A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Oct. 24, 2014. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

Worried about Jewish pluralism in Israel? So are Israelis, new poll shows.

For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews worried by the Israeli government’s unfriendly policies toward them this year, a new poll has some good news.

The 2017 annual survey by Hiddush given to JTA ahead of its release Monday offers indications that the Israeli Jewish public is as supportive as ever of religious pluralism, if not more so. Few are happy with how the state handles religion, and record number would like to disentangle Judaism and politics.

“When you look across the years, there is a consistent high-level, and on many issues a growing level, of support of freedom of religion and equality,” said Hiddush CEO Uri Regev. “As a result, the gap between the public and the political leaders is growing.”

The Rafi Smith Institute in July conducted the survey for Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, based on a representative sample of 800 Israeli Jewish adults. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. Hiddush has commissioned a version of the survey since 2009.

Many of this year’s findings are in line with those of previous years. Notably, 65 percent of Israeli Jews support giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal official standing to Orthodox Judaism. Among secular Jews, who account for some 40 percent of Israeli Jewry, the number was 92 percent. Such a radical move would amount to dismantling the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s haredi Orthodox rabbinical authority, which controls marriage and other Jewish services in the country.

Also, 84 percent of Jews agree Israel should uphold the freedom of religion and conscience promised in its Declaration of Independence, 67 percent support state recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and 50 percent would personally prefer it.

Haredi Jews trying to prevent a group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and Women of the Wall movement members from bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall compound during a protest march in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, the survey reveals a significant spike in support for separation of religion and state. Fully 68 percent of Israelis Jews embrace this principle, which Regev said they interpret as entailing a depoliticization of religion rather than a more complete American-style division. Support is up 5 percent from last year and 13 percent since 2010.

Zooming in on recent government policies on religion and state, the Hiddush survey found 73 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the new conversion law, which grants the Rabbinate a monopoly over officially recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. Were the government-backed nation-state bill to pass, for the first time enshrining in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state, 65 percent want it to explicitly protect religious freedom for all.

The survey did not ask about the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, which the government retreated from in June, outraging many Diaspora Jews and inspiring petitions now being considered by the Supreme Court. But a June survey by Hiddush found 63 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the government’s action.

In general Israeli Jewish support for separation of religion and state and pluralistic policies is correlated with secularity and voting for more left-wing and less religious parties. Voters for haredi political parties overwhelmingly oppose both.

Despite recently escalating political rhetoric and legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court for its alleged disregard of Israel’s Jewish values, the survey found widespread support for the principles underlying many of its recent rulings and, at least relative to other government institutions, for the court itself.

An Israeli soldier walks among haredi Orthdox men in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, June 6, 2008. (Lara Savage/ Flash90)

The Supreme Court last week broke the Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification and struck downlegislation from 2015 meant to delay efforts to increase the rate at which haredi yeshiva students are drafted into the military.

According to the survey, public support for opening the kashrut market to competition with the state acting as a supervisor continued to rise, to 80 percent of Israelis Jews. Among secular Jews, the number was 95 percent with 80 percent backing the introduction of non-Orthodox certification. As in previous years, 83 percent think yeshiva students should be required to do military or national service, though a third would settle for national service and 14 percent are OK with some exemptions.

Asked for the first time this year which institution they most trust, a plurality of Israelis, 39 percent, chose the Supreme Court over the government, the Knesset, the Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts. The least trusted institution is the government followed by the Rabbinate.

The survey indicates that the state’s handling of issues of religion and state is one cause of its lack of public support. A large majority of Israeli Jews, 78 percent, are dissatisfied with the current government on such issues. Only a majority of voters of the Mizrahi haredi political party Shas are satisfied.

According to Regev, there is growing frustration in Israel with political kowtowing to the haredi parties. After their opposition led to the suspension of the Western Wall deal, the parties in July pushed through a law allowing state-run mikvahs, or ritual baths, to bar non-Orthodox Jews from entry. In September, they brought to a sudden halt repair work on trains tracks across the country by threatening to bolt the government over the issue, wreaking havoc on the workday commutes of tens of thousands of Israelis.

A Jewish couple standing underneath the chuppah during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris, France, July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

However, Regev predicted, the haredi community will continue to call the shots as religion and state issues remain low on the priority list of most Israelis. A Channel 10 poll ahead of the 2015 election found that for most Israelis cost of living and social issues would be the main determinants of their vote, followed by security. Only 9 percent said they would vote primarily based on religion and state issues.

Hiddush Chairman Stanley Gold called on Diaspora Jews to step in. The Hiddush annual survey found 55 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in religion and state issues.

“Jewish Diaspora leaders concerned for the future of the Jewish people and concerned with strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must partner with Israeli organizations working in this field to bring about the necessary change: Full freedom of religion and conscience and total equality, regardless of religious identity,” he said in a statement.

Regev — who last week issued a statement signed by dozens leaders from across Judaism’s religious spectrum calling for sweeping reforms to Israel’s official religious establishment and its policies — suggested a shift in focus to those issues that most affect the daily life of Israelis. In a survey last December, Hiddush found that the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel is by far the most important religion and state issue to Jews, while prayer at the Western Wall is by far the least important one. The same survey found that 60 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in the marriage issue.

“There is dissymmetry between areas Israelis feel are important and the focus of many American Jews in the past few years,” Regev said. “But Israelis are frustrated with the status quo when it comes to marriage and so are more open to Diaspora intervention.

There are reasons to believe religion and state issues will not remain on the Israeli political back burner indefinitely. According to Hiddush’s annual survey, Israeli Jews think the political conflict between haredi and secular Jews is among the most challenging in the country, at least as much so as the one between the political right and left. Seething secular anger has erupted at the ballot box before, notably with the rise of Yair Lapid in 2012 and his father, Tommy Lapid in 2003.

“Politicians should be wary,” said Regev. “They don’t know when the hurricane is going to hit. It hit before, it will hit again, and it may be this time around.”

Letters to the editor: George W. Bush, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute and Jewish pluralism

This Argument Will Not End Until the Messiah Comes 

Rob Eshman’s criticism of former President George W. Bush’s public support for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) is well put (“Why Bush Was Wrong,” Nov. 15). However, the participation of a former president in MJBI’s activities should be profoundly insulting to all Americans regardless of religion. As stewards of the American civil religion, presidents symbolically affirm the unity-in-diversity that is at the core of our national theology. Ironically, it was George W. Bush himself who broadened the civil religion by becoming the first president to mention mosques alongside churches and synagogues in his first inaugural address. But by supporting a group committed to undermining the spiritual integrity of an American community — American Jewry — Mr. Bush is making a sad mockery of e pluribus unum. In effect he has done more than abandon the civil religious post former presidents are expected to occupy as elder statesmen; he has forsaken his vows. And that should anger not just Jews but any American who celebrates our nation’s unique tradition of pluralism. Prior ex-presidents seeking privacy certainly have taken off their mantles, and others have continued partisan political battles, but to my knowledge none has thrown down the sociocultural gauntlet like this. It is very sad.

