Rabbis dish on the seder plate

For most Jews gathering next week for Passover, the items on the seder table are as familiar as the story of the Exodus. Which is too bad, given the richness of their history and the multitude of meanings they can embody as times change. To get beyond the traditional explanations for matzo, charoset and the rest of the Passover seder’s usual suspects, area rabbis have offered new interpretations and revelations about some of Judaism’s most beloved symbols.


While so very fragile, lengthwise the eggshell becomes strong and can withstand surprising pressure. This is because it is a natural arch. Leonardo da Vinci described an arch as “two weaknesses [that] are converted into a single strength.” By supporting each other, the weak segments redistribute the crushing forces upon them and become the strongest structure in engineering.

The purpose of an arch is to act as a passageway, whether for light through a window or people over a threshold. The Passover egg commemorates the passageway from sure death into new life. Its shape symbolizes the great power created when vulnerable individuals are united into a single strength, embodying the talmudic axiom, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”/“All Israel is responsible for each other” (Shavuot 39a). Its perfect arch reminds us that God designed us with the ability to bear heavy burdens while remaining full of light. The arch of the Passover egg is the ancient strength of aqueducts and bridges. It is the means to take us from here to there, to enable us to cross over. Is it any wonder why, to mark the covenant between God and humankind, God chose the rainbow arch? The egg is the very architecture of community.

— Rabbi Zoë Klein, Temple Isaiah


There is no explanation of charoset in the haggadah, but in the Mishnah, one suggestion is that it represents the mortar the Israelites used during their forced labor. Still, it seems odd that the food’s complex deliciousness would be a symbol of oppression, and other, more positive explanations abound.

Since talmudic times, charoset has been associated with the women of the Exodus who, one midrash says, took fish and wine to their husbands in the fields to seduce them into bearing more children even while they were enslaved, a time of danger and despair.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out that all of the ingredients in charoset appear in the Song of Songs, which we read on the Shabbat of Passover — sacred poetry about love and taking pleasure in the beloved.

Or charoset may simply exist to offset the burn of maror — it sits on the seder plate throughout the narrative of our suffering and oppression as witness to the sweetness that people create even in the worst of times.

The ingredients for charoset are as different as the Jewish cultures that prepare it.  No matter our differences, we all need the sweetness of hope and love to balance doubt and pain.

— Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel


Confronted with our contemporary political and religious climate, the karpas at the seder contains a crucial lesson for us. The word “karpas” means fine quality wool, as the verse in Megillat Esther indicates when it describes the woolen tapestries of King Ahasuerus as “chur karpas u’techelet.”

With this definition, Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne offers a stunning suggestion that karpas at the seder symbolizes the wool coat of Joseph gifted to him by his father Jacob (see Rashi Genesis 37:3). We dip the vegetable (usually parsley, celery or potato) into saltwater to re-enact the brothers’ act of dipping Joseph’s wool coat into blood to deceive their father after they had sold Joseph down to Egypt.   

Before we celebrate how the Jews proudly left Egypt, we take the karpas to reflect upon how the Jews sadly got there in the first place. Jealousy, polarization and divisiveness led to our troubles. One central goal of the seder is to address the divisiveness that plagued us then and now — symbolized by karpas — and repeal and replace it with respect, tolerance, inclusiveness and friendship — symbolized by the enterprise of sitting around the table together.

— Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob Congregation


The Almighty called to the children of Jacob
“I have taken notice of you
And seen your suffering
And sent to you my prophet
To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.

I carried you on eagles’ wings
And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows
So that whenever you taste the maror
You will remember
Who I am
And who you are
And why you are free.

As I took notice of your ancestors
I call upon you today
The descendants of slaves
Who know the heart of strangers
And their fear and desperation
And do for them as I have done for you
And liberate them
The oppressed and the tempest-tossed
The poor and the discarded
The old and the lonely
The abused and the addict
The victim of violence and injustice
And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness
That you know so very well.

As you sit around your seder tables
I call upon you to act
With open, pure and loving hearts
On My behalf
And be My witnesses
And bring healing and peace.”

— Rabbi John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood


One anomalous item on the seder plate is the zeroa, according to the Jerusalem Talmud a shank bone, which is roasted and represents the special Passover sacrifice that was at the center of the festival’s observance in Temple times. Because sacrifices may be offered only from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and because that Temple no longer exists, we create a replica of the sacrifice, but we do not eat it, only pointing at it. We physically aspire to something that remains beyond our reach.

How paradoxical that what is beyond reach is the zeroa (literally “the arm”), recalling God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that liberates us from slavery. At the seder table, where it is our hands and arms that do the pointing, we embody God’s liberatory lure. God persistently frees the oppressed and lifts the fallen, but only through us, with us. It turns out that the real image of God’s commitment to human dignity and freedom is not on the plate at all. The outstretched arm and hands are our own. So, this Passover, arm yourself and give God a hand.

— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University


Each year at our sedarim, we dip a bit of karpas into salt water — and in some ethnic traditions, into vinegar or lemon water. The bitter liquid reminds us of the deep pain, sweat and tears that accompany hardships such as slavery and oppression. As we dip, we reflect on our ancestors’ pain, modern examples of oppression and times in the past year when our tears flowed freely. Many of us will dip a second time into the salt water at our seder with a hardboiled egg, which serves as a sign of spring and birth. Just as our Israelite ancestors left Egypt by crossing through the saltwater sea to enter the vastness of freedom, the salt water and egg dipping can be for us symbolic of a mikveh, a spiritual cleansing, an acknowledgement of the sweetness that lay ahead.

Salt enhances sweetness. Think salted caramel or salted chocolate. Dipping in salt water acknowledges suffering and bitterness, but also that there, too, will be a time of healing and celebration of freedom. Think, too, of the Dead Sea. It is so bitter nothing can live within it, but within it lies powers of healing. As we dip into salt water this year, may we recall our pain and suffering and exit into renewal, healing, feeling refreshed and free.

— Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, Temple Beth Hillel


Passover is such a grand holiday — why should its central symbol be a cracker?

The rabbis identify the matzo with humility. Unlike bread, which is puffed up, the matzo lays flat, shorn of ego. But Passover is not a holiday of humility, but of slavery and freedom. So, why matzo?  

Ralph Waldo Emerson once recorded in his journal something his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, said to him: “ ‘Hurry’ is for slaves.”

To be a slave is to have no control over your own time. The Israelites baked matzo because they had a brief moment, a slice of time, the beginning of true freedom, but they were not yet there. Matzo is the sign of a people soon to be free: the bread of affliction but also the bread of transition — from being a slave to liberation into the service of God.

— Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple


When are the Jewish people going to be able to drink with joy from the fifth cup, Eliyahu’s Cup, during the seder? When we have prepared the world for redemption. Preparing the world for redemption, however, requires tremendous effort and faithfulness to our people’s mission. Where do we start? The haggadah gives us a brilliant place to begin. Immediately after we pour the Fifth Cup for Eliyahu, we open our front door. What a strange custom, right? But it sends a message to our generation: We can help prepare the world for redemption by opening our hearts to one another. Why is the door normally closed? Because we’re in pain. So we close the door on each other — parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. Right after opening the door during the seder, we read a passage from Psalms, a dire warning to those who forget that we are all children of the Creator and must act righteously with one another. My blessing for all of us is that we avoid the consequences of failing to act righteously toward one another and instead pave the road to the redemption of the world.  It’s all there in the Cup of Elijah.

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Pico Shul


Since the 1980s, many Jews include Susannah Heschel’s tradition of adding an orange to the seder plate as a symbol of people marginalized in the Jewish community. Heschel chose an orange because, as she said, “in a whole orange, each segment sticks together.”

Over the years, I’ve added to that tradition, and you can, too, with just a few words and actions:

“Tonight, let’s squeeze some orange juice upon the charoset, that already sweet promise of freedom, that symbol of the mortar our ancestors used when they were slaves. In so doing, we offer a reminder that those who some call ‘outsiders’ among the Jewish people — including LGBTQ Jews, Jews by choice, Jews of color, Jews from other traditions, Jews who are adopted, non-Jewish family members — have actually become part of the mortar that holds our people and our traditions together.”

[One person at each table squeezes some orange juice on charoset as we say:]

Evan ma-ah-su ha-bonim ha-y’tah l’rosh pinah.

“The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).

[Each person takes a slice of orange to eat, as we recite:]

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam borei pri ha-eitz.

“Blessed are You, God, creator of all, who created the fruit of the tree.”

[Each person eats a slice of orange.]

— Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Beth Chayim Chadashim

David Friedman. Photo by Michael Friedson/The Media Line

Ambassador nominee Friedman apologizes in rabbinical forum

On the eve of what is expected to be the most contentious confirmation hearing for any Trump appointee beneath the cabinet level, ambassador to Israel-designate David Friedman finds himself not only targeted by the political left – an obvious situation for any appointee of this administration – but also in the exceptionally rare position of being a Jewish designee vilified by hundreds of Jewish clergymen and women.

[This story originally appeared on themedialine.org]

The Media Line has learned that one month ago, the would-be-ambassador met with a contingent of some twenty members of the New York Board of Rabbis led by Executive Vice President Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, in an effort to clear the air. Several rabbis who attended the session were of one mind concerning the gravity of Friedman’s controversial statements and admonished that such assertions, despite his promises and protestations, would not be easily expunged. Nevertheless, the rabbis agreed they would support whomever is approved by the Senate.

The angst beyond the political divide is not without reason. Friedman’s road to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv wound through his attorney-client relationship with the new president for more than fifteen years during which time the seasoned litigator was able to withdraw statements found inappropriate to a court of law. But absent commensurate experience in diplomacy, Friedman learned during the course of the campaign that inflammatory and hurtful statements could not be as easily erased in the court of public opinion.

Already labeled a firebrand and radical by the left because of his refusal to embrace the consensus two-state solution for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman infuriated Democrats by calling Barack Obama a “blatant anti-Semite” and incensing more than a few Republicans as well when he crossed a line sacrosanct among Jews, invoking a Holocaust-era image declaring members of the left-wing lobbying group J Street to be “worse than kapos,” Jews who cooperated with the Nazi regime in order to survive. This, when already vilified for his history of personal support for the settlement movement and right-wing causes.

Unlike other Trump appointees who were merely the subject of negative newspaper editorials and critical talking heads on cable television, Friedman quickly became the target of a well-organized and highly-focused Internet campaign by J Street that included a petition asking Senators to reject the nomination.

Friedman, meanwhile, launched a campaign of his own apparently aimed at introducing the actual man to those being influenced by what was fast becoming a conventional wisdom of its own.

Yet, all shared the belief that Friedman must be allowed the opportunity to be heard before passing judgement on his fitness for the position. In fact, according to former Board of Rabbis President Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of the Conservative Temple Emanu-el in Closter, New Jersey. “It’s un-Jewish to not afford him a hearing [but] this does not mean I wasn’t profoundly troubled about the statement [about Kapos]. Confirmation is contingent on the hearing. He needs to be heard. He needs to have a fair hearing.”

According to Potasnik, Friedman did, indeed, apologize for his use of the inflammatory words and sought to explain the context in which they were made. But while none of the participants were able to assess whether the effort was enough, it was evident that Friedman successfully convinced his audience that he is a serious player who understands that he would, as he told the group, “be the ambassador for all segments of society,” and not just those who share his conservative thought.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, spiritual leader of the influential Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation, seemingly sought to separate the political differences between the liberal community and Friedman, from the matter of his troubling statements. To be forgiven for the latter, he stressed, would take time and consistency. Regarding the policy issue, he noted that “the role of the ambassador is not to make policy but to explain the policy of the administration set by the President and his foreign affairs team.” On that score, Hirsch told The Media Line of his concern that, “His stated positions are at odds with fifty-years of American policy [that] happens to be the positions of a sizeable majority of American Jews.”

The rabbis agreed that the second issue – the kapo comment – was more problematic and, according to Hirsch, demands “a compelling, comprehensive and consistent response which is not a one-off statement. If he is ultimately confirmed and becomes the ambassador, this is an area he will have to address over and over again and cannot simply be a one-off statement.”

Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Manhattan’s iconic Kehilath Jeshurun Synagogue (Orthodox) agreed that Friedman deserves to say his piece and answer questions “including why he called J Street ‘kapos.’” Weinstock told The Media Line that he “left the meeting with a positive feeling that David Friedman…knows how to deal with the different segments of the community. There can be healthy disagreement. I can see him doing a good job as American ambassador to Israel.”

Despite the issues, the Board of Rabbis group left unambiguous the fact that, as Rabbi Hirsch said, “Of course I will support the ambassador who receives the confirmation of the Senate and the confidence of the American president.”

While the outcome will only be known at the conclusion of the process that begins on Thursday, Rabbi Potasnik summed up the feeling echoed by others. While being clear that he was not issuing an endorsement of Friedman, he did assess that the nominee “understands the complexity of the Jewish community…I think he should be heard.”

Rabbi seeks royalties for Japanese Olympic gymnast’s ‘immodest’ use of his melody

A Jerusalem rabbi said he would seek royalties from Japan’s delegation to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for its allegedly unauthorized use of a melody he composed.

Rabbi Baruch Hayat, according to the Shirunt website of Israeli songs, composed the melody to the popular song “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od” to words attributed to the late founder of the Breslover Hasidic movement, Rabbi Nachman.

A recording of the melody, played by a klezmer band, featured in the performance of Sae Miyakawa, a 16-year-old Japanese gymnast in the Rio Olympics, that ended on August 22.

