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

Women leaders respond to prohibitive Orthodox ruling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Passover approaches, longtime OU kosher supervisor sounds alarm on Manischewitz

Three days before the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a veteran mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for the Orthodox Union (OU), filed a lawsuit against Manischewitz and the OU, saying he can no longer stand behind the kosher status of the Manischewitz products he has supervised for 20 years, including its Passover matzos.

“I believe this is a breach of public trust. I just couldn’t handle it,” Horowitz told the Journal on April 21, two days after he filed suit in the New York State Supreme Court.

Within the kashrut world, and particularly when it comes to Manischewitz, Horowitz is seen as a knowledgeable authority. The OU website’s “Getting to Know Your Matzah” article — which gives the ins and outs of matzah kashrut — was written by Horowitz, and he has been interviewed on numerous occasions by major news outlets as a source for Passover kashrut in general, and Manischewitz specifically.

Since 2014, Manischewitz has been owned by Sankaty Advisors, an arm of the private equity giant Bain Capital. In March 2015, when The New York Times’ “Dealbook” section published an article on Manischewitz’s ownership, it quoted Horowitz praising Sankaty’s executives for having “shown a concern for kosher in a special way.” When contacted on April 21, a spokesperson for Bain Capital referred to the Orthodox Union for comment.

Horowitz now alleges, however, that since 2009, Manischewitz’s 200,000-square-foot plant in Newark, N.J., has intentionally bypassed OU kashrut guidelines on several occasions, and that the OU consistently did not support him when he raised concerns. In his lawsuit, Horowitz says OU personnel told him the OU was “feeling pressure within the kosher food industry” because it had lost some accounts to other kosher certifiers.

Horowitz also alleges that when he told the OU that the Manischewitz president warned him that his “job would be in jeopardy if he did not lower kashrut standards,” the implicit message he received from the OU, his employer, was that he needed to “keep Manischewitz happy.”

Both in the lawsuit and in the interview with the Journal, Horowitz listed specific incidents he thinks the public should be aware of, and he said he left the job in December because he could no longer in good faith stand behind OU’s kashrut seal for Manischewitz.

Manischewitz manufactures hundreds of items year-round, and is a massively popular supplier of Passover items such as matzo, wine, gefilte fish and macaroons.

Manischewitz has not yet responded to a request for comment, but the Orthodox Union released the following statement:

“The allegations in this suspiciously-timed lawsuit are entirely without merit, and we will contest this matter vigorously. We certify that the Kashrut of Manischewitz is today, and has always been, at the highest level. Consumers can confidently rely upon the integrity of the Kashrut this Passover and throughout the year.”

Among the most recent of the alleged kashrut violations is from December 2015, when Horowitz says Manischewitz accidentally ran a non-Passover product on its Passover macaroon line, contaminating the entire line, according to OU standards. Horowitz alleges the plant manager did not tell him or other OU personnel about the contamination, allegedly tried to kasher the equipment himself and then continued production. Horowitz said that when he found out about the issue and reported it, the OU excluded him from its investigation and then concluded everything was fine.

The day after the plant manager had done his own koshering of the line, it caught fire, Horowitz alleges, “because there was chametz residue remaining in the ovens.” Nevertheless, Horowitz says, Manischewitz shipped that line’s macaroons, with OU’s kosher for Passover seal, and OU neither issued a recall or a public alert.

In the suit, Horowitz also says that after 18 years of supervising the silos from where the Passover flour was shipped, that duty was stripped from him. And after receiving one particular 40,000-pound delivery of flour, he had to reject it because the containers the flour was shipped in were wet, a clear Passover violation because once flour and water mix, it must enter the oven after no more than 18 minutes.

“I was being kept in the dark,” Horowitz told the Journal. “I was the guy for 20 years, totally in charge of the entire operation. I was the arbiter. If I didn’t know about something, then there’s something very wrong, because I was hired to be in charge. I’m the one that’s expected to say that it’s kosher.”

Horowitz left the Manischewitz plant in December and has not done kashrut work since. He’s suing the OU and Manischewitz for, among other things, defamation and infliction of emotional distress, which he said resulted in him having to take medical leave, the specifics of which are “stress related.” He’s still employed by the OU but said it stopped paying him one week after he left, and recently stopped paying for his medical insurance.

“[There is] no question that that stress relates to all of the aggravation that I felt that I had to fix what was broken and needed to be addressed,” Horowitz said. When asked why he filed the suit just before Passover, Horowitz said it was his last resort after many attempts of trying to resolve his concerns without going the legal route.

“I filed this complaint with great sadness,” Horowitz said. “I have gone way beyond the call of duty trying to get their attention, begging them to address these issues — they and the Manischewitz company. I only went forward with this lawsuit when people that I sent to intercede told me you’re wasting your time.”

Horowitz said he had hoped that those people, who he said are prominent and reputable but that neither he nor his attorney, Arnold Pedowitz, would name, could help resolve Horowitz’s objections to OU’s and Manischewitz’s kashrut standards at the Newark plant.

He declined to answer whether there are any specific Manischewitz products he won’t eat this year for Passover, but said that when he left in December, the degree of the problems in the possible kashrut status of Manischewitz products “was exceedingly severe.”

“To tell you that I know that the things on your plate are no good, I can’t tell you that,” Horowitz said, adding, though, that he also “can’t tell you it is good” since he’s no longer there to supervise.

“The only way I can keep that job is I have a certain amount of certainty that that thing is good. I didn’t have that certainty,” Horowitz said. “I could not in good conscience go into Passover knowing there are people who would look at products and say, ‘If Horowitz says it’s fine, then that’s good enough for me.’ ”


Obama mosque visit sends message of standing for religious diversity

An Orthodox Union official said a visit by President Barack Obama to a Baltimore mosque was an appropriate message embracing diversity.

“George W. Bush went to a mosque a few days after 9-11 to send the message the United States should stand by principles of religious diversity and religious freedom for all faiths,” Nathan Diament, the umbrella body’s Washington director, told JTA in an interview. “It’s appropriate for President Obama to send a similar message just as he sends to synagogues and churches.”

Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday – his first to a U.S. mosque during his presidency — in a pointed bid to counter anti-Muslim rhetoric by Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate magnate who is one of the front-runners in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

“An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions,” Obama said in his remarks.

Diament noted that Obama’s visit comes on the eve of his annual address to the National Prayer Breakfast, which is organized by a Christian group. Last May, Jewish American Heritage Month, Obama delivered remarks at Adas Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Israel and religious hypocrisy

Last week, along with the enlightened world, we celebrated the dramatic ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. The cause of same-sex marriage enjoys wide support in the Jewish community, and in Israel the majority of the Jewish population also supports it. Thirteen American-Jewish organizations were among the 25 organizations that supported the petition via amicus brief.

Marriage freedom is a key pillar of our advocacy efforts at Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel. The United States’ recognition of same-sex marriages encourages all supporters of religious freedom, and reinforces our commitment to achieve marriage freedom in Israel as well. After all, doesn’t Israel pride itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East? And yet, how is that Israel is the only Western democracy in the world that denies its citizens the right to marry? Not only same-sex couples are discriminated against, but also every couple that does not meet the approval of the state’s official religious functionaries. This includes non-Orthodox marriages (because only Orthodox rabbis are recognized as legitimate marriage officiants by the state), as well as civil marriages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens deprived of the right to marry and millions more denied the right to marry in a ceremony of their choice. 