Shawn Landres, the co-editor with Michael Berenbaum, of “After The Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences.”

Rob Eshman’s editorial misses the target completely. Messianics do not want to put an end to Jews. Their target is Judaism. They believe they are “perfecting” Jews. They love Jews. Why not? Look again at the Pew report. A huge percentage of those who claim to be Jews declared that their faith is not Judaism. In fact, only 4.2 million Americans declare Judaism as their faith. Non-Orthodox Jews are easy targets, especially those for whom Judaism is merely humor on a bagel. The Messianics are blameless for picking low-hanging fruit. Rather, look to those enlightened philosophers who took the flavors, Hebrew literacy, fast days, prayers and obligations out of Judaism and reduced them all down to tikkunism. The unintended consequences are that Messianics sell the happy deal: A Jewish Christian can easily tikkun the world without Judaism and enjoy a Christian spouse at the same time without the guilt.

Gary Dalin via e-mail

Rob Eshman states in his article, “When Jews believe Jesus is the Messiah, they stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on.” As a Jew, I have to politely disagree. A Jew’s beliefs do not dictate his or her Jewishness. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. He or she is free to accept any false messiah or believe in any misguided doctrine or dogma while still maintaining their Jewishness. It is this very freedom that makes being Jewish so challenging. Unlike other religions, your inclusion into ours does not rest on whether you believe our tenets to be true. As a result, Jews have often accepted and even spearheaded some pretty dubious belief systems. There have been Jewish atheists, Jewish pagans, Jewish communists, Jews who converted to Islam, Jews who collaborated with Stalin, and yes, Jews who believe Jesus to be the Messiah. We may grieve for these Jews. We may mourn the fact that they have placed themselves so far outside the borders of their own community. But we may never revoke from them their Jewishness. To be Jewish is to be Jewish forever. 

Isaac Himmelman, Santa Monica

What Is the Future of Pluralistic Judaism?

The 21st century Jewish landscape of Los Angeles does not support Dennis Prager’s thesis of the future of pluralistic Judaism (“No Faith, No Jewish Future,” Nov. 8). Sixty to 70 years ago, it was rare to see a Jew wear a kippah in a Reform shul. Now all Reform rabbis and cantors wear tallit and kippot. The Conservatives survived the schism over women rabbis and cantors. They will survive same-sex marriage.     

If an Orthodox Jew, with an open mind and respect and love for all Jews, would participate in a pluralistic service, he or she would note that when the Torah is taken from the ark and the congregants recite the Shema, whether in silent whisper or full-throated outburst, he or she would feel confident of the future of pluralistic Judaism. It is in that moment that all Jews affirm Prager’s God and Torah. 

Ken Lautman, Los Angeles

Dennis Prager responds: Mr. Lautman might be surprised to learn that I have been a member of a Reform synagogue (Stephen S. Wise) for more than 20 years. The services I attend each Shabbat and the High Holy Day services I independently conduct are “pluralistic.” I didn’t argue against pluralism. I argued that few Jews — or Jewish movements — without faith in the God of the Torah and that the Torah is from God will, over the course of generations, remain Jews.


For the article “How to Run a Gala” (Nov. 6), a series of quotes attributed to the Anti-Defamation League’s development director, Maggie Howard, should have been attributed to ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind.

Jewish pluralism in Israel: It’s flourishing

While American Jews haven’t been looking — or have been looking in the wrong places — Jewish pluralism in Israel is booming. But like most things in Israel it looks much different than Jewish pluralism in the United States. In Israel, Jewish pluralism takes place almost totally outside of the synagogue. It can be seen in music, bestselling books, museum programs and film. But perhaps most importantly it takes place in encounters between all types of Israelis over Jewish texts.
The recent inaugural speech by Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon increased awareness of Jewish pluralism, but she and others have been actively involved in institutions in this arena for over 30 years.  Calderon spoke of her experience in learning of Judaism” from the tanach to the palmach (from the bible to Zionist history) with nothing in between. Something was missing, she noted.  Her sentiments are not unique they speak to a large sector of younger Israelis who find the strict dichotomy between dati and cheloni (secular and religious) a thing of the past.

These activities are an expression of Israelis that the texts belong to all the Jewish people not just a segment of the population. And these encounters take place in a new type of Beit Midrash (study hall).

One example is Beit Midrash Elul, founded by Ruth Calderon in Jerusalem in 1989   as a place for observant and non observant Jews to come together in encountering Jewish texts.  Elul’s programs have grown over the years to and reach Israelis of all ages throughout the country. The programs range from text study to storytelling for children to a program where teenage “garage bands” work together to learn Jewish texts improve their musical skills and compose and perform a song based on the text. You can catch a great video at elul.org.il

Calderon went on to found and serve as director of Alma located right off of rechov shenkin in tel aviv, seen by many as the center of hip secular Tel Aviv. Inside the Alma beit midrash the same young people found at the cafes come to study Talmud.
Another major trend is the growth of mechinot (pre army) and midrashot (post army Pre University in most cases). In these institutions observant and non observant young people live and study together for several months.

At Midreshet Ein Prat participants study Western philosophy and Jewish texts. The study day literally begins at 8 am with Talmud and ends at midnight with Machiavelli with session on the Hebrew prophets Sufi Islam in between. At another midrasha, Beit Yisrael, students combine Jewish text study with community service.  There I found students engrossed in their first exposure to the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel both the Chassidic and the social justice sides.
Over and over again in conversations with participants in these programs I have encountered similar reactions to the experience. “I grew up in a Jewish state and never saw a page of Talmud…something was missing”, “I studied these texts in high school with teachers and students who all came from the same observant  background I now have an opportunity to see these texts in a different light when learning them with people of different backgrounds”.

The batei midrash and midrashot all began from the bottom up (or to use the somewhat overused moniker they were typical of startup nation).  The social change they may trigger is an unknown but there are some interesting developments coming at the top.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the upstart and highly successful Yeish Atid party has been involved in groups associated with this “jewish renaissance” movement for over a decade. In addition to Calderon, Yeish Atid’s MKs include Aliza Lavie a feminist activist within the Orthodox community founder of the group Kolech The new Minister of Education is Yaish Atid MK Rabbi Shai Piron a leader of the liberal Orthodox Tzohar group.

Further signs of change are the growing number of joint dati /lo dati schools across the county. The growth is such that an MA program in education specializing in preparation for this type of pedagogy was recently established.
A member of the Tzohar group Rav David Stav has positioned himself as a serious candidate for the Chief Rabbinate ..complete with an active Facebook feed. And of course the recent election has considerably reduced the influence of the ultra-orthodox parties in education and other areas
Do these developments mean Israel is on the way to a model of American Jewry with large congregations of Reform and Conservative Jews?…not likely. Yet many involved in these programs have been influenced by the openness they have seen in American Jewry. They then created distinctively Israeli institutions.
At the same time, Israelis are offering American Jews a different model of pluralism. It would be a place where participants leave their denominational labels at the door and enter a beit midrash where they can engage with Jewish texts together. If post denominationalism is the most appropriate description for 21st century American Judaism this is the perfect fit.