But in an interview published Thursday by Ynet, Hayat said that the gymnast never asked his permission to use the song, which he added he never would have granted because he considers her performance immodest and incompatible with the values promoted by the 18th-century rabbi who is believed to have been the author of the lyrics.

“It’s a disgrace,” the 70-year-old rabbi told Ynet, adding he will “fight for what he is owed” in terms of royalties. “This was not exactly the intention of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, to have his words play at the Olympics,” he said of the routine, which featured only the melody of the song. “And it’s not very modest.”

As a head of a yeshiva, a religious seminary, he said, he finds the use of his melody “inappropriate. Clearly, this is a matter of sanctity that cannot be used for just anything. It is known in Hasidic circles that melody also has sanctity.”

The lyrics of the song translate as, “The world is a narrow bridge;
the important thing is not to be afraid.”



Ivanka Trump’s rabbi among Republican convention speakers

Speakers at the Republican National Convention are scheduled to include the rabbi who converted Donald Trump’s daughter to Judaism and the pastor who said Bernie Sanders needed to embrace Jesus.

On Thursday, the Republican National Convention released a list of speakers as notable for who is absent as it is for the inclusion of a number of speakers close to the Jewish community.

Topping the list, presumably because he will lead the convocation at the launch of the convention, is Pastor Mark Burns, a televangelist who has become an important surrogate for Trump among evangelicals, who initially were wary of Trump because of the secular values he seemed to embrace as a reality TV star.

Christian conservatives have warmed to Trump over the campaign, in part because of the intercession of Burns and others in the evangelical community.

At a March rally for Trump in North Carolina, Burns spoke of Sanders — the first Jewish candidate to win major nominating contests — while warming up the crowd waiting for the candidate.

“Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world are we gonna let Bernie … really?” Burns said. “He gotta meet Jesus, he gotta have a coming to Jesus meeting.”

Sanders, who this week formally ended his campaign to win the Democratic nomination and endorsed Hillary Clinton, has said he believes in God. Burns later told The Associated Press that he did not intend to insult Jews and the comment had “nothing to do” with Sanders’ Judaism.

Also listed among the speakers is the modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who converted Ivanka Trump before her marriage to Jared Kushner. Lookstein is among the most prominent rabbis now involved in a political struggle with the Israeli rabbinate over its refusal to consider the conversions of a large number of American Orthodox rabbis.

Other speakers of note to the Jewish community are Michael Mukasey, the Jewish attorney general under President George W. Bush who has said most of the world’s Muslims are interested in imposing religious law on the world — a message that jibes with Trump’s broadsides against Islam.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has long been a favorite of Republican Jews for his moderation on social issues coupled with a tough national security posture, will speak, as will Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator and Iraq War veteran who has become a favorite of the pro-Israel right in recent years.

Also, Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker who is very close to Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel casino magnate who has pledged tens of millions of dollars to Trump’s campaign. Gingrich will be one of several vice presidential contenders at the convention; Trump is set to announce his running mate on Friday.

Absent from the speakers’ list are an array of Republican luminaries who are wary of associating with Trump because of his broadsides against minorities and women, as well as his departures from the party’s Orthodoxy, particularly his favoring a drawdown of U.S. influence overseas.

Among those close to the Jewish community who will not be attending or speaking are former President George W. Bush, and the 2008 and 2012 nominees, respectively Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Rabbi decries removal of polling site status from Florida mosque

A South Florida rabbi spoke up for a mosque that was delisted as a polling station.

Palm Beach County removed the Islamic Center of Boca Raton as a polling site after receiving complaints from voters, WPTV reported Monday.

That didn’t sit well with Rabbi Barry Silver of Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in neighboring Boynton Beach.


“There’s a lot of violent Muslims around, and we need to be aware of that and we need to be on guard about that,” Silver told the TV station. “But to suggest that every mosque is pure evil and every other religious institution is pure good is just not accurate, and it’s prejudice and it’s wrong.”

Silver said if the mosque was decommissioned as a polling site, so should churches and synagogues.

County officials said the move to a local library was because of complaints from the public, WPTV said.

I’m tired of people thinking I ‘retired’ from my job as a rabbi because I’m a mom

If I had a dime for every time someone asked me why I “retired,” I would be a very rich woman. Please, let me set the record straight: I am not retired, I did not retire, and I don’t plan on retiring any time soon. Since when does leaving your job to take care of your family equal “retirement?”

I would say that this transition, if it had a (good or appropriate) name (and don’t get me started on the term “off-ramping”), is quite the opposite of retirement.

It’s been almost three years since I left my post as a rabbi at a dynamic and vibrant congregation to be a mother full-time. My third child had just turned one, and I felt a profound tug towards home. I wanted to spend more time with my young children; I wanted to be a firmer anchor in their lives. And so I decided to change gears and veer away from the path I had paved since ordination.

At the time, I wrote:

“I am not retiring or taking leave of the rabbinate. On the contrary, I will continue to be a rabbi in every respect of the word. My pulpit may focus on different issues and my congregation may be a bit smaller, but it is a vital rabbinate all the same. The Torah I teach will likely be rooted in sports and toys and imaginary friends; it will be filled with itsy bitsy spiders and twinkly little stars and soaked in laughter and tears.  It is the Torah of motherhood, and while I’ve spent part of my days studying it up until now, I’ll now spend all of my days immersed in it.”

These days, I am wholly immersed in the Torah of motherhood, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep, and often many moments in between. And as magical as so many of these moments are, there are just as many that feel, well, not so magical.

As the primary caregiver, I am the point person for all things child-related and, most often, the first responder for diaper duty, tantrum defusing, meal prep, and all the other glam aspects of stay-at-home parenthood. And while I don’t adhere to any particular dress code or leave home to go to an office, I take great umbrage when the totality of what I do is not classified as “work.”

Parenting is work. Motherhood is work. Raising children is work. It must be understood that leaving a paid position to take care of one’s family is still a transition from one job to another. One job may be part of the “work force” as it is most traditionally defined, but the other is also, most definitely “work,” despite the lack of benefits, the absence of any salary to speak of, and the general lack of esteem given to such domestic roles. Child rearing is intensely challenging, utterly demanding, and downright exhausting work.

Full-time parenting is certainly not akin to “retirement,” and any mere suggestion of the pairing is actually quite offensive. (If only a full-time parent could fill his or her schedule with golf and tennis, pickle ball and pinochle!). Moreover, just because a parent leaves his or her job to care for family doesn’t mean he or she is abandoning their career! Leaving a job doesn’t mean vacating the work force forever. The path out is not one without a return; and yet, far too often, the return is near impossible to find.

It aggravates me when people assume that I left my career forever when I stepped away from the pulpit. It frustrates me when I find myself fielding questions as to why I “left the rabbinate,” and how I’m taking to “retirement.” It’s maddening, it’s demeaning, and it’s short sighted. Not only do I picture myself returning to the rabbinate, I don’t feel like I ever really left.  I am still a rabbi, even in my primary role as a mother. I am still a rabbi in the way I think and the way I act and in the way I raise my children.