Even as we celebrate with our brothers and sisters in North America, we are disheartened that only some of the Jewish organizations at the forefront of this battle for equality and defense of marriage have been active or even supportive when it comes to advocating for marriage freedom in Israel. After all, religious prejudice has also been translated into Israeli civil law, but worse, it is Jewish religious prejudice. Further, some organizations that publicly profess their commitment to religious freedom and the upholding of democratic principles trample these very principles or choose to stand idly when they are denied in Israel. 

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we noted with great satisfaction the public statement of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), America’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization, which, while expressing its religious opposition to same-sex marriage, nevertheless professed great respect for and acceptance of the Supreme Court ruling. The OU invoked core democratic principles, including, “We recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic,” “Judaism teaches respect for others,” and “We are grateful that we live in a democratic society.” This is a profound exposition of the right balance between religious convictions on the one hand, and democracy and respect for civil liberties on the other.

The question we feel compelled to raise, though, is whether the OU would also apply these principles to the challenges facing Israel in the confrontation between Israel’s established religion and the people’s civil liberties, let alone respect for others’ religious or secular choices. The unholy alliance of religion and state in Israel is based on the exact opposite view, namely, that religion does have “the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic” and will do so if and whenever it can. The result is that not only are same-sex couples denied the right to marry, but so are masses of other Israeli citizens. As of yet, the OU has kept its peace regarding this drastic deviation from the principles it espoused last week.

This episode brings to mind the hypocrisy of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, the sister religious movement of Israel’s Agudath Israel, which uses political clout in Israeli government coalitions to impose religious coercion, discriminate against non-Orthodox Judaism and deny hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens the right to family. However, when the movement’s own rights as a religious minority were threatened in the U.S. or Europe, it sung religious freedom’s praises. In 1993, for instance, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Agudath Israel had strongly advocated for in an attempt to undo the Supreme Court ruling that curtailed religious freedom in the case involving the use of peyote in religious rituals of Native Americans. 

Agudath Israel publicly proclaimed at the time: “This is a proud and auspicious day for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in this country. … The Supreme Court’s majority in the peyote case asserted, astoundingly, that America could no longer ‘afford the luxury’ of treating religious liberty on par with other fundamental freedoms. Congress and the president have now utterly rejected that disheartening attitude, and have declared with resounding affirmation: religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.”

Frankly, we could not have put it better: “Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom of the highest order.” The challenge is that Agudath Israel seems to only apply this principle to defend its own religious rights. In Israel, where it has political clout, it has no inhibitions about denying that liberty to others, especially to fellow Jews. To date, this hypocrisy has never been seriously challenged by America’s Jewish communal leadership, which Agudath Israel surely sees as an acceptance and legitimization of its double standard. 

Agudath’s conduct brings to mind the immortal account we find in Judah HaLevi’s classic text, “Ha’Kuzari” (written circa 1140):

Engaged in a debate with the King of Khazars, a rabbi expounds upon Judaism’s moral superiority. In response, the King challenges him, saying, “That might be so if your humility were voluntary; but it is involuntary, and if you had power you would slay,” to which the rabbi replies: “You have touched our weak point, O King of the Khazars.”

Agudath Israel proves the King’s point, as the American historical experience has proven as well. (The early pilgrims, escaping religious persecution in Europe, lost no time before persecuting others such as Quakers, Jews, etc. Thus, America came to understand the need to safeguard religious freedom, passing the First Amendment to the Constitution. Israel still needs to learn that lesson!)

Will the OU rise above this hypocrisy and join with forces for democracy in Israel in realizing its own statement of values? Will it join the efforts that have been launched by the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, Hiddush’s Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel and others in promoting its own very laudable principles, not only within the borders of the United States, but in the Jewish state as well, and not only when Jews are a minority seeking protection but also when they are a majority in their own state?

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, Inc., a trans-denominational Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

Orthodox groups brace for consequences of same-sex marriage ruling

The name that keeps coming up when Orthodox Jewish groups consider the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision extending same-sex marriage rights to all states has little to do with Jews or gays.

Bob Jones University, the private Protestant college in South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 when the Supreme Court ruled that its policies banning interracial dating on campus were “wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption.”

Orthodox Jewish organizations, several of which publicly dissented from the Jewish community’s broad endorsement of the High Court’s decision, now worry similar consequences could befall them.

“It remains to be seen whether gay rights advocates and/or the government will seek to apply the Bob Jones rule to all institutions that dissent from recognizing same-sex marriage,” Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union (OU), said in an email.

The groups point to an exchange in April between Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration solicitor general, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who asked if a school could lose its tax-exempt status if it opposed gay marriage.

“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied. “It is going to be an issue.”

How much of an issue now exercises Jewish groups. Will Jewish schools lose tax-exempt status if they don’t recognize gay couples? Could they become ineligible for government grants or face discrimination lawsuits for teaching traditional Jewish perspective on homosexuality?

Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office for Agudath Israel of America, called the court’s ruling an “ominous” sign.

“When an impression is given that religious views are bigoted and are vilified, and that [their adherents] really should be given the status of second-class citizens, once you’re dealing in that kind of atmosphere, you don’t know what kind of disadvantages and disabilities people will suffer,” Cohen said.

After the court’s decision was released on June 26, an array of Jewish groups were rejoicing, but the Orthodox groups — including Agudah, the OU and the Rabbinical Council of America  —  expressed worry.

“We are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly,” said a statement from Agudah, which had filed an amicus brief opposing same-sex marriage.

The justices themselves acknowledged the possible fallout for religious groups. Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the First Amendment protected religious groups that wished to advocate their view that same-sex marriage is illegitimate. But in their dissents, Chief Justice John Roberts and Clarence Thomas said such protections were insufficient.

“Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage,” Roberts wrote. “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which also filed an amicus brief in favor of same-sex marriage, said immediate consequences were unlikely at the federal level. But on the local and state levels, there would be challenges.

“Will a state or city official take the decision to remove a tax exemption? In San Francisco, it’s a possibility. In New York City, it might happen,” said Stern, who pointed out he was speaking as a legal analyst.

Another potential challenge cited by Diament is whether groups that reject gay marriage might become ineligible for government grants, citing a debate during the George W. Bush administration about whether drug rehabilitation programs run by proselytizing religious groups should be eligible for funding through the White House’s faith-based initiative.

“We also can anticipate a fight akin to what we had in the context of the Bush faith-based initiative — whether institutions must recognize same-sex marriage to participate in government grant programs,” Diament said.

Cohen also wondered whether Jewish adoption agencies might be prohibited from limiting placement to heterosexual couples or if schools run by religious groups that reject homosexuality could be subject to discrimination lawsuits. 

Kosher oversight welcomed

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), a local nonprofit consortium of Orthodox rabbis, has brought in two national kosher organizations to review the restaurants in Los Angeles under its supervision.

The out-of-town rabbis visited three local RCC-certified restaurants last month, and on May 24, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union (OU), endorsed the RCC’s supervision. 

“These facilities are supervised in accordance with the standards of mainstream kashrus organizations,” Luban wrote after visiting Abba’s on La Brea, Pita Way and Meshuga 4 Sushi, all of which are certified by the RCC, “and I am comfortable endorsing the supervision which is currently in place.” 