There is a potential for a new dimension to relations between Israelis and American Jews as well.  Some steps have been made in this direction but there is potential for far more, involving  American visitors to Israel be they individuals, synagogue groups, gap year programs or Rabbinical students studying for a year in Israel. Engagements over Jewish texts have historically been a central part of Jewish life they offer potential to be a focal point for interaction across American and Israeli Jews pluralism without labels.

On Shabbat May 3- 4 Los Angeles will have an opportunity to learn more about Beit Midrash Elul and pluralism. Leaders of the beit midrash will be at Ikar, Temple Emanuel, Temple Beth Am and Bnai David over the course of Shabbat. There are also limited spaces available at a Shabbat lunch and Saturday evening program contact leah@elu.org.il for more information. Interested in visiting some of these groups on your next trip to Israel contact larryweinman@yahoo.com check his Jewish Journal blog: chavayaexperiences.

Letter to the Editor: Town hall on religious pluralism

Dear Editor,

I want to thank Rob Eshman for his review of the important Town Hall on Religious Pluralism that took place at Temple Emanuel last week and for his moderating a community conversation in which people have such passionate and diverse opinions.  What he didn’t mention in his review were the names of all the other synagogues and organizations that cosponsored the event.  They included the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, LimmudLA, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Academy of Jewish Religion, Adat Ari El,  Temple Beth Am, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Beth Shir Shalom, Congregation Or Ami, Kol Ami, Temple Beth El Riverside, Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Isaiah, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Temple Judea,  Hillel at UCLA, University Synagogue,  Hillel at USC, Valley Beth Shalom, IKAR, Kehillat Israel, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Nashuva, National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California, Adat Shalom, Sinai Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Akiba, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and the Jewish Journal.  Had there been more time to organize the event, I am confident that there would have been even more sponsors.  I know that all the sponsoring organizations are grateful to our Consul General David Siegel for his encouragement to go ahead with the Town Hall in spite of the crisis Israel faced with the shelling from Gaza. Just as the entire community can come together during a crisis when Israel is threatened from the outside, we who love Israel must come together to think creatively about the challenges that Israel is facing from within.


Rabbi Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

Opinion: Pluralism means finding your place in the Jewish story

For the past six years The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which is named in honor of my father and that I now run with my son Adam, has held a conference called “Why Be Jewish?” It is an intimate gathering that seeks to explore an expansive question. This year, in conjunction with the Shalom Hartman Institute, we will focus on the idea of Jewish pluralism.

Jewish pluralism, to me, is about finding your place in the story of our people. All Jews share a narrative going back to the patriarchs and matriarchs who created us, and they are wonderful and complex stories to share, study and learn. Jewish texts root you in the world and allow you to understand yourself, your values and your culture, all the while speaking to our modern lives with ancient wisdom.

Every Jew, regardless of belief and practice, should be able to see themselves in the narrative, values and rituals—in all their permutations—that bind us together as the Jewish people. We have an obligation as Jews to educate ourselves about our shared texts, common history and the traditions we have inherited.

At the heart of my Jewish beliefs is the tradition of questioning. Questioning is how we begin to learn. We Jews constantly discuss complex issues about how to live a moral and meaningful life, and seek guidance from sources ranging from our sacred texts to our most assimilated activists. We debate openly and are not shy, nor should we be.

All Jews, regardless of how they choose to practice—or not practice—their Judaism should be encouraged to engage in this dialogue. Questions are where education begins, and with education comes a sense of pride and ownership. The challenge for those of us who care about seeing Judaism thrive now and in the future is not to tell people what they should think, but rather to encourage them to learn enough that they can arrive at their own conclusions.

Taking a curious rather than pedantic approach to the question of why we are Jewish has led me to studying Jewish texts, history and culture. That knowledge has become, as I enter my 83rd year, a wellspring of joy and inspiration. It is not because studying taught me how to be a Jew, but rather because it rewarded my curiosity and helped me become a better human being.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through studying Judaism is the necessity of mutual respect, and this idea lies at the heart of pluralism. To debate well we must be civil. To answer questions we must listen. I am a firm subscriber to the notion that there is no valid question that is rude, only questions rudely asked.

The “Why Be Jewish?” conference this year also marks the 25th year of a program I founded called the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. BYFI takes a small group of young, promising future Jewish leaders from across the spectrum of beliefs and traditions and immerses them in intensive study both here and in Israel. It is of great importance to me that the teenagers in the BYFI program represent people from across the spectrum of Jewish experience so that they learn not only by engaging in Jewish study, but also through dialogue with each other. My hope is that the future of pluralism can be seen through the transformative conversations that occur between participants.

This type of Jewish dialogue shouldn’t just be limited to teenagers in intensive study programs, but is something we can all share with each other through learning with our families, friends, communities and, even upon occasion, those we might see as our enemies. Jews are, after all, a family of sorts. Even when we disagree, we are mutually bound to care for each other.

That interconnectedness means respecting other streams of Judaism and discovering what we can learn from each other. Pluralism is an open Judaism where all denominations can be inspired and gain wisdom by listening to each other. Regardless of individual practice, we all share a rich heritage in which meaning can be found for every Jew, from the traditionally pious to the most skeptical of conventional religious practice.

Pluralism also means egalitarianism. Women’s contributions as Jewish leaders and rabbis have only enhanced our community as a whole, as has the open inclusion of homosexuals. Their active participation in Jewish life should be encouraged across the entire spectrum of Jewish practice and ideologies. The more widely we open out tent, as our forefather Abraham did, the more Judaism is enriched. All should be welcome and able to express themselves within our community.

Like Abraham, who was known to keep his tent open to accommodate all who wished to be included, pluralism means all that who wish to come into our Jewish community must be welcome. Judaism is strong and rich enough to take on a plurality of practice. There is room for all in our story. My hope for all Jewish people is that they write a new story for themselves that will be told for generations to come.

(Edgar M. Bronfman is the president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and is working on a book about Jewish peoplehood with journalist Ruth Andrew Ellenson. He is the former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd.)

Pluralism and Tikkun Olam come to Santa Monica, Venice

Jessica Youseffi and Sarah Shahawy, two undergraduate students at the University of Southern California (USC), discussed how the teachings of Judaism and Islam, their respective religions, obligate them to accept people of other faiths and to work toward tikkun olam.

Youseffi, during a phone interview, spoke about an idea used to describe the Torah, the concept of 70 faces — “the idea of pluralism, [of] so many different perspectives, each valid and unique,” she said.

Shahawy, in a separate interview, said, “For me, as a Muslim, I think it’s part of the Islamic theology and tradition to get to know people of other faiths and work with them. [There is] the call to service, to be aware of the suffering of the people around us and work to alleviate it.”

On Nov. 7, the two of them, along with Rabbi Lori Schneide, director of Jewish Life at USC Hillel, organized an event that showed the potential in community service in working toward religious pluralism. Under their leadership, 21 Jewish and Muslim college students came together in the Santa Monica-Venice area for nearly a day’s worth of giving-back-related activities.