I may have stepped away from a traditional career path, and I may have left the every day work of a pulpit rabbi to do the every day work of a “mother rabbi.” But far from diminishing my rabbinate, it has enhanced it tremendously. I believe I am a better rabbi now than I was three years ago.

And yet, until we as a society legitimize the work of the parent, I, and many others like me will remain on the outside, looking in—when we never should have been ushered “out” in the first place.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing website for smart, savvy moms looking for a Jewish twist on parenting. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for daily digests here.

Rabbi Laura Geller moves from senior rabbi to study of aging

Leaning against the chair at a small glass table in her office, Rabbi Laura Geller exudes the energy of a meditative state. Aided by a stream of afternoon light, she is the picture of equanimity: relaxed, well postured, comfortably adorned in a coral cotton dress that sits pillowy soft on her figure. Her gaze is intense and focused, and she hardly notices when the wind swirls through the room so heavily that it blows the door shut. At her feet, a stack of empty boxes waits. 

“I’m packing up my office,” Geller, 66, announces. 

At the end of June, Geller will officially step down from her role as senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the congregation she has led and served for 22 years. But there is nothing anxious about her mood, despite the fact that the core routines and responsibilities of her life will soon shift considerably, and she will enter a new phase in which the goalposts are less clear. One might expect her to be a bit on edge. Instead, she is looking forward to it.

“You know,” she says, retrieving a few books from the shelves, “the measure of success of a congregational rabbi is whether he or she would choose to be a member of the congregation when no longer the rabbi. That’s how I know I’ve been a success.” 

It would certainly be understandable, considering the demands placed on pulpit rabbis, if Geller planned to escape to a remote island and sunbathe her way through retirement. But that’s not the exit she’s after. She insists she isn’t departing out of exhaustion: “Sometimes people leave when they’re burnt out,” Geller says. “I’m not burnt out. I’m ready to move on to the next stage — with gratitude for everything up until now, and curiosity for what comes next.”

Geller has no plans to “retire.” Instead, she will take on the role of rabbi emerita as of this weekend, the final Shabbat in June, when the congregation will salute her legacy at three festive events — Friday night services, Shabbat morning — to which all are welcome — and at a gala Saturday night. Asked which will be most important to her, she says, “all of them.” 

Concluding a two-decade chapter in a four-decade career is worth marking in any profession. But Geller’s departure is even more significant considering the circumstances of her arrival: In 1994, when she was hired as senior rabbi, Geller became the first woman in America to lead a major urban congregation. With only one woman in the country ordained ahead of her — Rabbi Sally Priesand — Geller became the first woman rabbi on the West Coast. Yet she didn’t have a single day of congregational experience before joining Emanuel. 

“The news story when I came here was, ‘Woman rabbi breaks stained-glass ceiling,’ ” Geller says. “But the real news story was: You can start anywhere, and you can end up anywhere — as a rabbi.”

Geller’s trajectory was not traditional as either a woman or a rabbi. She was ordained in 1976; her first job out of rabbinical school was serving as campus director for USC Hillel — the first female rabbi to do so. “There were leaders in the Reform community who told me I’d be throwing my career away if I went to Hillel,” Geller recalls. At the time, she had no interest in leading a congregation and preferred the path of political action and social justice.

After 14 years at Hillel, she became executive director of the American Jewish Congress, but eventually stepped away because she became uncomfortable with its “right-wing” political approach to Israel. Around that same time, Temple Emanuel was seeking a new spiritual leader.

“In some significant ways, I was the second woman to pursue a full-time life as a rabbi,” Geller says, looking back. “I’m grateful I wasn’t the first. I came into the rabbinate already a strong feminist, and it might have been more difficult for somebody as outspoken and engaged [as I was] to have been the first. It was easier that someone else had opened the door,” she says of Priesand. 

Not that being “second” was breezy. In 1980, a group of Reform rabbis known as the Rabbinic Women’s Network conducted a survey regarding public “fears” about female spiritual leadership. By the time Geller took her pulpit — almost 15 years later — the stigma remained. According to the report: “Women cannot do the job because the rigors of the rabbinate are too great and women too weak for the demanding routine; the Torah is too heavy [for them]; women are too soft-spoken; too political; do not know how to … wield power or authority; will cry at meetings when pressured or criticized.” The big reveal, though, was: “fear of women succeeding.”

“If women can read from the Torah, preach and teach, the rabbis’ duties become accessible to everyone,” the report says. “The mystique is lost. This possibly leads to the breakdown of the hierarchy of the rabbi-congregant relationship.”

Before Geller could ascend to the Emanuel pulpit, its then-Rabbi Emeritus Meyer Heller felt it necessary to defend a female hire. “I am fully aware that there are those who find it difficult to bring themselves to accept a woman rabbi,” Heller wrote in a 1994 letter to the congregation. He then made clear he “enthusiastically endorsed [Geller’s] candidacy.”  

“The purpose of halachah and all the commandments is to achieve the ethical and moral perfection of the individual. … If a woman sets this ideal as her course in life and wishes to serve the Jewish community in the highest way possible in terms of living a full life of Torah, then to deny her the right to be the Senior Rabbi of a major congregation would be an act of immorality.”

Geller has told and retold these stories throughout her career. For better or worse, breaking the gender barrier is part of her legacy, and even though it may have felt limiting at times, she is proud of her contribution to the transformational shift in American Judaism. 

“When women became rabbis, everything changed,” she says, “because we brought the Torah of our experience to our rabbinates. So liturgy changed, prayer changed, theology changed, scholarship changed, everything changed — including the structures of institutions.

“Hierarchy,” she says, “is not the best way to organize human relationships. For me, success is not being at the top of a ladder, but being in the middle of a hub.”

Geller grew up in Brookline, Mass., in a household devoid of Jewish education. “I never heard the Birkat ha-Mazon until I was a first-year rabbinical student — that’s how much my Jewish background hadn’t prepared me for certain kinds of basic Jewish rituals.”

Her curiosity was strong, however, so when she first had the opportunity to study — in 1967 — as a student at Pembroke College, Brown University’s sister school for women, she gravitated toward a religious education. Because there was no Jewish studies program, she enrolled in a course on Christian ethics. “I was always curious about the relationship between morality and theology,” she says. “Where do someone’s values come from that determines the choices they’re going to make?” 

Geller also became an activist in the women’s and civil rights movements — and volunteered as a draft counselor during the war in Vietnam. Her immersion in these struggles made her realize she could agitate and advocate from within her community, but first she had to figure out which community that was.

“I decided to go to rabbinical school not because I wanted to be a rabbi, but because I wanted to learn how to be Jewish,” she says. Eager to integrate women, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion accepted her into its rabbinic program even with only passable Hebrew and little other Jewish background. “I was like a clean slate,” Geller recalls. Of 50 students, she was the only female. 