The RCC’s reputation was damaged by a scandal revealed in March at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, and as a result two of the RCC’s client businesses last month moved to a competing kosher agency, Kehilla Kosher. By bringing in independent local and out-of-town rabbis to assess their work, the RCC hopes to reassure consumers that it is doing its job. The increased rabbinic attention clearly pleased the owners of the restaurants mentioned in Luban’s letter. 

At Abba’s on La Brea, a copy of Luban’s letter, written on OU letterhead, was posted on the glass front door. Kelly Benarroch, who owns the restaurant and catering hall with her husband, Shimon, said that various rabbis have been visiting Abba’s frequently since early May.

“It’s a lot of checking, coming in without notice and checking all the items — everything we do, the fact that we are frum [observant] people and that we are constantly here,” Benarroch said. 

“I think that today the RCC is a good kashrut, because all the rabbis are taking responsibility and they [the RCC] want to change,” said David Sharabi, the owner of Pita Way, a 30-seat falafel and shawarma joint on Melrose Avenue. 

In March, the owner of Doheny Meats, the largest RCC-certified meat distributor, was videotaped transporting unidentified products into his store when his on-site supervisor was absent. Since then, the RCC has enlisted at least a half-dozen local and out-of-town rabbis to oversee its operations. Representatives from the OU and the Chicago-based Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO) have been part of the ongoing effort. 

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. 

“To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”

At least some of the rabbis brought in by the RCC are working on a volunteer basis; Elefant said that the OU has so far declined the RCC’s offers to pay its staff for their services.

The RCC asked AKO, an umbrella organization for kosher certifiers, to devise a set of standards for kosher certifiers in Los Angeles. In a May 27 letter, RCC President Rabbi Meyer May and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, who heads the RCC’s committee on kashrus, wrote that “the RCC will adhere to universally accepted kashrus standards recommended by AKO, of which the RCC is a member.” 

AKO has minimum global standards for its members and has also developed standards that apply to certifiers overseeing particular industries, Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of AKO, said. But kosher standards for local businesses necessarily vary by community.

“What might work in Borough Park might not work in Omaha,” Fishbane said, explaining why kosher laws could not be applied across the world in the same way. 

Kehilla and the RCC, the two most prominent Los Angeles-area kosher certifiers, are both AKO members, and Fishbane said AKO had discussed the plan to develop community-wide standards with the leadership of both organizations. Fishbane wasn’t sure whether either organization had firmly committed to apply the standards, which have yet to be written. 

Both the RCC and Kehilla declined requests for interviews for this story. 

Should such standards be implemented, the impact that they will have on consumers is hard to predict. Elefant, who guessed that Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants per capita than any other city — including New York — speculated that the cost of increased rabbinic oversight could force businesses to raise prices for consumers. That might, in turn, force some of the scores of kosher restaurants in L.A. to shut their doors. 

“I feel bad for the people that will have to close, but at the end of the day the first person that will have to be satisfied is the consumer,” Elefant said. “The person who is paying for a kosher meal is entitled to a truly kosher meal.”

On June 3, Pita Way owner Sharabi said he was happy to see the rabbis coming by his shop — almost every day in recent weeks — and urged kosher consumers to have patience with the RCC.

“The customers are going to see it soon,” Sharabi said. “To break takes a second. To build takes more time.”

RCC: Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bathwater

This past Pesach week has been a horrible one for the Los Angeles Jewish Community.  The butcher it relied on for decades violated his moral, ethical and religious obligations to the public by surreptitiously bringing meat or poultry that was not supervised into his store.  His was a monumental breach of trust and the community should not forgive him for his deceit.

While certainly not a culprit in the scheme, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) was responsible to certify the delivery to Doheny of approved meat and poultry.  We failed to do this and we let the community down.  As President of the RCC, I apologize to the community for this monumental failure.

There is no way to sugarcoat this fiasco.  But let’s be certain of the facts, too!  All Pesach long people have asked me, “What did you know and when did you know it?” Here are the facts. 

I was informed at 1:00pm on Sunday March 24, a day and a half before Pesach, that there was credible and damning video surveillance of Doheny’s owner.  I immediately left my office on Pico Blvd. and sped to Fairfax to see the video along with a number of other prominent rabbis.  That Sunday was the first time any RCC Rabbi was informed of the deceit.   Within two hours we studied the material and came to the conclusion that the RCC approval (hechsher) should be summarily removed!

Thus, at 3:00pm, RCC rabbis asked the on-site Mashgiach to remove the official RCC Kashruth seal from the store and stand outside to advise shoppers that the store was no longer under RCC supervision.  Later that afternoon, a larger group of rabbis and some highly respected communal lay-leaders were shown the video and reinforced our decision to remove our hechsher.  We also gave Doheny’s owner an opportunity to come clean or explain the apparent deception. RCC rabbis then called Rav Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah V'Daas and legal authority for the OU Kashrut Division, to help us rule on the complex Halachic (Jewish Law) matter.  Rabbi Belsky unequivocally permitted any meat or poultry that was purchased up until 3pm that day, the time we removed our hechsher. 

The rabbis of the RCC’s immediate and only concern was the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the community.  Consider the weight of the problem we confronted.  Hundreds, maybe even thousands of families had already cooked their entire Pesach meat and poultry menus.  Pesach programs and caterers were serving thousands of customers in a day’s time.  At stake were the possible disposal of all that meat and poultry and the koshering of dishes and pots!  I don’t wish the burden of that decision on any one! 

Thankfully, the permitting ruling was issued based on complex Jewish Law principles relating to the concept of majority kosher vs. a minority of unsupervised products.  Those knowledgeable of the “Halachic Universe” could get their arms around that concept.  Unfortunately, for the average layperson the ruling was mystifying, almost hocus pocus — for instance, how could the same piece of meat be kosher at 2:59pm but no longer edible at 3:00pm?  Yet, the end of the day, despite the difficult rationale of the ruling, all were able to enjoy the delicious food that was prepared.

So how bad is the RCC and what is the RCC?  The RCC is made up of our community’s pulpit rabbis, heads of yeshivot, community kollels and community outreach organizations.  These distinguished Orthodox rabbis, almost 100 of them, joined the RCC because it serves them and the community.  The RCC supervises the community Eruv, has a highly respected Beit Din dealing with monetary disputes and family law.  The RCC insures that patients at Cedars Sinai Hospital enjoy fresh kosher food.  The RCC partnered with local agencies to create the nationally respected protocol to deal with school and communal pedophiles.  The RCC supervises a local hospice care provider advising on the complex end-of-life issues.

None of these RCC rabbis are paid!  Some of my colleagues are on-call to the community 24/7 and are busy with the weightiest issues of the community for hundreds of hours each year.  I am proud to work along side them and to glean from their wisdom and dedication.  Yes, there are committed and hard-working salaried professional staff members, who give their heart and soul to their supervision duties, but they do not receive one penny more or less based on the volume of work they solicit or supervise.  This is the beauty of and impetus for a community kashruth not vulnerable to any profit motive. 

To be sure, numerous RCC rabbis and administrators have not rested from the moment we were notified about this subterfuge.  While numerous complaints previously leveled at Doheny, mainly by competitors, were thoroughly investigated and found to be false, this time he was caught in violation of our protocols and we were caught flat-footed! 

And so, we know, that our work is just beginning.  Soon after Pesach, we will undergo a top to bottom review of every aspect of our operation to ensure that we not fail in the future.  We will invite disinterested parties to join the review. 