They donated blood to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, cleaned up trash on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier, walked part of the distance in the Westside Food Bank’s 20th annual 5K Hunger Walk after preparing finish line token bags for other walkers and bought toiletries from the 99 Cents Only Store to be included in hygiene kits that will be distributed in the future in the Skid Row area.

Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. “We’re really, really appreciative of the USC group,” said Dave Keys, the blood drive coordinator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who wore a bright red “Give Blood” sticker.

Coinciding with the Weekend of Twinning, a national project that encourages congregants of mosques and synagogues to work together, the USC students’ event marked the first collaborative effort between the university’s Hillel and the Ansar Service Project, a Muslim community service organization based out of USC.

The group’s actions also served to counterbalance clashes between Muslim and Jewish students on campus, arguments that arise from opposing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue is a point of tension on campuses everywhere. Last April, The Jewish Journal ran a cover story, “Is UC Irvine Safe for Jews?” following an incident with a Muslim student group protesting the appearance of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

On Nov. 7, though, the group set aside conversations about Israel and Palestine and opted for a day of hanging out and giving back.

“Once we have relationships and we’re friends, we can begin discussing our complex issues,” Schneide said, while she and the other students rode on a rented bus that took them from USC in the morning to each event site throughout the day.

They met at the USC Hillel at approximately 9:30 a.m. and returned around 5 p.m., after eating a late lunch at Dhaba Restaurant, where they reflected on the day’s events.

“I’m really happy,” Youseffi said. “This is definitely the first building block toward further understanding.”

New Israel Fund renews local presence after four-year hiatus

“People in Israel are so overloaded by big problems, mainly security but also corruption, that it’s easy to disconnect from dealing with social inequities,” said Ronit Heyd, a young Israeli activist.

Heyd, joined by Ilana Litvak, who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and Nidal Abed El Gafer, a Palestinian lawyer, were in Los Angeles last week as three “connected” Israelis, working to empower their country’s underprivileged and raise the level of civic involvement.

Their presence at a roundtable was sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF), which has just raised its Los Angeles profile by reestablishing a local office, after a four-year hiatus.

Its director is Ellen Barrie Aaronson, long active in the Jewish community and the entertainment industry, most recently as vice president for development at Johnenelly Production, is in the process of setting up the office.

NIF was founded in 1979 to work toward “a more just, equitable and pluralistic state of Israel,” according to its mission statement. NIF helps grass-roots groups, through grants, training and coalition building, to move into the Israeli mainstream. These groups include new immigrants, especially Ethiopians, women’s rights activists, gays, Israeli Arabs and people with disabilities. Since its establishment, NIF has distributed more than $200 million in grants to 800 organizations in Israel.

Shatil (Hebrew for seedling), NIF’s action arm, mentors and trains civic groups to take their fates into their own hands and bring their needs to the attention of government, media and society at large.

In addressing some 80 people at the Beverly Hills Country Club (located in Cheviot Hills), three speakers representing Shatil illustrated their organization’s principles through concrete examples of their work.

Gafer, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University law school, has worked to prevent the demolition of “illegal” Arab homes through court appeals. In another case, he has sought to allow students from inferior Arab schools to attend better Jewish schools.

He has had some success in this “affirmative action” suit, but, he noted, Arab and Jewish students must use the common school playground at separate times.

Heyd worked in northern Israel, heavily shelled during the Lebanon War, when wealthier residents fled south, but the poor stayed behind.

“The Israel government failed to provide shelter and food for those left behind,” Heyd said. “We got grass-roots groups together to demand public hearings on why the government had fouled up.”

Litvak’s main concern is to find ways of boosting Ethiopian and Russian kids, who have great difficulties in keeping up in school.

In a conversation after the meeting, Aviva Sagalovitch Meyer, NIF’s national associate director, said that the Washington, D.C.-based organization has a $25 million annual budget and six branch offices in the United States, four in Israel, and one each in London and Toronto.

Meyer said that about 6 percent of NIF’s general support donors and revenue came from the L. A. area, and she hoped that the establishment of a local office would raise these figures.

Last month, the Ford Foundation renewed a $20 million grant to NIF.

The Los Angeles roundtable was marked by a harmonious atmosphere, in apparent contrast to a similar all-day seminar in New York.

There, according to a JTA report, an Arab speaker, whose organization is supported by NIF, regretted that his fellow Palestinians didn’t take up arms to fight the denial of their rights by “Israeli occupiers.”

Another Israeli Arab, a law professor at Hebrew University, called for a change in Israel’s flag and national anthem.

It is NIF’s support of Arab groups, such as those represented by the two speakers, that raise the hackles of critics. One opponent cited is Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a hawkish pro-Israel watchdog organization.

Referring to the remarks of the two speakers, Steinberg said, “This is not about making Israel a better society; it’s about denying the legitimacy of Israel to exist.”

In response, Larry Garber, NIF’s CEO, said that his organization would continue to fund Arab rights groups, even if they say or do things with which the NIF doesn’t quite agree.

Meyer, NIF’s associate director, added, “When you join a group, not everything is going to be something you like; you support the broad position. You don’t expect to agree with every position.”

Eliezer Ya’ari, who heads NIF’s operations in Israel, said that differences between NIF and its critics come down to a matter of ideology. On one side are those, in Israel and the Diaspora, who see Israel as a Middle Eastern country of all its citizens, as against those more interested in preserving the Jewish nature of the state, even at the expense of democratic principles.

“The challenge in the next 60 years,” he said, “is making Israel a part of the Middle East.”

For more information on the New Israel Fund, call (310) 566-6367. For more information on NIF, e-mail eaaronson@nif.org.

JTA associate editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this article.

‘Secular Yeshiva’ answers young Israelis’ questions

Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel.

A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.

“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”

Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, nonreligious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.

The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, which receives funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv, where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.

The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.

Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.

The yeshiva is a project of BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.

“One of the reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.

“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.

About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.

The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.

Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the Modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, as well as from federations in Los Angeles and New York. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.

Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.

“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.

“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”

Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.

“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.

The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.

Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.

“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.

If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”

Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.'”

Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.

Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.

Choosing Pluralism

We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

Bringing Dr. King Into the Beit Midrash

Oddly, or perhaps not for a product of the Orthodox yeshiva world, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., profoundly shaped my religious life. His life story, with all its achievements, failures, complexities and wonders, is, like the lives of all spiritual giants, its own text and source of teaching. Let’s look at three particular themes that speak to me in his thought: nonviolent struggle, the meaning of pluralism and living Scripture.

In a 1956 sermon, King said: “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.”

Nonviolence is not pacifism, but a form of struggle, one which asserts a human bond between the two parties to a conflict, including the oppressor. In nonviolent struggle, one individual made in the Divine Image holds a mirror up to another, his oppressor, and forces him to acknowledge his own acts of injustice, the self-destruction of his own Divine Image, the ways in which by oppressing others he destroys himself.

This sense of witness is crucial to the Jewish concept of martyrdom, the sanctifying witness of God’s presence, even to one’s oppressors. Thus, the struggle of sanctifying the name of God begins with a struggle with oneself to realize one’s own Divine Image, a challenge, we might add, greatly sharpened by Jewish statehood.