When one day a teacher declared, “There is no important moment in the life of a Jew for which there is no blessing,” Geller had a visceral reaction: There were many moments in the life of a Jewish woman bereft of blessings — among them first menstruation and the onset of menopause; after a miscarriage or an abortion.

“That was a moment when the Torah of my life became clear,” Geller says. She would go on to create the blessings and rituals she and other women needed. 

 These days, Geller’s professional work continues to reflect her personal struggles, and what preoccupies her most is the challenge of aging with dignity. “The way [aging] is viewed is through a lens of decline, and fears people have around invisibility, isolation and dependence,” she says. “But I think there’s a way of framing the experience not about decline, but about different kinds of opportunities.”

 Because most Jewish communities today lack a holistic mechanism for supporting aging and elder members of the community, Geller has spent the last several years conducting focus groups on what it might look like to create a Jewishly supported system for aging in place. One outgrowth of these conversations is an initiative called “The Synagogue Village,” which recently was awarded a Jewish Community Foundation Cutting Edge grant. Secular models of this concept exist throughout the country, but this will be the first faith-based village; to establish the L.A. pilot, Temple Emanuel partnered with Temple Isaiah and Congregation Kol Ami. Geller also plans to co-write a “how-to” book on aging with her husband, Richard Siegel, as part of her post-pulpit rabbinate.

“The fact is time is passing and it’s limited,” Geller says of getting older. “At this moment in my life, there is more time behind me than there is ahead; but that might have been true at any moment in my life. To the extent that I am able to live with that, celebrate it and pay attention to it, is the extent to which this moment actually becomes way more significant than all the moments when I was younger.”

Near the end of our two hours together, the conversation turns toward spirituality. Inner life is something Geller has cultivated with deep interest over the last 15 years, owed in part to her involvement with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and it has endowed her with a striking quality of presence, even in casual conversation. “Honestly, I think the point of spiritual practice in general is about paying attention to what is going on right now. And most of us don’t,” she says. “Most of us are asleep all the time. 

“When I think about all the times in my life when I wasn’t paying particular attention to my own children … ” she continues, “I’m not critical of that, but I do notice it now.” 

Free of past regrets, unworried about the future – Geller seems more like a Buddhist than a typical Jew.

“One of the things I’ve recently come to learn is that there is a happiness curve,” she says, drawing a curve in the air with her hand. “You are happiest in the beginning” — in childhood — “and here, at the end. But in your 30s, 40s, 50s, is when you’re least happy. Now, why is that? Maybe it’s because some of us have a script and expect that by a certain stage we’ll achieve certain things, and we never get there; or if you do, it doesn’t turn out exactly as you imagined. But then, what starts to happen — and I’m beginning to experience this — is, ‘I am who I am.’


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

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

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

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


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

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

He found out about the show while at the gym.

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

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

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

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

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

But most of his working out is done at home.

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

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

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

And he really does that stuff, he tells us.

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

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

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

He’s known for getting the kids active.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sees physical fitness as a matter of Jewish principle.

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

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

Athleticism runs in the family — hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

Why a small word change is a big deal for Reform women rabbis

Since 1972, when the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi, more than 700 others have joined her ranks in that denomination alone. But a surprise awaited them, though few seemed to notice: The language on their ordination certificates was markedly different than that of their male colleagues.

Men were referred to by the Reform movement’s traditional “morenu harav,” or “our teacher the rabbi.”

Women’s ordination certificates have said “rav u’morah,” or “rabbi and teacher.”

The difference may seem subtle, but for women rabbis and their supporters, it was a symbolic reminder that despite the gains they made in the movement, there remained barriers to complete equality.

The language “is important because we want everything to be 100 percent equal for men and women rabbis, even things that aren’t so obvious,” said Rabbi Mary Zamore, executive director of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network.

Now, four years after Zamore took the issue to Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC’s president at the time, a task force headed by HUC Provost Rabbi Michael Marmur has decided to change the language and offer the same designation for men and women.

At the Reform movement’s campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, 26 new rabbis — a dozen men and 14 women — are being ordained this year, Marmur told JTA. For the first time the women are being given the option of choosing the same title and language as men on their certificates.

Rather than continue with rav u’morah, female rabbis will have a choice between “rabboteinu harav” and “rabboteinu harabba” – rav and rabba being words commonly used to distinguish between male and female rabbis in Israel.

It took the task force more than three years to consult with experts and make the decision to change the language.

“We believe that these proposals correct a disparity without perpetrating revolutionary change on the ordination formula,” Marmur wrote in a memo he circulated to the HUC community last November.

The change was welcomed by a pioneer in the Reform movement who didn’t realize the disparity until Zamore brought it to her attention in 2012.

“It came as a shock to me,” Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi ordained in America, told JTA. “When I was ordained I was told I would be getting an empty tube because they had forgotten to change the language to the feminine” on the ordination scroll. “I just accepted that. When I finally got it I thought the title, which they had changed to ‘rav u’morah,’ was what all my classmates got, too.”

Priesand was the only woman among 35 male classmates that year.

“There was a discomfort [at HUC] with giving her the same title” as the men, Zamore told JTA. “Our teacher the rabbi” is “auspicious and used since the first ordination at HUC, so it’s in the line of tradition. It speaks of the community. That’s the whole idea of a chain of tradition and ordaining, that the community is standing behind you saying ‘we believe in your authority.’”

In contrast, she said, “Rav u’morah is a nice statement of ordination. It’s just bland, pareve. The fact that it is different is problematic.”

Zamore wrote a letter to Ellenson in 2012 asking if he was aware of the discrepancy. In a new anthology, “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” she describes it as “smacking of gender inequality.”

What’s more, “it represents the inequalities that still persist after 44 years” of women’s ordination in the Reform movement, said Zamore, like a pay gap — female rabbis make between 80 and 90 cents for every dollar male Reform rabbis earn for comparable work, according to a study by the Central Conference of American Rabbis — and a continuing struggle for “appropriate family and maternity leave.”

Workplace inflexibility also makes it difficult for women to raise families while working, said Zamore.

In other rabbinical schools that ordain women, the language granting ordination is the same for men and women but for the tweaking required to make the Hebrew, a gendered language, appropriate to the recipient.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary this year is ordaining 11 new rabbis, seven men and four women, in New York. The denomination’s Los Angeles rabbinical school, American Jewish University, is ordaining nine people this year — seven men and two women — said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School there.

The language used for new rabbis of both genders is the same, said sources at both schools.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this year is ordaining six rabbis, three men and three women. It has used the same language on its ordination certificates for rabbis of both genders since RRC began ordaining female rabbis in 1974, said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the seminary’s president.

At Hebrew College, an independent rabbinical school outside of Boston, six rabbis were ordained this year, two men and four women, said Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of its rabbinical school, which opened in 2003. There, too, they use the same language for men and women.