But, please do not confuse Doheny’s owner with the RCC rabbis and the sophisticated kashruth systems in place.  Please, do not throw the baby out with the bath water. 

What the community needs is an even stronger and improved RCC.  The Rabbis of RCC need community support now more than ever.  Let’s learn from this together and go forward for our community’s betterment.

OU, JFNA slam Obama plan to reduce deduction rate

Two national Jewish organizations criticized a provision in the Obama administration’s federal budget proposal that would reduce the tax deductibility rate of charitable donations.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and The Jewish Federations of North America both released statements Monday objecting to the president’s proposal, which would force taxpayers earning more than $250,000 to deduct contributions to charities at a rate of 28 percent rather than the current rate of 35 percent.

“Despite the fact that the White House had recently indicated that its tax reform proposals would not disincentivize large charitable gifts, today’s Budget release is disappointing for America’s charities and the millions we support, particularly during this time of economic distress,” William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office, said in a statement.

JFNA noted last week that the Obama administration emphasized in its “Blueprint for an America Built to Last” that it would maintain the deductibility rate of charitable contributions.

The Orthodox Union said in its statement that the decision to change the rate to 28 percent could reduce donations to American charities by $4 billion annually.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director of public policy, said his organization was “deeply concerned” over the budget plan and that it “is a recipe for harmful displacements and cuts in much-needed non-profit sector institutions and services.”

“The tax deductibility of charitable contributions is, apart from a person’s generosity of spirit, the most powerful tool America’s charities possess to raise funds that enable them to serve their brothers and sisters,” Diament said in the statement. “We are disappointed that despite the across-the-board protests this proposal has received from the charitable sector in past years, the President puts forward this harmful proposal yet again.”

New Traditional Haggadot Reflect Freedom

Why is this Passover different than all other Passovers?

On most Passovers, it is the liberal Jewish denominations that seek to reinterpret the holiday traditions, often viewing them through the prism of contemporary struggles for civil rights and environmental preservation.

But this Passover, it is the more conservative wings of the Jewish community that are offering a fresh read on the haggadah.

Both the Orthodox Union and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a spiritual home of some traditionalists within the Conservative movement, are touting new offerings in time for the holiday.

The OU has released a new haggadah based on the writings of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, while Schechter has put out two new volumes, including one with a lengthy survey of ancient Passover rituals.

“The haggadah has been reinterpreted in every generation,” said Dr. Joshua Kulp, who authored the historical essay at the back of “The Schechter Haggadah” (Lambda, 2009). “I think that by studying the origins we come to understand where the customs that we’re observing today and where the text comes from.”

With upwards of three-quarters of American Jews attending a seder — more than the number who light Chanukah candles or fast on Yom Kippur, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey — Passover is likely the most observed of Jewish holidays. So it’s hardly a surprise that the haggadah, the traditional guidebook for the evening, is among the most frequently reinvented.

But while past years have seen volumes produced that read the Exodus story through a distinctly contemporary lens, the new spate of haggadot is far more oriented toward traditional sources, in particular excavating certain writings, themes, artworks and rituals that have been cast off or forgotten over the years.

The Soloveitchik haggadah, titled, “The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening” (KTAV, 2009), is the first production of the newly minted OU Press, which was established this year in part to disseminate Soloveitchik’s unpublished writings and lectures.

Edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kashrut supervision, the volume culls Soloveitchik’s lectures, notes and teachings to present a dense and learned commentary on the seder’s various components.

But while Soloveitchik is revered in part for breathing life into Modern Orthodoxy, with its marriage of ritual observance and engagement with the broader world, the haggadah is a pointed, if inadvertent, rejoinder to those who would re-imagine the seder in purely contemporary terms.

“The Rav’s teachings emphasized the centrality of Torah study to the seder night,” Genack writes in the introduction.

According to Genack, part of the challenge in producing the haggadah was in making the famously erudite Soloveitchik accessible. Readers will ultimately decide if he succeeded, but this haggadah is not for the faint of heart. Many pages have but a few lines of text accompanied by lengthy commentary.

By contrast, the two Schechter haggadot are both heavily infused with artwork. Kulp’s haggadah includes three sections: the traditional seder night service, a collection of more than 100 illustrations collected by Schechter President Rabbi David Golinkin, and a historical commentary by Kulp, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law.

“The history of the night is also the history of the books and the pictures that make up the night,” Kulp said. “Those things, I think, go together.”

The other Schechter release, “The Lovell Haggadah” (Lambda, 2008), was produced by rabbi and artist Matthew Berkowitz of Boca Raton, Fla. Berkowitz spent more than four years producing a new translation and commentary in addition to original art works inspired by the popular Moss Haggadah, produced by the artist David Moss in the 1980s.

Of course, the liberal Jewish world will not be entirely silent at this year’s seder. Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, has published “The Liberated Haggadah” (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2006) a secular haggadah with a number of new rituals that depart significantly from the traditional service.

Schweitzer has introduced an orange to the seder plate, a symbol of openness and inclusivity that stresses the holiday’s universal message. The plagues have been modernized to reflect the concerns of the day, including AIDS, hunger, poverty and racism. Supplementing the traditional seder-ending songs, several of which Schweitzer re-wrote as secularized anthems, is the Civil Rights era stalwart, “We Shall Overcome.”

“The diversity of haggadahs,” Schweitzer said, “is itself an expression of freedom.”

Agriprocessors names new CEO

NEW YORK (JTA) — Agriprocessors has named a New York attorney as its new chief executive officer.

The hiring of Bernard Feldman of Long Island as the kosher meat producer’s new chief executive keeps the company in the good graces of the Orthodox Union, which said last week it would withdraw its kosher supervision if new management wasn’t hired within two weeks.

During an interview on Sept. 18 with JTA, Feldman said he had no experience in the meat industry, but was qualified for the position due to his “extensive experience in reorganizations and assisting companies who are experiencing financial difficulties.”

Feldman said he would spend “a major part” of his time at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which was the site of a massive federal immigration raid on May 12, but would retain his New York residency.

“I believe that Agriprocessors serves a vital function to the Orthodox community and others who are in need of acquiring glatt kosher food,” Feldman said, explaining why he had decided to take the position.

The threat by the Orthodox Union (OU), the best known of the agencies providing kosher certification to Agriprocessors, came after a criminal complaint was filed against five company officials on more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations. Among those named was owner Aaron Rubashkin and his son Sholom, the former manager of the Postville plant.

On Thursday, two of the five individuals named in the complaint — both employees in the company’s human resources department — were indicted in U.S. District Court. Both face jail time if convicted.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kosher supervision, said he had met with Feldman and was pleased with the decision, calling it “credible and wise.”

“We will continue to monitor the situation,” Genack said, “but we’re pleased by the turn of events.”

Feldman enumerated several goals he intends to pursue, including restoring Agriprocessors to “prominence,” ensuring good record keeping, complying with government regulations and resupplying the company with “qualified productive employees.” Feldman said he would stay “on board” as long as it takes to achieve those goals.

Iowa files 9000 charges against Agriprocessors, OU threatens to remove Kosher cert

NEW YORK (JTA)—Following the filing of criminal charges against owners of the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union says it will withdraw its kosher certification of the company within two weeks unless new management is hired.

“Within the coming days, or lets say a week or two, we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher supervision.