At the same time, where the oppressor refuses to recognize the other’s basic humanity, nonviolence is a recipe for suicide — as Martin Buber pointed out on his response to Gandhi’s suggestion that Jews undertake passive resistance to Nazism. When the oppressed refuses to see the oppressor’s humanity, all that is left is force. History will judge the Palestinians to have made a tragic error in never even trying the path of nonviolent resistance in their struggle with, of all people, Jews.

King’s attempt to cross multiple lines of race, culture, religion — black and white, rich and poor, Jew and Christian, East and West — did not entail any surrender of the idea of universal moral standards. To the contrary, it was precisely his faith in a divine morality that enabled him, compelled him, to reach across those boundaries.

King decried “midnight within the moral order … colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of gray … right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes….” Yet, he said, “faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.”

In his Nobel Prize lecture he called for “an all-embracing, an unconditional love for all men … of that force which all of the great religions have seen as a supreme unifying principle of life.”

In his Christian idiom he spoke of love; a Jewish voice might speak more of the universal justice that, as Hillel taught the gentile who asked for the epitome of Torah, is the practical meaning of “Love thy neighbor.” Either way, we have here a pluralism that asserts strong moral claims, including respect of others, grounded in a powerful belief in God. We need not be scared of asserting that some things are indeed true, if that truth is grounded in humility and charity, which are the only ways we can stand in the presence of God.

The rabbis of the Talmud read themselves and their lives into the Bible by reading one biblical text in light of all the others, exploring connections between past, present and future that weave all of Scripture into a whole. By contrast, King stepped into the Bible by reading it in the immediate light of one’s own experience. That very experience, above all of Exodus redemption, was the template for the very real redemptions to come.

King says that the very concrete struggle between Egyptians and Israelites is the revelation of the struggle between good and evil throughout human history and of good’s ultimate triumph, now, as then. By his reading, “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore” (Exodus 14:30) means that “as we look back we see … there is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.”

He opened himself to the biblical text with a breathtaking immediacy and moral passion. Thus in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until … justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'” (Amos 5:24). In his astounding “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, delivered the night before his murder, Moshe stands alongside every man of faith who knows that “from a distance you will see the Land, and there you will not go” (Deuteronomy 32:52) and knows he must bring his people there nonetheless.

Withal, King wasn’t a rabbi. He would have been the first to acknowledge that Judaism has its own Torah, its own particular forms of knowledge and action and that a vague universal goodwill is no substitute for the stubborn articulation of a tradition’s own selfhood (indeed he was himself the product of a rich tradition of African American spirituality and preaching). Yet the addition of his voice to the blessed cacophony of the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, can perhaps bring us one step closer to the freedom which, we read in Tractate Pirkei Avot (6:2), is the gift to those who preoccupy themselves with Torah.

Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky served as an official in the U.S. State Department, is a fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and is a doctoral fellow at Harvard. This piece is courtesy of Edah, the advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism.


French Riots Show Need for Pluralism

For once, it would appear that Jews, Judaism and Jewish interests are not the target of violence in Paris and in so many cities across France.

After a surge in anti-Semitic hostility and incidents in recent years, that comes as something of a surprise. This time, it appears the rioters are burning their own cars and neighborhoods, rather then aiming their anger at the symbols of some outside enemy.

In today’s France, we witness riots without obvious enemies or proper targets — just bursts of pure anger.

After the burning of thousands of cars and shops, the French government announced two steps and two policies to stop the violence. First, it gave permission to strong repressive measures, such as house arrests and curfews, measures that the government has criticized when used by Israel. It also announced a plan to help the social and economic situation in the affected suburbs, promising to create 57,000 new jobs.

This second step is late and based on the wrong assumption — namely, that the present wave of anger is driven mainly by a harsh economic situation. In truth, this is an insult to the millions of people who struggle every day to make a living, but who never riot because they respect the life and possessions of others.

What’s really at stake is that many of the 7 million Muslim immigrants and their descendants in France feel discriminated against in the French political system, where their religious identity often is seen as suspect.

Unless religious and cultural expressions of identity are permitted and valued in a diverse society, violence is a likely response to the perceived lack of recognition. Only a year ago, the French government banned the use of visible religious symbols, such as the Islamic head covering. This was done in good faith for the higher purpose of secularism, as well as to curb trends of religious radicalism and fundamentalism.

But how wise is it to prevent such expressions of diversity and identity in a society that prides itself on being multicultural? Is France today paying the price of its policy of integration into a society where secularism is seen as the highest value?

What’s taking place these days on the streets of so many French cities should remind us that in a diverse society, it’s dangerous to put one set of values above others. The basis of a diverse society should be a sufficient set of common values that allow citizens to live together, rather then the establishment of a hierarchy of values that elevates some and deprecates others.

Let us not forget that as Jews, we, too, are often first- or second-generation immigrants. More then 75 percent of French Jews are from North Africa. For the Ashkenazim, many do have issues and problems with a French society that only 60 years ago turned its back on us, stripping us of citizenship and denying us protection from the Nazis.

Concerned by the events of the past two weeks, let us go beyond simple condemnations of violence and avoid the trap of playing the secular French card of order and citizenship against the Muslim immigrant card of violence and hooliganism.

The images can be misleading. The real danger today is not the lack of order and the burning of cars, the danger is the political impact that such riots could have on many French citizens.

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, reached the second round of France’s presidential election. After these riots, we fear that many will again turn to Le Pen and his ilk for simple and radical answers, which could bring to an end the dream of a diverse religious and cultural society.

Two years ago, CEJI, the French acronym for the European Jewish Information Center, warned the French government that diversity should never be taken for granted, and that unless society learns how to deal with pluralism, it will face difficult times ahead. We offered training for teachers and civil servants, but the government didn’t follow up.

Through our work in schools and peer training, implementing the World of Difference educational program and constantly working in the field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and European integration, we know that education is the key to a peaceful society.

When violence erupts, it’s not the time to give up on our dreams and turn to simple and radical solutions. Rather, today is the time to work even harder to make our dream a reality. By valuing each other and discovering each other, we believe we can still create a more cohesive society in Europe.

Ronny Naftaniel is executive vice chairman of the European Jewish Information Center, and Rabbi David Meyer is a member of its executive board.


High Court Recognizes ‘Leaping Converts’


After 22 years of living as an Israeli, Justina Hilaria Chipana can finally consider herself a full-fledged member of the Jewish state.

The 50-year-old native of Peru was one of 17 petitioners who won High Court of Justice recognition of their non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism on Thursday, in what the Conservative and Reform movements hailed as a breakthrough for efforts to introduce more religious pluralism to Israel.

Orthodox rabbis and politicians disagreed.

By a vote of 7-4, the High Court ordered the state to recognize “leaping converts” — so called because they study in Israeli institutes but then convert with Reform or Conservative rabbis abroad — as eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The ruling was a small step in a decades-long controversy in Israel over who is a Jew, who can turn a non-Jew into a Jew and who can decide whether that process was done correctly.