One of the newly ordained Reform rabbis at HUC has elected to use the term “rabba” out of a sense of solidarity with the Orthodox women being ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, Zamore said.

Maharat this year ordained three women, bringing to 14 the total number of women it has ordained since 2013. The New York-based yeshiva, controversial in the Orthodox world for training women as members of the clergy, has been the subject of a debate over nomenclature since its founding. Sara Hurwitz, the first woman ordained by founder Rabbi Avi Weiss, was given the title rabba in 2009. After significant communal pushback, Weiss changed the title of ordainees to “maharat,” an acronym of Hebrew words meaning spiritual, legal and Torah leader.

Today Yeshivat Maharat graduates choose among several titles, including maharat, rabba and “morateinu,” meaning “our teacher.”

One 2015 Yeshivat Maharat ordainee, Lila Kagedan, elected to take the title “rabbi,” making her the first Orthodox woman to do so.

Priesand, who retired from her New Jersey synagogue a decade ago and next month will turn 70, suggested that each generation of rabbis must further the struggle for acceptance. When she was ordained, Priesand said, “the important thing is that I knew I had been given the title rav, and that was probably all I really cared about.”

She continues to draw inspiration from the biblical tale of the daughters of Tzlofechad, who successfully challenged the laws prohibiting women from inheriting shares of their father’s inheritance.

“I learned a long time ago to fully appreciate the story of Tzlofechad’s daughters in the Torah,” Priesand said. “The moral of that story is that change comes about only when those who are being discriminated against demand it. So I very much admire Mary Zamore for making certain this was made right.”

Protests planned for Trump speech at pro-Israel conference

Some rabbis and Jewish students are planning protests against Donald Trump's speech on Monday at a conference of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC over what they say are his belittling comments about Muslims and other groups.

About 18,000 people are expected to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's three-day annual conference in Washington. It is not clear how many will either boycott or walk out of the Republican presidential front-runner's address.

“He has taken every opportunity to vilify women, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants and the disabled,” said Jeffrey Salkin, a rabbi in Hollywood, Florida, who asked rabbis across the country to join him in a boycott. He said 40 had agreed and signed a protest letter he hoped to distribute at the conference.

Another group of rabbis and students called Come Together Against Hate is planning to walk out of the room after Trump takes the stage. Jesse Olitzky, one of its organizers, said he did not know how many people would participate. The group's Facebook page had 300 members.

Some of the students received an email earlier this week from AIPAC warning that if they disrupted the speech, they would have their conference access revoked. An AIPAC official said on Thursday the message “went out in error and was not authorized.”

“I know nothing about that,” Trump said in a Reuters interview on Thursday when asked if he had heard about the planned protests and whether he intended to respond.

When he announced his candidacy last summer, Trump said some people crossing the U.S. border from Mexico were criminals and rapists, and promised to build a wall along the border.

In December, he called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, on national security grounds. Last week, he told CNN: “Islam hates us.” The Anti-Defamation League and an organization of Reform rabbis condemned his comments.

AIPAC, which is non-partisan, routinely hosts presidential hopefuls at its conference. Trump's remaining Republican rivals, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich, will address the group as well.

“The job of AIPAC is not to decide whose policies we like or look into the souls of people,” said Seth Siegel, an AIPAC veteran who said he was not speaking on behalf of the organization.

“It's the organization's job to try to educate elected officials about how to deepen the U.S.-Israel relationship for the benefit of both parties,” he said. “Having Trump speak at the policy conference is unambiguously part of that mission.”

Sanders discusses faith, Clinton grapples with rabbi’s question on humility

At a New Hampshire town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders described himself as a man of faith and Hillary Rodham Clinton opened up to a rabbi about her insecurities.

Wednesday’s town hall in Derry, broadcast live and moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, came six days before the New Hampshire presidential primary and just days after Sanders nearly upset Clinton, the putative front-runner, drawing to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses.

“You’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” Cooper asked Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont vying with Clinton, the former secretary of state, for the Democratic presidential nod.

Sanders, who until now has been hesitant to discuss his religious beliefs or Jewish upbringing, said faith is a guiding principle for him.

“You know, everybody practices religion in a different way,” he said. “To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”

Sanders said he expressed his faith through the sense of responsibility he had for others.

“My spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me,” he said. “That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”

A question for Clinton came from Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, who helms Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He quoted a teaching by Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic sage of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“Every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note,” Spira-Savett said, quoting Bunim. “And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.”

He then asked Clinton: “How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”

Clinton launched into a reflection on her difficulties living in the public eye. She contrasted her struggles “about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification” with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who she said “was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do.”

Clinton said her struggle to balance ego and humility is a daily one.

“And I don’t know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, ‘OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar,’ or, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t do it, it’s just overwhelming, I have to retreat,’” she said.

The former New York senator said she takes advice from faith leaders, including rabbis who send her notes on Jewish religious teachings.

Clinton quoted a Jesuit reading of the Christian parable of the prodigal son.

“Be grateful for your limitations,” she said. “Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions.”

Spira-Savett’s Bunim citation left an impression on Clinton; she returned to it toward the end of the town hall when she confessed to hankering for anonymity, to longing for time with friends.

“They keep me grounded,” she said. “They keep me honest. They deflate my head. They deal with the universe in one pocket and the dust and ashes in the other.”

NJ Orthodox shul announces hire of woman using ‘rabbi’ title

An Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey has hired Lila Kagedan, the first Yeshivat Maharat graduate to go by the title “rabbi.”

Mount Freedom Jewish Center, in Randolph, New Jersey, announced in a news release Monday that Kagedan is joining its “spiritual leadership team.” The news release did not use the word “rabbi,” instead referring to Kagedan as a “Yeshivat Maharat graduate.”

Kagedan, a native of Canada, was ordained in June by the New York-based seminary training Orthodox female clergy. Most graduates there have eschewed the title rabbi, opting instead for “maharat” or “rabba.” Kagedanannounced at a Jewish conference in December that she had accepted a job with an Orthodox American synagogue but declined to identify it.

Mount Freedom Jewish Center describes itself on its website as “open orthodox,” a nascent movement in modern Orthodoxy that believes in greater religious leadership roles for women, among other things.

According to the synagogue’s news release, Kagedan’s responsibilities will be “to teach Torah, encourage greater love and celebration of mitzvoth and to provide learning opportunities for adults and children, connect with young families in and around the community and participate in lifecycle and pastoral needs alongside Rabbi Menashe East.”

As of June, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 11 students. Six are serving in Orthodox synagogues across North America. The remaining five graduates are working at schools, international educational institutions and other community organizations.

In October, the Rabbinical Council of America, America’s main modern Orthodox rabbinical association, voted to ban the hiring of clergywomen by its members.

Petition against ex-rabbi Gafni gains Jewish community support

In 2015, a film about journalists on the investigative team at the Boston Globe shone a light on abuse in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the Jewish community in 2015 read news of rabbinic abuse and scandal. And now, several articles are shining a fresh light on former rabbi Marc Gafni and his three decades of incidents involving sexual misconduct and abuse of rabbinic power.