Genack’s comments came just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, for child-labor violations.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office charged Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Former workers had alleged child labor violations at Agriprocessors almost immediately after a massive immigration raid at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The company has denied having knowingly hired underage workers.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said the affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

The alleged violations, which date back to September 2007, are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625, the attorney general’s office said. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Agriprocessors has been under the gun since a raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 employees on illegal immigration charges. Following the raid, employees alleged they were shorted on pay, forced to work long hours and were the targets of sustained sexual harassment.

In May, the company announced that the Postville plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin, would be replaced. Months later, Rubashkin is still a regular presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owner and senior management.

Briefs: Newsweek ranks the rabbis, ‘Passover in a Box’

Los Angeles wins again on Newsweek’s two new top rabbi lists (“Is Your Rabbi Hot or Not?”) with locals heading the 25 Top Pulpit Rabbis in America (No. 1: Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai) and the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America (No. 1: Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for the second year in a row).

No surprise there as the list makers — Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Jewish Television Network and JTN Productions; Michael Lynton, chair and CEO of Sony; and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of News Corp — are all Angelenos.

Which also might be why five out of the 25 top pulpit rabbis hail from Los Angeles: In addition to Wolpe, there’s Sharon Brous, Ikar, (9); Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea, (11); Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, (20); and Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah, (24).

And why 13 out of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis are also from Los Angeles: Hier, (1); Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University, (3); Uri D. Herscher, founder and CEO of Skirball Cultural Center, (6); Yehuda Berg, Kabbalah Centre, (11); Wolpe, (12); Harold M. Schulweis, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, (19); Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center, (25); Brous, (30); Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, (31); Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University, (35); Nachum Braverman, Aish HaTorah, (38); Naomi Levy, Nashuva, (41); and Steven Leder, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, (49).

Wolpe and Brous are two of the eight rabbis that appear on both lists. Of the 10 new additions to last year’s inaugural list of 50 Most Influential Rabbis, three are from Los Angeles (Brous, Leder and Artson).

No doubt there are many other ways to analyze the lists (denomination, gender, other regions) and no doubt in the year to come, many rabbis and their followers will try.

‘Passover in a Box’

Rabbi Pearl Barlev will ensure that patients at UCLA Medical Center have the opportunity to celebrate Passover.

Barlev, who is in her first year as Jewish chaplain in the hospital’s multifaith Spiritual Care department, along with volunteers, will distribute 50 units of “Passover in a Box” to patients during bedside visits.

“Passover in a Box” is this holiday’s version of “Shabbat in a Box,” which Barlev developed and distributes each week to some 20 patients (there are more Jewish patients, she said, but that’s all her limited resources allow). Each Shabbat box contains a set of electric candles, challah, grape juice, a wine glass and a copy of the traditional blessings in Hebrew and English.

“It serves different needs for different patients — some need it to actually practice Shabbat, while for some it pulls on an emotional memory,” Barlev said. “It’s a way to touch base and to enhance for those who want to observe.”

The Passover box will include enough matzah for the first two nights of Passover, kosher macaroons and a Passover information sheet (including a haggadah). Barlev said she hopes the boxes will “help patients feel as though they’ve had a relationship with the holiday.”

Jewish teachings can be meaningful for patients struggling with illness, she said, and she turns to these as she prepares her written texts.

For the Passover box, Barlev wrote about Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt whose root means “narrow places.”

“While in the hospital, we may be in our most narrow places, but the story contains inspiration that I hope people can gain.”

To volunteer or donate to the “Shabbat in a Box” program, contact Barlev at (310) 794-0542.

— Anita K. Kantrowitz, Contributing Writer

A While for Weil

Steven Weil, senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, has been offered the position of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), which serves as the education, outreach and social service organization for Orthodox synagogues.

As of press time, Weil had not yet decided whether he was going to accept the position, which would require relocating his family to New York by June 2009, when the OU’s current executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, leaves the position to continue on as emeritus for three more years.

This week Weil will be negotiating with OU officials before making his decision.

Ohr HaTorah Moving to Mar Vista?

Ohr HaTorah synagogue is trying to raise $3.8 million in the next 45 days in order to purchase a building in Mar Vista as its new home, congregation officials announced April 10.

The nondenominational synagogue, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbis Mordecai and Meirav Finley and a small group of families, now has 300 member families. It currently meets in the Faith Tabernacle Church in West Los Angeles; the church recently decided not to renew the synagogue’s lease.

The building, located on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, was the home of Beth Torah, a Conservative congregation that recently merged with Adat Shalom of Westwood. Although the original asking price of the facility was $4.75 million, Ohr HaTorah was able to reach an agreement price of $3.8 million — with the added bonus that the land already is zoned for religious use.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to provide a much needed home for Jewish life in the south Santa Monica/Venice/Mar Vista area,” the memo said.

Law and disorder

Only in Los Angeles can you have a convention of Orthodox Jews where the keynote address is given by a woman named Bacon, the special guest speaker is a famous

Hollywood film critic and the executive director begins his Shabbat sermon by talking about Christmas.

I’m referring to the Orthodox Union’s (OU) annual West Coast Convention, which ended last week. Here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you couldn’t go too far without seeing their colorful blue banners promoting the event.

This year, I noticed a tinge of anxiety percolating just beneath the surface of the convention, a sense that there are big challenges ahead for the Orthodox movement.

Of course, the Orthodox are hardly alone in feeling anxious. These days, every movement in Judaism seems to be going through some sort of defining challenge. The Reform Jews are dealing with how to accommodate a growing interest in religious rituals among some of their members, while staying true to the movement’s liberal identity. Conservatives are in a state of perpetual crisis — whether dealing with specific issues like gay marriage, or larger philosophical ones like how much pluralism they can tolerate in their own movement and stay viable.

And the Orthodox, well, they might look confident on the outside — they are, after all, the champion protectors of God’s commandments — but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll see a healthy dose of anxiety.

Just look, for example, at some of the subjects at this year’s OU convention: “Guaranteeing Continuity: Keeping our Children Jewish and Orthodox” (Karen Bacon); “The Jew in the Modern World, the Modern World in the Jew: Are we too Integrated?” (panel discussion); “Media Messages vs. Jewish Messages” (film critic and conservative talk show host Michael Medved); “Jewish Continuity and Destiny” (Rabbi Marvin Hier); and “The Tuition Crisis and Seven Ways to Address It: An Existential Challenge for the Jewish Community” (Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb).

Those are not the subjects of a cocky movement.

They feel more like the subjects of a marketing seminar, as if an OU committee got together and said: Our brand is being threatened by a secular world that does not share our values. How do we deal with this threat without isolating ourselves?

I sensed some of this anxiety when I went to B’nai David Judea Congregation on Shabbat morning to hear Rabbi Weinreb, the executive director of the OU, give the weekly sermon.

Right off the bat, the rabbi brought up that all-consuming annual threat to Jewish identity: Christmas. How should Orthodox Jews navigate in a Christian world, especially at this time of year, when the symbols of Christianity are so dominant?

Rabbi Weinreb quoted a scholar who is part of the Conservative movement (professor Elliot Dorff) to explain a key difference between Judaism and Christianity: In Judaism, beliefs flow from behavior, while in Christianity, behavior flows from beliefs. The Jewish tradition doesn’t ask us to believe in doing good, or even to feel good, before actually doing good. We’re supposed to do it anyway.