Thursday’s ruling also broadened a 1989 decision recognizing immigrants who arrive having gone through the entire non-Orthodox conversion process abroad; those immigrants are considered to be Jews and the Law of Return applies to them.

But the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul.

“There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

Yet with many Israelis increasingly concerned about the lack of a unifying religious identity in the country — where some 300,000 citizens are non-Jews from the former Soviet Union — the Conservative and Reform movement remained confident that their more lenient conversions would provide a solution.

“We believe that with this precedent, it is just a matter of time until alternatives to Orthodox Judaism are fully recognized,” said attorney Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, a pro-pluralism lobby associated with the Reform movement. “It could mean filing more High Court petitions, or just waiting for Israel to come to its senses.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Reform movement was unsatisfied that the court didn’t issue a more far-reaching decision, and plans to bring another petition in hopes of forcing the state to recognize Reform conversions performed in Israel.

The only way for the Orthodox to counter Thursday’s ruling would be to have a new law passed defining their stream as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel. But repeated efforts to mount such legislation in the past failed to muster majorities for even preliminary Knesset readings.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counts one Orthodox political party, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), in his coalition, and he has been courting Shas. Still, it seems unlikely that either party would be able to apply enough pressure on the government to push through motions against the High Court ruling.

“We have no coalition agreement regarding this,” UTJ leader Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said. “I’m sure there will be discussions about what can be done, but I’m not especially hopeful.”

The High Court ruling is immediately binding on the government. That’s a relief for Chipana and her fellow petitioners, who filed their suit in 1999.

“We are going to implement the decision in a crystal-clear manner,” Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of the Labor Party told Army Radio. “I think that it provides an answer for many people who are living among us and are forced to go through a very tough journey, exhausting and tiring, that causes many to lose hope.”

In the United States, reaction to the decision broke along denominational lines.

“As a Conservative rabbi, I am of course delighted that the High Court in Israel has mandated the recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis in America,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, a scholar of Jewish law and the former head of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Law Committee.

“I’m very much aware that some segments of the Jewish world will continue to refuse to accept as valid conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis, and the court’s decision will create problems in those communities,” he said. “I accept as valid any conversion that complies with halachic requirements, and conversions that do not, I do not accept.”

The Orthodox Union, on the other hand, said it is “deeply concerned” by the ruling.

“The decision of the court may eventually lead to the division of the people of Israel into two camps. There will be a group of halachically valid Jews and a group of people who are Jewish only by the ruling of the Supreme Court,” the union said in a news release signed by its president, Stephen Savitsky, and executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. “The consequences of this ruling will be tragic.”

For the petitioners, however, the ruling was a long-overdue relief.

“I always dreamed of really belonging to the country,” said Chipana, who first came to Israel in 1983. In 1993 she converted at a Reform congregation in Argentina, and filed the lawsuit in 1999. “Now perhaps it can really happen.”

But should she want to marry to her Israeli-born boyfriend, Yosef Ben-Moshe, she will have to go on waiting or do it abroad: The chief rabbinate in Israel remains exclusively Orthodox, and its grip on life-cycle events remains unchallenged.

That’s the way the UTJ’s Ravitz wants it. Asked what will happen if “leaping converts” apply for marriage licenses in Israel, he said, “I imagine they will be told to take a flying leap.”

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, sees the question of Orthodox control as a larger problem than the one the High Court addressed.

“The entire acrobatic phenomenon in which people are forced to marry or convert abroad does no honor to Judaism or the State of Israel,” he said.

JTA Staff Writer Joanne Palmer in New York contributed to this story.


Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus

Why don’t Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah or son of God?

Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, "You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell." I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.

"Is Jesus perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered.

"Is the Father perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he said again.

"And is the Holy Ghost perfect?" Once again, he answered affirmatively.

"Well then," I said, "two of the three are superfluous. Perfection does not need anything. That is why it’s perfect. Since by definition, you can’t add anything to perfection, the idea makes no sense."

He paused for a minute, and said, "That is the mystery of the Trinity."

Since that time, I have been intrigued by the deep division between Jews and Christians over the question of Jesus. It has always seemed as crystal clear to me that Jesus was nothing more than a human being, as it has seemed crystal clear to many of my Christian friends that he was the son of God.

There is a long tradition of back and forth about this question, which has become somewhat urgent now that Jews for Jesus has launched a major outreach campaign in Los Angeles. It is not my intention to try to "prove" to Christians that Jesus is not God. I am neither so imperialistic nor so arrogant as to take upon myself such a task. Rather, in the spirit of pluralism, I want Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions.

I am going to stick to a few broad philosophical arguments. One of the most common — and least enlightening — exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. I think it is fair to say there is no conclusive argument from the Bible, and that Jews and Christians read similar passages very differently.

1. The primary reason that Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that after his arrival and death, the world was not redeemed. There is at least as much suffering, pain and tragedy in the world as there was before Jesus — probably much more. If the Christian answers that the suffering is a result of the world’s rejecting Jesus, two related questions arise, which I will take up below: Why did the majority of those who knew him reject him in his own lifetime (as the majority of the world still does today)? And if suffering is a result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of the suffering historically been inflicted by (and even upon) those who accepted him, that is, Christians?

2. There is reason to believe Jesus himself was a staunch upholder of the law. That which defined early Christianity, the rejection of Mosaic law, might not have been Jesus’ intention at all. As Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I truly say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5).

This is not to suggest that Jesus did not differ at certain points with Orthodox rabbinic teachings. But the points of contact are closer and more numerous than is usually supposed, and the variations, from a Jewish point of view, far more problematic.

3. Some of Jesus’ teachings seem to Jews either contradictory or simply immoral. This does not negate the possibility that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he was far from perfect in his moral outlook. The idea that eternal punishment would follow from rejecting Jesus seems downright evil. That someone could live a noble life and not be saved, when another could live a depraved and cruel life and through a true conversion of his heart at the end of life still be saved, is hard to tote up on the moral balance sheet. I am aware that many Christian groups reject this doctrine today, but for centuries it was normative church doctrine.

The Jesus who said "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother" (Matthew 10:34-37) is not a Jesus whom I can accept as a moral model. The statement is consistent, however, with the Jesus of Luke 14:26, who says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

In addition, the Jesus who withers a fig tree because it did not provide him with fruit when he was hungry seems peevish rather than exemplary (Matthew 21:17-19).

There are many remarkable and wonderful teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they are the teachings of a human being, not a God, and many of them — including the most morally enlightened — are paralleled in rabbinic literature. One cannot truly understand Jesus without understanding the climate in which he grew up. When one studies the Talmud, the image of Jesus becomes sharper — and still very impressive — but less original.

Jesus’ criticisms of the rabbis of his day are echoed in the literature of the prophets centuries before. When Hosea writes, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6), or Isaiah thunders, "I cannot endure sin coupled with solemn ceremonies (Isaiah 1:13), we are hearing the same themes Jesus so deftly expounded later on.