Previously known as both Marc Winiarz and Mordechai Gafni, he is preparing to once again reinvent himself, this time in the New Age space, as co-founder of the Center for Integral Wisdom (CIW). But with the new articles and a petition circulating that has been embraced by clergy and other Jewish leaders — and amplified by the Internet — multiple victims, as well as their friends and families, are coming forward and sharing stories. If you work or live in the Jewish world, you don’t have to reach very far into your social network to find someone with a personal Gafni story to tell.

The first two of the recent articles appeared in The New York Times and Tablet Magazine, both by Mark Oppenheimer, followed by subsequent pieces in the New York Daily News, Haaretz, Religion News Service, the Jewish Daily Forward, Jewschool and other venues. Together they create an Internet rabbit hole: Click on one and you’ll find two others, including the Jewish Journal’s coverage: In a sidebar to a New York Jewish Week piece by Gary Rosenblatt in October 2004, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, then the Journal’s religion editor, interviewed longtime Stephen Wise Temple Rabbi Eli Herscher about Gafni; in 2006, Fax covered the cancellation of an event featuring Gafni at Stephen Wise Temple. The Journal also reprinted Rosenblatt’s 2006 piece noting that Gafni had been ousted for misconduct from the leadership of Bayit Chadash, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group co-founded by Gafni, as well as a 2008 report by JTA’s Ben Harris about Gafni seeking to relaunch his career.

Gafni no longer holds his rabbinic titles: Rosenblatt reported in his 2004 article that Gafni had “returned” his semicha to his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “to spare his former teacher any further embarrassment.” In 2006, the now-late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi revoked the semicha he had given Gafni. More recently, ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, released a statement, noting that, “at no time did Gafni teach ALEPH ordination students or represent the Jewish Renewal Movement — nor will he.” 

The Petition

Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu (“Judaism for body, mind and spirit,” according to its website), has deep roots in the renewal movement. While he was rabbi-in-residence at Elat Chayyim Retreat Center, he witnessed Gafni seduce several students, Ingber said in a phone interview with the Jewish Journal. With Gafni poised to re-establish himself in yet another position of spiritual power at the CIW, Ingber launched an online petition calling on Gafni’s current supporters — including Whole Foods, the Esalen Institute and others — to “Stop Marc Gafni from Abusing Again.” 

“Marc Gafni has left a trail of pain, suffering, and trauma amongst the people and congregations who were unfortunate to have trusted him,” the petition (in part) reads. “He has abused his extraordinary intellectual gifts and charisma to harm many who came to him in search of spiritual guidance and teaching. He has used professional alliances to legitimize himself by association, and thereby be able to continue creating more harm. As a result, Marc Gafni is neither trusted, respected, nor welcome to teach virtually anywhere in Judaism.” 

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman of the Jewish Mindfulness Network in Los Angeles, one of the initial 109 clergy members and Jewish leaders who signed Ingber’s petition, said Gafni’s “destructive reach” was “widespread and painful.”

“It’s all there in the comments, from Jerusalem to Canada to Florida to New York to California to Alaska, people who were either a victim or were close to someone abused by him,” Zimmerman said in a phone interview.

As of press time, the petition had garnered almost 2,500 signatures; many who read the comments will likely recognize names from their own networks. 

“There were articles about him for years; until now, there wasn’t any one place for all these disparate communities to come together and speak out,” Zimmerman said.

“The rabbis should have done something about this years ago,” Ingber said. “I’m not surprised that this many people were enraged: We are living in an age of Facebook and petitions that go viral. It’s a remarkably settling and unsettling feeling, to watch something gain speed this quickly, the surge of voices. It is a testimony to the power of the Internet, to have this kind of platform.”

Gafni is also using the Internet’s power to spin his own new version of himself. His website identifies him as “Dr. Marc Gafni, Visionary Philosopher, Author, and Social Innovator” (he has a doctorate from Oxford), and includes a “Facts about Marc Gafni” page that begins, “If you have heard of troubling stories on the internet about Marc Gafni, this page is for you. It sets the record straight in relation to the internet distortions about Marc Gafni,” linking to accolades from Center for Integrated Wisdom co-founder Ken Wilber and frequent collaborator Sally Kempton. Next to a photo of Gafni are the words: “We live in a world of outrageous pain, and the only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love.”

“Now that John Mackey [the Whole Foods co-founder who supports Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom] is in business with him, it’s time for the non-Jewish spiritual world to learn about who he really is,” Ingber said. “In my opinion, Gafni’s a hardwired sociopath narcissist who has wreaked havoc wherever he’s been a teacher.”

During the three-year period when Gafni and Ingber knew each other, Ingber estimated that Gafni had been sleeping with 15-20 women located across the U.S. and in Israel, all while claiming to be a master teacher on intimacy and relationships. 

Ingber added that Gafni has always been “a master manipulator and triangulator,” who created “an atmosphere of absolute fear and terror” so that victims would fear “that he’s going to expose you for something.” 

In the Times of Israel, a woman identifying herself as Gafni’s third ex-wife spoke out about the verbal abuse, violent outbursts and infidelity during her marriage. “How can it be that there is zero condemnation in this spineless article?” she wrote, criticizing The New York Times report. “Just quotes of excuse from high-power supporters. Just the last word given to the abuser. Just another free pass to the genius caught with his pants down. I am furious for the bruised dozens of victims. Furious for my nightmares that still won’t end. Please God protect us from
the smiling sociopaths whose hands drip with candy.”

Many Gafni accounts speak of his charisma, but Ingber said charisma alone isn’t the problem — that “power plus pathology equals pain” and is “a recipe for disaster.” 

But in Gafni’s view, he’s the victim. The New York Times piece included one story about Gafni at age 19: He had sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl, who said — then and now — that it was not consensual; he says they were in love, adding, “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.” 

In the Daily News article, Gafni calls the attacks against him “sexual McCarthyism” and “social media rape,” repossessing and appropriating the language of sexual violation from his victims to reframe the conversation. 

What’s Next

Rabbis across the spectrum seem to now be taking note that Gafni — and future potential abusers of rabbinic power — is their problem, too. 

“It is a watershed moment, for a larger conversation about abuse of power in the Jewish community, and within the world of Alternative Spiritualities,” Ingber said.

Esalen, at press time, has not caved to the petition pressure. On the Whole Foods website, posts previously containing a video series featuring Gafni now feature a message from Mackey noting his decision to remove the videos from the Whole Foods site — “to be consistent with the position that this is indeed strictly a personal relationship” — but keep them available at the Center for Integral Wisdom site. 

Zimmerman credited Oppenheimer and other journalists for bringing these stories new visibility. 

“There wouldn’t be a petition if it weren’t for the outrage their new articles sparked,” Zimmerman said. 