And what is this “good”? For the Torah observant, the rabbi went on, it revolves around the Shulchan Aruch, the code of halacha (Jewish law) compiled in the 16th century. Just like the Constitution of the United States is the timeless code of law that protects our free society, the halacha is the timeless code of law that protects Judaism’s and the Jewish people’s continued survival.

In this world of law, no subject is too small. Is the new coloring agent on M&M chocolates kosher according to the OU? No sweat, the rabbi assured us. The Shulchan Aruch provides the answers.

Then the rabbi complicated the picture: The halacha doesn’t have all the answers, he admitted. How could it? Who knew, for example, about stem cell research 500 years ago? What do we do when the halacha doesn’t spell things out?

The rabbi used the Torah portion of the week to introduce the metaphor of the bow and arrow. When the law is not clear, the rabbi explained, we must tremble before God and aim very, very carefully, as with a bow and arrow. It’s with this metaphorical bow and arrow that the OU decided to come out in favor of stem cell research a few years ago.

The Orthodox way, the rabbi concluded, is not that it refuses to re-examine Jewish law to reflect changing circumstances, but that it is extremely careful before doing so. He called it the “poetry in Halacha,” and quoted a well-known saying by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook: “Just like there are rules in poetry, there is poetry in rules.”

Apparently, though, that is too much poetry for some people.

When you talk to Orthodox machers behind the scenes, you hear about this silent anxiety today in the Orthodox world about some of its members “flipping” into the Yeshiva world and becoming ultra-Orthodox. This subject didn’t make it to the OU Convention, and it’s not likely to ever make it. It’s simply too awkward for an Orthodox movement to acknowledge that it is not Orthodox enough for some of its members.

Maybe that’s why we’re always hearing about the Orthodox movement moving more and more to the right. It’s one thing to feel threatened by the seductive come-ons of a secular society, but to feel threatened by a “more religious” movement, one that is even more obedient of Jewish law? That cuts too close to the bone.

This might also explain the safe public agenda of the OU convention, where the “enemy” is that easy target used by religious movements everywhere: The modern world and its empty values.

No wonder there’s anxiety in the Orthodox world. As if the white beard of Santa Claus wasn’t enough, now you have the black beards of the ultra-Orthodox, which seduce you with their own antidote to the modern world: the promise of absolute certainty.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Briefs: ‘Christian Nation’ vote; Aid to P.A.

Xmas Resolution Renews ‘Christian Nation’ Debate

A seemingly benign U.S. congressional resolution supporting Christmas has become the latest fodder in the debate over whether America is a “Christian nation.”

Nearly all the members of the House of Representatives, including a majority of Jewish members, voted for the Dec. 11 resolution acknowledging the celebration of Christmas and the role Christians have played in U.S. history.

But the resolution’s author, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), has since lashed out at the nine “liberal Democrats” who voted against the resolution and questioned how they had supported a different resolution supporting Ramadan.

In a Dec. 12 appearance on Fox News, King said: “I would like to know how they can vote yes on Ramadan, yes on the Indian religions and no on Christianity when the foundation of this nation and our American culture is Christian.”

The rhetoric over the so-called Christmas wars has been toned down this year, with Christian conservatives less vocal than in the past about the need to “protect” Christmas from those who would downplay its public and religious significance.

At the same time, the congressional dust-up comes as Jews and others express discomfort with the decidedly central role of faith in the race for the Republican nominee for president.

King had voted “present” on the two other recent religious resolutions, one honoring Ramadan, which passed on Oct. 2, and one recognizing the Indian holiday of Diwali, which passed on Oct. 29.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) was the only Jewish representative to vote against the Christmas resolution. In 2005 he had led the charge against another resolution on Christmas — one to “protect” the holiday.

During that debate, Ackerman publicly wondered whether Santa Claus had been mugged or there had been threats of elf tossings.

“Congress has better things to do than to infringe upon the separation of church and state,” Ackerman said this week.

“If the Christmas resolution did what the Ramadan measure did, recognize the importance of the holiday and denounce hatred, with no reference to Mohammed, or what the Dawali resolution did, recognize the festival and the pluralism and diversity in the Indian and American society, and stayed away from all the religiosity and innuendo that a specific religion and not freedom of religion was a founding principle of America, I would not think it pushed on the separation clause.”

“Make no mistake: I like Santa Claus. I love the separation clause,” he added. “But being that it passed, they owe me eight resolutions for Chanukah.”

Most of the 30 Jewish lawmakers voted for the resolution.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Jan Shakowsky (D-Ill.), John Yarmuth(D-Ky.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) had voted recently for a resolution commemorating the importance of Ramadan, yet did not vote on the Christmas resolution.

Ackerman also had voted for the resolution commemorating Ramadan. Two other Jewish lawmakers, Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), were not present for the Christmas resolution vote.

The ’05 resolution, which strongly disapproved “of attempts to ban references to Christmas” and expressed “support for the use of these symbols and traditions,” had even greater support from Congress than the current Christmas measure.

It was sponsored by Rep. Joanne Davis (R-Va.), who died this year.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) had countered the ’05 resolution by drafting a similar bill honoring Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Israel’s bill died in committee.

Israel voted in favor of this year’s Christmas resolution.

“The resolution in 2005 implied that Christmas was under attack,” Israel’s communications director, Meghan Dubyak, said, adding that Israel believed the current resolution was written in the spirit of the previous two commemorations of Ramadan and Diwali.

Though this year’s resolution makes no mention of other religious holidays, language was added to make clear that the United States was built by people who had “Judeo-Christian” beliefs, not just Christian beliefs.

Winograd Conclusions Due Next Month

The Winograd Commission’s inquiry into the Lebanon war, which were expected out by year’s end, will be published next month, probably after President Bush visits the region, Israel’s Army Radio reported Monday. It was the second such delay after sources close to the commission said over the summer that its conclusions would not be made public before the High Holy Days.

The commission’s preliminary report censured Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the setbacks of the 2006 war against Hezbollah. This prompted some Israelis to anticipate that the final report would recommend Olmert step down. Olmert has defended his handling of the 34-day campaign in southern Lebanon and vowed to see out his term in office.

OU Moves Confab to Jerusalem

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) will move its 2008 convention to Jerusalem. The OU was scheduled to return to the Israeli capital in 2010, but changed next year’s location from New York in large part because it has been at the forefront of the coalition organized to prevent Jerusalem from being divided in Israel’s talks with the Palestinians.

“It was clear to us that since New York was chosen as the site of the 2008 Convention, much had happened regarding the possible division of Jerusalem that made it imperative for the OU to be there in great numbers,” OU President Stephen Savitsky and Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb announced in a statement.

The convention will take place Nov. 23-30.

Bill Pushes Iran to Pay Victims

A major defense bill includes provisions that would limit the ability of terrorist-backing states to protect U.S. assets from litigants. The Defense Authorization bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives, would limit the appeal options for states found liable in U.S. courts for backing terrorism.

The legislation is based on an earlier stand-alone bill authored by two Jewish U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It is aimed particularly at Iran, which until now has successfully resisted dipping into U.S. assets to pay close to $2.7 billion in damages won in courts by families of the 241 servicemen killed in the 1983 Hezbollah attack on a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut. Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. The bill must now be approved by the Senate and then goes to President Bush for signing.