4. The idea of the Second Coming seems to have grown out of genuine disappointment. We are told in the Gospels, "Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom." When Jesus died, true believers had to theologically compensate for the disaster. It remains significant, I believe, that the vast majority of people who knew him did not see Jesus as divine. Unless the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem at the time was either wicked or foolish, they — who knew Jesus far better than we — did not respond to his presumed divinity because he was clearly human.

5. The history of Christianity is not such as would persuade Jews that Christians are in possession of a superior moral truth. The history is too long and painful to summarize here, but many good books are available that elaborate on what the historian Jules Isaac called "the teaching of contempt." The thousands, even millions, of innocents who lost their lives, their children, their hope, from a refusal to be other than they were make it difficult to see Christianity in its historical garb in anything but a dark, forbidding light.

The chronicle of Christian anti-Semitism is one of the most gruesome, disheartening chapters of human history. Even the most abominable tragedy, the systematic slaughter of millions in World War II, the Holocaust, cannot be entirely separated from centuries of Christian teachings of the abjectness of the Jew. As the theologian Elieser Berkowitz put it, the Nazis who killed Jews may not have been Christians, but they were all the sons and daughters of Christians.

6. Although many faiths, including some Roman mystery religions, spoke of a man/god, Judaism sought to keep clear the boundaries between the human and the divine. The blurring was taken to be the sign of betrayal of the tradition.

7. Jesus did place great emphasis on internal spirituality. This was not because he was more spiritually advanced, but because society was more advanced materially. Moses had to set up a system of courts, of civil and criminal law. Jesus was born in Rome, with the most advanced civil society of the time. He did not need to discuss external rites, either religious or civil. They were taken care of by Roman law and the developed Jewish law. In this sense, Islam bears a closer kinship to Judaism; it, too, is a religion of law, necessitated by Mohammed’s melding desert tribes into a religious community, much in the manner of Moses. Hence, as Moses Montefiore said of Jesus, "Public justice is outside his purview."

8. The idea that one can be saved only through Jesus is contrary to simple compassion and justice. Judaism teaches that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." Maimonides writes in a letter that there are non-Jews who "bring their souls to perfection." That is the simple truth that all faiths should acknowledge and celebrate. Otherwise, there can be no kinship. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about attempts to convert the Jews: "How can we take seriously a friendship that is conditioned ultimately on the hope and expectation that the Jew will disappear? How would a Christian feel if we Jews were engaged in an effort to bring about the liquidation of Christianity?"

A related note: There are some today who speak of themselves as "Jews for Jesus." This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying "Christians for Mohammed." A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of "Jews for Jesus" is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.

Many Jewish thinkers have seen Jesus as they have seen Mohammed — as God’s instrument to advance monotheism in the world. Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism as the sun — that is the source — and Christianity as the rays of the sun — that which spreads monotheism to the world. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides saw Islam and Christianity as the preparation for God’s eventual kingdom.

Jesus exercises a powerful historical fascination. He was, without doubt, a profound and enigmatic personality. Nonetheless, he remains, for many Jews, a man whose wisdom and wit place him among the great teachers of humanity — but is neither a Messiah nor a God.

For those who wish to explore this further, there are no end of books addressing the complex, fascinating relations between Christianity and Judaism. A polemical work, which illustrates how Jews answer the various verses in the Torah taken to be referring to Jesus by many Christians, is "You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God" by Samuel Levine (Hamoroh, 1980). A more ecumenical examination is the work of the renowned scholar Jacob Neusner, "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2000). For those interested in how the rabbis anticipated Jesus’ teachings, one book worth reading is by the Christian scholar Brad Young, "Jesus, the Jewish Theologian" (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).

David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Funds Combat ‘Who Is a Jew’ Wars

In 1997, stimulated by the controversy over whether non-Orthodox converts would be registered as Jews by the Israeli government — the latest battle in the "who is a Jew?" wars — The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles began making funds available to what it calls "pluralism" projects. The projects are programs and activities aimed at stimulating religious pluralism and supporting "alternative" forms of Judaism in Israel, as well as increasing Jewish knowledge among Israel’s secular population.

In all, 15 pluralism projects are currently under way, funded directly from Los Angeles (not through the Jewish Agency) at a cost of about $425,000. While the projects are separate from the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, some are in Tel Aviv schools, providing an overlap of services — and possibly effects — with the partnership.

Pluralism projects also differ from partnership activities in that The Federation provides money but does not help to run the programs. While The Federation is careful to assert that pluralism money goes to programs, not movements, the distinction may be academic, because some of the programs funded are run by denominational institutions.

A representative sampling of last year’s pluralism grant recipients are:

  • Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue and school that provides workshops and teacher training, especially before the holidays, in 15 secular Tel Aviv-area schools.
  • A Conservative movement bar/bat mitzvah training program for special-needs children.
  • The Kelman Center for Jewish Education at Tel Aviv University that helps teachers write their own curricula to bring Jewish texts and identity issues into the classroom.
  • The Reut Institute, an outgrowth of the coed Orthodox Reut School in Jerusalem, that develops curriculum and trains principals in pluralistic Jewish education.
  • Midreshet Iyun, a Conservative Learning Center, that runs a joint project with Tel Aviv University’s Jewish studies department, in which teachers study for master’s degrees in Jewish studies.
  • Bat Kol Bamidbar, which trains informal educators to teach Jewish values and heritage in Negev and Arava schools.
  • Orh Torah Stone Colleges, which prepares religious women to serve as advocates for women clients in Israel’s rabbinical courts.
  • The Tali Educational Fund, which provides Jewish studies in secular public schools.
  • Yesodot of Beit Morasha, which teaches the compatibility of traditional Judaism and democracy in Orthodox public schools.


Children of Freedom

For those who are looking for something different this year for the High Holy Days, B’nai Horin-Children of Freedom, a Jewish Renewal Synagogue in West Los Angeles, is offering a unique opportunity. Rather than holding services in their synagogue, it will be holding them at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. The inspiring, natural grounds of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute will hold 400 people for Rosh Hashana, some of whom are coming from as far way as the East Coast and Northern California to take part in the celebration. Many of them will be sleeping at the institute, while even more will be coming to eat all their meals together as a community.

Services will be led by B’nai Horin’s Rabbi Stan Levy, together with Debbie Friedman, who will also serve as cantorial soloist. Services will include an array of music and singers, including a performance by Rebbe Soul, a singer of ancient and modern Jewish music. — Merav Tassa, Contributing Writer

Solidarity Through Pluralism

Perhaps there is no time like the High Holy Days to remind us how central food is to our community’s traditions. This is not lost on the people at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a Los Angeles-based national nonprofit dedicated to helping those without food in America, Israel and around the world.

“At this time of year we urge many rabbis on Yom Kippur, when observing the fast day, to appeal to their congregants to remember the millions of people around the world fasting not by choice,” Mary Krasn, Mazon’s director of communications, told The Journal.

Since Boston-based Moment Magazine founder Leonard Fein started Mazon (Hebrew for “food”) in 1985, the national organization has given more than $24 million in grants. That’s $3 million annually given to 250 hunger-fighting organizations nationwide, helping Jews and non-Jews alike.

