Thursday.

The video, released Dec. 23 on Israel’s Channel 10 and filmed at the Jerusalem wedding of a right-wing couple earlier in the month, features friends of the suspected assailants in the July firebombing of a home in the Palestinian village of Duma that killed three members of the Dawabshe family — a toddler and his parents.

In the video, party-goers stab a photo of the Palestinian family and wave knives, rifles, pistols and Molotov cocktails. The crowd chants the words to a song that includes a verse from Judges 16:28, in which Samson says, “Let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” The crowd substitutes “Palestinians” for Philistines.

The youths in the video have been condemned from across Israel’s political and religious spectrum.

The RCA, which represents over 1,000 rabbis, “applauds the quick and decisive statements of Israeli religious and political leaders” against the guests at the wedding, the statement said.

The statement called on the Israeli government to “take whatever measures necessary to protect the safety of all of its innocent citizens, and calls upon Israeli religious and educational leaders to nurture values in Israeli society that hold these despicable acts to be unacceptable and intolerable.”

The International Rabbinic Fellowship, a group of rabbis from around the world, issued a statement on Dec. 24 expressing its “shock and sorrow” over the contents of the wedding video.

“That even a few Jews identified with the observant community can act in this way is frightening and an admonition to us all. Such behavior is halachically and morally repulsive and an ethical stain on the good name of Judaism and the State of Israel,” the fellowship said in its statement. “We trust the authorities in Israel not only to condemn this behavior but diligently work to prevent the awful acts it encourages.”

The statement continued: “As a small educational step, we call on all members of the observant community both in Israel and in the Diaspora to desist from playing songs of vengeance such as the one taken from the Book of Judges, at any wedding or other celebration that is held. We call on all people invited as guests to exit the circles of dancing when such songs are playing and express their disapproval.”

Can Open Orthodoxy help revive Judaism?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Relevance

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

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

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

Nomenclature/Whatchamacallit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is that it is.

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

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

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

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