P.A. Raises $7.4 Billion

Representatives of some 90 countries who gathered Monday in Paris pledged $7.4 billion to the Palestinian Authority, topping the goal of $5.5 billion by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. The money is earmarked for Abbas’ administration in the West Bank in hope of building up its institutions and affluence, driving Palestinians in Gaza to vote out Hamas rulers.

Acts of Faith

Shabbat Shalom, Los Feliz

When Rabbi Leibel Korf came to Los Angeles more than seven years ago, he started up a Chabad center in his Los Feliz home’s dining room. By October 2000, he moved to a 1,200-square-foot storefront on Vermont Avenue, in a strip mall just north of Hollywood Boulevard. For the last five years, Chabad of Greater Los Feliz has thrived so much that Korf felt it was time to move to bigger premises.

“For the past years, we felt there was a lot we could do if we had the space and a presence in the neighborhood,” he said.

Now they will, with the purchase of a 6,750-square-foot lot on Hillhurst Avenue for $1.4 million. The two-building property, located on a trendy restaurant row north of Franklin Avenue, was formerly the famous Vida restaurant. (The Los Angeles Times erroneously reported the property was sold to the Kabbalah Center.)

The new Chabad of Greater Los Feliz is set to open there Feb. 1. Synagogue services will take place in the renovated back building, and Chabad classes, lectures, day school, teen clubs and programs will take place in the main building, which will also undergo renovations once the additional funds — about $1 million — are raised.

Korf, 35, hopes to use the new premises to expand his programs and host more of the community. (Korf boasts a mailing list of 7,000 — “We know of the existence of 2,000, and we have some contact with 1,300-1,500,” he said.) They are kashering the restaurant kitchen so that his wife, Dvonye, who normally prepares large meals in their home, can now have the professional, kosher facilities for Shabbat and holiday meals.

The only cloud on this silver-lined horizon may be that it is located next door to a Scientology center, where young Hollywood types stand outside distributing leaflets and beckoning passersby to enter. But Korf says he will not get involved.

“We are very nonjudgmental in general — no matter who our neighbors are, we are very accommodating,” he said.

Korf hopes the new center will attract more people from the Hollywood Hills, Silver Lake and the surrounding Eastside areas than being “in a strip mall on the edge of the neighborhood,” he said.

“I feel if there’s one more Jew-plus by being here, then, it’s all worth it.”

Chabad of Greater Los Feliz will be located at 1930 N. Hillhurst Ave. For more information, call (323) 660-5177 or visit www.chabadlosfeliz.com

Torah, Arts Meet at the Beach

The Pacific Jewish Center (PJC), or “the shul on the beach” as it is known, is one of six synagogues to win a $20,000 grant from the Orthodox Union (OU) programming initiative awards competition. PJC is the only L.A. synagogue to receive one of these first-time grants, which were announced in May for “encouraging initiatives to strengthen local synagogue and communal life.”

PJC won for the Venice Torah Arts Festival project, which will transform the synagogue, gardens and parking lot into a summer arts exhibition. Normally, the structure is closed except for daily prayers and Shabbat and holiday services. During the summer, the festival coordinator and volunteers will greet boardwalkers and entice them to Torah, Judaism and the local synagogue in hopes of inspiring “a vibrant revival of Jewish interest,” according to PJC’s grant application.

The OU awarded grants to programs that could be easily replicated in other synagogues. Stephen Savitsky, OU president, said, “Rabbi Benjamin Geiger, President Judd Magilnick and their colleagues are to be commended for their effort in putting this program together and for the vision and foresight they displayed in evaluating their community’s needs and in devising this program as a response.”

Pacific Jewish Center is located at 505 Ocean Front Walk. For more information call (310) 392-8749 or visit www.pjcenter.com

Separate but Egalitarian

The new monthly minyan, 10 and 10, will hold its next services on Friday, Jan. 20, at the Workmen’s Circle on Robertson Boulevard. The congregation follows traditional Shabbat services with a mehitzah dividing men and women, but also has women leading certain parts of the service, as well as getting aliyot.

10 and 10 is modeled after the shul, Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem, which adheres to traditional Jewish law, but is progressive in searching for egalitarian allowances of Jewish law. For example, 10 and 10 only begins davening when both 10 men and 10 women are present. The group meets at the Workmen’s Circle in the winter and in private homes in the spring and summer. Friday night services are followed by a dairy potluck.

For more information, contact 10and10-minyan@yahoogroups.com.



Mensches, Menschen

The plural of “mensch” has always been “menschen” (“Mensches: Some Big-Hearted Angelenos You Would Be Proud to Know,” Jan. 6). Come Purim, will we read about “hamentasches”?

I was impressed, though, by the dedication of those featured in the accompanying article.

Ruth L. Brown
Los Angeles

I do not profess to be a Yiddish linguist, but I learned my Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul in Perth Amboy, N.J., about 65 years ago, where everyone knew that the plural of “mensch” was “menschen.” Please tell me whether or not I’m correct.

Marv Frankel
Los Angeles

Ed. Note: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the plural of “mensch” is either “mensches” or “menschen.” We chose the style closer to English, but feel free to come by and discuss it over some beigelech and blintschikes.

Interfaith Celebrations

We were disappointed by your editorial/news story, “Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah” (Dec. 23), with its premise that interfaith or intercultural celebrations shouldn’t be tolerated.

The predictable seasonal staple about how children are confused by joint celebrations provided no evidence to support that conclusion. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead of probing how Jewish communities can respond sensitively to the growing number of intercultural or interfaith families, it adopted the contemptuous tone articulated by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who dismisses those who want to combine holidays as “totally ignorant,” misguided and misinformed. By disparaging and discounting non-Jewish members of intermarried families, Jewish leaders put their heads in the sand and push them away.

In our secular Jewish organization, the Sholem Community (www.sholem.org), we’ve welcomed intercultural families who have been made to feel uncomfortable at synagogues.

We don’t ask non-Jewish family members to reject their backgrounds. We discuss how family members can honor each other’s heritages with respect and understanding. We explore common cultural themes in seasonal festivals, and we’ve seen how families can observe loving and warm, respectful celebrations.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone but is appropriate for people whose outlook is cultural and secular. Instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach, families who honor each other’s cultures and traditions can enrich their own experiences, their humanity and connect themselves and their loved ones to their Jewishness.

Jeffrey Kaye
Katherine James
Alan Blumenfeld
The Sholem Community

IRS Charge

In his opinion piece, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), Rabbi John Rosove correctly observes that the Tax Code prohibits, at the risk of loss of tax exemption, intervention by synagogues and other charities “in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

It does not prohibit all political activities. Charities, including synagogues, can take positions on legislation — that is lobby — so long as their lobbying activity is not substantial. (Positions on initiatives and referenda, as well as positions on nominees to the federal judiciary, are considered lobbying.) Moreover, these organizations can take positions on questions of public policy without limit.

Thus, even had Rabbi Rosove named leaders in his erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in October 2005, he would not have violated the campaign prohibition, since no election was looming. Nonetheless, since he did not mention any leader’s name, Rabbi Rosove could have offered this same sermon just days before an election without any violation of the prohibition.

In unofficial guidance, the IRS has treated discussions of issues of public policy without mention of candidates’ names as falling outside of the category of campaign intervention.

Ellen Aprill
Past President
Temple Israel of Hollywood
John E. Anderson Professor of Tax Law
Loyola Law School

Orthodox Women

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox But Not Monolithic” (Jan. 6). While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union (OU).