H. Eric Schockman, who came aboard as Mazon’s executive director in January, runs the West Los Angeles-based outreach agency, where a dedicated staff of 12 allocates $3 million a year to hunger relief organizations such as food banks and social services.

Mazon has come a long way since the $20,000 raised its inaugural year. These days, that amount is the higher end of individual grants donated to anti-hunger programs at places such as Chicago’s National Center on Poverty Law, Atlanta’s Jewish Family & Career Services and the Kansas City Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry.

Mazon itself has subsisted on a diet of diligent participation from a nationwide partnership with 800 synagogues. Through the donations of 50,000 individuals attending Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations, Mazon has been able to help the hungry, which includes 31 million Americans, more than a third of them children. According to the organization’s administrators, Mazon’s recipe for quelling world hunger is an old Jewish one: a combination of good old fashioned tzedakah and tikkun olam.

“The Jewish tradition of helping more needy people,” Krasn said, “comprises a large support.”

For more information, call (310) 442-0020 and visit www.mazon.org . — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Los Angeles 5758Making the Tough Sell

There was noquestion: Of the three rabbis sitting up on the dais at UCLA Hillel,Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the toughest sell. After all, audiences whocome to hear panels on pluralism usually bristle at Orthodoxy’sseeming exclusivity.

But, true to self, Riskin didn’t let theanticipation of a hostile reaction stop him. After his colleaguesfinished their presentations, Riskin took the mike out of its holder,stood up and positioned himself to win the audience over with apassion that animated each of his stories, jokes, and subtle yetpowerful points.

But, as those familiar with his accomplishmentsknow, Riskin is used to the tough sell — and used to winning. He isa master builder, and, usually, before anyone can blink at hissometimes controversial notions, he has created yet anotherinstitution in which his philosophy can become a living, breathingJudaism.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles from Efrat, theWest Bank city just outside of Jerusalem that he helped found and nowleads, Riskin sat down to talk about his latest ideas, squeezing aquick interview into a packed schedule of speaking engagements andprivate fund-raising meetings.

At the top of his list is the first women’s hesderyeshiva — a joint program of army duty and Torah study, parallel tomen’s programs. Fifty women have already signed on, demonstrating tothe “Israeli public at large that Torah-committed people are ready toaccept every challenge that the State of Israel has to offer,” saysRiskin, 57.

The hesder program at the new $8 million campus inthe Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem is one of several cutting-edgeprograms of Ohr Torah Stone, Riskin’s 2,000-student educationalempire that includes a women’s division with an accrediteduniversity, a program for foreign students and advanced Torahscholarship, plus a men’s division with yeshivot and rabbinicprograms.

Over the past seven years, Midreshet Lindenbaum,the women’s division, has trained more than 50 women to be advocatesin rabbinic courts, a presence aimed at alleviating some of theantagonism women often face in a court, or beit din, where alldivorces in Israel are adjudicated.

The advocates are especially useful for cases ofagunah, where a husband denies his wife a Jewish divorce contract oruses it as a tool of extortion.

Riskin, an engaging speaker and convincingspokesman, has also developed a legal center and hot line, staffed bythe advocates, and has helped in establishing a beit din to dealexclusively with agunah cases.

Riskin says the advocates are a good example ofhow a quiet revolution is changing the halachic community. When theprogram began, rabbinic support seemed a long way off.

“But the rabbis made a complete turnabout,” saysRiskin, his round face breaking into a smile. “Chief Rabbi Lau cameto our graduation last June. We have close to 50 graduates who areaccepted by every religious court in the country.”

Riskin is hoping that the same gradual acceptancewill come to the poskot, or female halachic authorities, he is nowtraining at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

The women will issue halachic responses aboutShabbat, kashrut and, most importantly, issues of family ritualpurity.

“In the interest of modesty, having women beingthe first one to make the decision on intimate women questions is, Ithink, a most important advance,” says Riskin, who is married and hasfour children.

While many see his policies, especially on women,putting him on the leftmost wing of Orthodoxy, Riskin says he feelsunique but not unrepresentative.

“I think the Judaism I am talking about — whichis uncompromising halachic Judaism, but within halacha gives a greatdeal of room for women to express themselves religiously, for dignityof human rights — my sense is that this is very much indemand.”

He points out that his past innovations are nowmainstream, such as teaching women advanced Talmud, which hepioneered in the late 1960s at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York(which he founded and led for more than 20 years).

Still, he often hears, “If only more Orthodoxrabbis were like you.” Following his plea for dialogue and mutualrespect, that is what he heard from University of Judaism ProvostRabbi Elliot Dorff, who accompanied Riskin and Rabbi Richard Levy,president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of AmericanRabbis, on the UCLA Hillel panel, which discussed pluralism andIsrael’s conversion.

The rabbis offered different interpretations ofhow far Israel had come in accepting the recommendations of theNeeman Commission, which proposed establishing learning centers whererabbis from all the major denominations would teach potentialconverts, but where Orthodox rabbis would perform the actualritual.

While Levy and Dorff both seemed pessimistic,since the chief rabbinate had not endorsed the institution, Riskinfinds significance in the fact that the rabbinate did not dismiss theinstitution and has even said it would accept the converts.

Riskin says the idea is “brilliant” because itshows the movements can learn and teach together while stillmaintaining one standard of who is a Jew.

“We can disagree about certain details about theShabbat and festivals and rituals, you can be Orthodox, Conservative,Reform, Reconstructionist or secular, but my child can still marryyours.”

That is no small detail, Riskin told the raptaudience in a deliberately hushed tone. “That expresses the fact thatwhat unites us is far more significant than that which dividesus.”

L.A. 5758 Briefs

Ten For Chai

Usually whenthe Chai Center packs a banquet hall, it’s for a seder, High Holidayservices, or some other Jewish celebration open to “any Jew thatmoves.” But when people jam into the hall this weekend, they will becelebrating the Chai Center itself, and its quirky, lovable leaders,Olivia and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzy” Schwartz. It’s the tenthanniversary for the outreach center with a sense of humor, a love ofJudaism and a bold creativity that adds a stroke of neon to L.A.’sJewish landscape.

Sunday, March 29. Call (213) 937-3911 forbanquet information, or (310) 391-7995 for Chai Center activities.— Julie Gruenbaum Fax,Religion Editor

Do Unto Others

On ShabbatHaGadol, the Saturday before Passover, people are usually preoccupiedwith their own needs. Rabbis throughout the city and the country willbe reminding congregants about the needs of others, and how thoseneeds are met by Jewish Family Service.

“As we approach Passover we need to think aboutpeople who are on the outside looking to find a way in,” says SallyWeber, director of Jewish Community Programs for JFS.

About a dozen L.A. synagogues will host speakersfrom JFS, while many others will distribute literature.

Shabbat HaGadol, April 3-4. For moreinformation, call JFS at (213) 761-8800.— J.G. F.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, above, and his wifeOlivia (not pictured) will be honored for their work bringing Judaismto “any Jew that moves.” Left, a community action worker for JewishFamily Service’s Alcohol and Drug Program, a program helping peoplesuffering from addiction and their families in the Jewishcommunity.

< /P>