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

David Luchins
OU National Vice President

Illegal Immigration

Like every apologist for illegal immigration, Rob Eshman makes a case for “assimilation” of the undocumented, while ignoring the wholesale violation of our laws and sovereignty that got us into a fiscal and social quagmire (“The Slop Sink,” Dec. 30).

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the net cost of public benefits and services for illegal immigrants in California is $10 billion a year — a structured deficit that no one in Sacramento is willing to address. L.A. County public hospitals lose $340 million a year providing uncompensated care for undocumented immigrants.

Here’s the kicker: The proposed Totalization Agreement with Mexico will provide Social Security benefits to Mexican nationals and, by extension, illegal immigrants. The price tag: $345 billion over 20 years.

Les Hammer
Los Angeles

Winter Break

Jennifer Garmaise’s article (“Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time,” Dec. 30) did not address the logistical and economic impact that shifting winter vacations to late January has on families of moderate means. Far from “disrupting vacation plans,” moving winter vacation from late December poses a serious challenge to parents who work outside the Jewish community, particularly single parents and those families where both parents must work in order to make ends meet.

Many of these parents hoard their sick leave and vacation time in order to take off for Yom Tov. Taking a week off in January (when alternative forms of child care are not available) in order to care for children out of school poses a financial hardship and, sometimes, a barrier to employment altogether. It is also difficult to see what educational or religious benefit the children gain from this week.

Giving the children a week’s break at Chanukah (as is done in Israel) would not completely solve the child care issue, but at least it has a logical Jewish rationale. Starting winter break on Dec. 26 would comply with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, while alleviating the child care situation.

Offering affordable day camps would also go a long way toward addressing the needs of ordinary working parents who sacrifice in order to send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Miriam Caiden
Los Angeles


The Tangled Web

Google got you down?

Looking for that special Jewish link and have to sift through dozens of unrelated Web sites — or even worse, anti-Semitic ones — just to find what you’re looking for?

It’s probably old news to report that there are specialized Jewish search engines — there have been since the earliest days of the Web — but there are still new ones emerging.

Machers.com, an all-Jewish search engine, recently joined the fray of Jewish sites with technology that can search tens of thousands of Jewish and Israeli Web sites, allowing users to search within the Jewish Web, as well as within the world of Jewish bloggers. (You know what they say: two Jews, three bloggers).

Machers.com joins a growing list of Web sites that purport to be the Jewish search engine, from zipple.com to JewGotIt.com to Jewish.com. (Some popular ones are already defunct, like the Golem search engine.) In addition to the all-things Jewish search engines, there are also even more narrower niche engines and Web sites hosting links, such as Ahuva.com, the worldwide directory of synagogues, shuls, temples, federations and foundations (jewishdirectory.com); “Jewish Reunion UK,” a finder service for Jews looking for friends and relatives with a United Kingdom connection; and the All Kosher Index, a database of Kashrut organizations, mikvahs and kosher restaurants throughout the world .

Speaking of kosher search engines, the Orthodox Union (OU) recently announced its own Kosher search feature on its Web site www.oukosher.org. Not only does it list all OU-certified products, but it allows consumers and companies to search through ingredients to see if they’re kosher.

Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff, rabbinic coordinator and marketing specialist for OU Kosher, said that the site can aid companies searching for a kosher acid or enzyme. Stearic acid, for example, is often used in vitamins but can be manufactured from a beef derivative. He added that even if a company uses all-kosher ingredients, its product can’t be OU certified until it is applied and reviewed by OU.


PowerPoint Purim


Sometimes it’s hard to hear the reading of the Megillat Esther over the raucous screeches, foot stamping and grogger spinning that come following the reading of Haman’s name on Purim. Often the reader of the megilla has to wait until the noise subsides before continuing.

But for the deaf and hard of hearing, the opportunity to even listen to a megilla reading is often simply not even a possibility.

Given that fulfilling the mitzvah of Purim requires that we hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the Orthodox Union (OU) has come up with a unique way for the deaf and hard of hearing to participate in the mitzvah.

Our Way for the Jewish Deaf and Hearing Impaired, the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities Program, will provide a PowerPoint megillah reading to some 50 synagogues across the United States and Canada.

How does a PowerPoint megillah reading work?

The program is distributed on a CD-ROM, and projects visual graphics onto a screen, along with the text of the megillah in both Hebrew and English. And when Haman’s name is read, special graphics appear, giving the cue to go wild.

The program, which was implemented last year in 20 synagogues nationwide, has also proved popular with the elderly, those with poor eyesight who have difficulty reading the text of the megillah and with young children. As a result, some Jewish day schools have begun incorporating the program as a teaching aid in the lead up to Purim.

Any synagogue can participate in the program by providing a $100 donation to Our Way. The money goes toward developing resources for the deaf and hearing impared.

For more information, visit

Ask Moses and You Shall Receive

According to the Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of AskMoses.com, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson anticipated the Internet and the role it would play in our everyday lives as far back as the late 1970s. But it was not until 1998, when Chabad Lubavitch supporter Yuri Pikover reiterated the importance of maintaining an online presence, that Cunin and his staff at Chabad’s headquarters took notice.

“He kind of opened our eyes,” Cunin said. “We started analyzing what was out there already, and we wanted to go a little further. We wanted to reach the people who were not interested, but curious, at best.”

Chabad’s AskMoses.com Web site features 60 rabbis working 24 hours, six days a week, to address the ethical, spiritual, and practical concerns of both Jews and non-Jews alike. No question is too big or too trivial, say the rabbis, who field about 20 to 40 conversations an hour.

“It enables people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to ask questions, due to their distance in terms of geography or religious affiliation, to ask them,” said Rabbi Dov Greenberg of Chabad of the Conejo in Westlake Village, one of the spiritual advisers at AskMoses.com. The site operates on a $475,000 budget derived from donations that help to pay for wages, technical development and support.

“We realized that there’s nothing that can compare to a live conversation with a rabbi or rebbetzin,” Cunin said, noting that Chabad sought to recreate the accessibility and the guidance offered by the outreach organization’s global network of centers.

“We wanted to take that energy and that phenomenon and apply it to the Internet,” Cunin said.

In addition to Greenberg, other locals working shifts on the Web site are Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy of the Institute for Jewish Literacy and Rabbi Yisroel Schochet of Long Beach. Rabbi Simcha Backman, site manager and director of Chabad of Glendale, and his staff keep the interchange live around the clock by enlisting Chabad rabbis in Israel, Canada, Taiwan, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand.

Traffic at AskMoses.com passed the millionth-visitor mark over Passover. With more than 1,000 conversations taking place each day, Chabad will add six additional sites in Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian and German, with a total of 420 rabbis online. The first of these international sites, based in Argentina, will be up within three months.

“The Internet is a miracle,” Cunin said. “It’s amazing that we can be connected and share info like that.”

Visit AskMoses.com 24 hours a day, every day except Shabbat at www.askmoses.com.

Also taking flight on the Web is a new page established by Orthodox Union (OU). Each week, subscribers receive e-mails on the weekly Torah portion and upcoming Jewish holidays (www.ou.org/forms/shshreg.asp). Links also connect visitors with candlelighting times, a rundown of OU kosher-certified products, recipes and trivia questions.

Visit the OU’s Shabbat Shalom at www.ou.org/shabbat/ .