Zimmerman, who became a rabbi at 47, said rabbinical seminaries need to “better understand what happens when young, bright rabbis are elevated on pedestals before they are emotionally capable and ready,” adding, “it can be a setup for a misuse of power.”

Zimmerman also cautioned that parents need to teach their kids to “pay attention to that voice inside,” she said. “Do not trust anyone — even a rabbi or teacher — who tells you to stay silent about something that doesn’t feel right. Learning to trust their internal feelings about comfort can help them [self-] guard against being a victim.”

But Zimmerman also sees hope in the wider community’s interest. “When 100 rabbis across the spectrum agree on an issue, then, wow. I feel hopeful that there are so many people who have had enough of rabbinic abuse of power.”

US Orthodox rabbis slam wedding video calling for revenge against Palestinians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago rabbi found guilty of sexually assaulting teen

A Chicago rabbi was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Rabbi Aryeh “Larry” Dudovitz assaulted the boy when he was supposed to be counseling the teenager for questioning his Orthodox Jewish faith, Cook County Judge Evelyn Clay ruled Monday in the bench trial, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Dudovitz, 48, the married father of nine, had rejected a plea deal that called for five years in prison, and now faces up to 15 years in prison, according to the newspaper. He was ordered taken into custody until he turned over his passport, after which he would be released to electronic monitoring until sentencing.

The assault occurred at the victim’s home in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood during the Sukkot holiday in 2006. Criminal chargeswere brought against Dudovitz in 2013 after the teen sought counseling in the wake of the incident.

Dudovitz admitted to the abuse at a hearing organized by the Chicago Rabbinical Council, rabbis testified in court. The rabbis banned Dudovitz from being around minors, but he did not adhere to the guidelines, according to testimony, the newspaper reported.

Rabbi charged with felony sex abuse pleads not guilty

A rabbi arrested on felony charges of sexual abuse of a child entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment Nov. 10 at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles. Sholom D. Levitansky, 39, of Sherman Oaks arrived at court wearing a suit and yarmulke, flanked by a handful of other men in similar dress, and one woman.

At the arraignment, Judge Keith Schwartz issued two oral orders restricting Levitansky’s behavior while he’s out on $370,000 bail. Schwartz told the rabbi that he’s prohibited from having contact with the two alleged female victims in the case, and that he is also forbidden from any contact in general with females younger than 18 years old.

The only condition Levitansky may make contact with female minors is if there’s another adult present who is aware of the charges against Levitansky. 

“They’re going to watch you to make sure nothing else allegedly happens,” Schwartz said.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has charged Levitansky with five counts of oral copulation of a person under 18 years of age, five counts of sexual penetration by a foreign object of a person under 18, and one count of lewd act upon a child.

When the Journal approached Levitansky at the courthouse to ask him about his case, he had no comment. Levitansky has retained a private attorney, Glen Jonas of Torrance-based Jonas & Driscoll; the preliminary hearing for Levitansky’s case has been scheduled for Dec. 16.

The charges against Levitansky are dated, Jonas said in his client’s defense. Any time there’s a delay in  reporting allegations, “the narrative of that accusation needs to be investigated.”

The rabbi was arrested Sept. 30 when he turned himself in to the Santa Monica Police Department. The allegations of abuse against Levitansky took place from 1998 to 2002, when the victims were 15 and 16 years old, and Levitansky was in his mid-20s, according to a statement from Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks. Levitansky met the girls while working at the Living Torah Center on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.

A view from the women’s section on Orthodox spiritual leadership

I have a vivid memory of sitting in my yeshiva high school principal’s office, imploring him to start teaching the girls Mishnah and Gemara, to offer a little more respect to our intellects and our souls by giving us access to all the Jewish texts that form the basis of our heritage, of what we were expected to live every day. He said no, for four years. Did he quote sources at me stating that women’s minds are too feeble for it? Say that it wouldn’t interest me anyway? That it’s simply not done? I’ve shut those details out of my memory, but my mission was clear: If I wanted access to the heritage that is rightfully mine, I was going to have to get out of the principal’s office. And I did. After I graduated from yeshiva high school, I started taking adult Gemara classes, and I continue to do so today. 

Last week, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)
I have found a Modern Orthodoxy so meaningful, so relevant and so true to the halachah and values central to the Torah, that I don’t need RCA approval to tell me I’m doing the right thing.

A few months ago, Bnai David installed Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn as the first female clergy member in an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board that hired her.)

My shul, my community, my Judaism, are stronger and richer for having a woman as a holy presence among us. Morateinu Alissa delivers heartfelt and learned drashot, offers halachic guidance on highly personal issues with immense sensitivity, and shares deep insights as a teacher. She relates to our teen girls and has brought her unique interests, her brand of empathy, her youthful perspective, to complement Rabbi Kanefsky’s dynamic wisdom and courage and menschlichkayt. 

But mostly I appreciate Morateinu Alissa’s presence. In our shul, men and women are physically divided by a mechitzah, and nearly all the action goes on on the men’s side. That tradition continues, as Morateinu Alissa, like all women, does not lead any of the davening or even count toward a minyan. But now, we women can feel that we own a little more of what goes on in shul. We have a religious leader we can sit next to during davening, with whom we can shake hands or hug when she descends from the bimah after giving a beautiful sermon, to whom we can look during davening as an inspiration for kavanah, of holy intention, without the obstruction of the wooden latticework of our mechitzah barring our full view, our full access. 

Maybe the RCA should feel threatened. Women and men who experience the added dimension and texture that a female perspective can bring to congregational life might realize what they have been missing all along.

And women who experience the sense of belonging and relevance might demand it in other shuls, even in shuls where the mechitzah is not built with the same symmetry and sensitive semi-transparency, or where the velvet-cloaked Torah scroll is not carried through an array of women’s outstretched arms offering kisses or a caress. 

I remember the first time I saw a sefer Torah up close. There I was, 19 years old, already having had about 16 years of formal Jewish education, and I had never seen the letters of the Torah, never read a verse from an actual scroll. I was working at a summer camp, and my then-boyfriend, now-husband, brought me into the tented beit knesset in the middle of a field, took a scroll from the ark, and opened it for me. It was that simple, and that complicated.

A few years later, my husband taught me to lein Torah for the women’s prayer group I had just joined, and I realized that those little symbols I had always ignored were not only a melody, but punctuation. For years, I had been reading the words of the Torah with an unnecessary handicap.

What we are doing in Modern Orthodoxy is removing those unnecessary obstacles so we can use all the tools offered to us to find the truest meaning of our traditions. We are not suggesting a halachic free-for-all, but rather a more authentic adherence to what the halachah does and does not demand of us.

I know I might be naïve and delusional to thumb my nose at the RCA. I am not a professional spiritual leader, so my livelihood and life’s mission are not at stake. And more important, in Orthodoxy, community is everything. I’d like to see the RCA do what the grass-roots community does — recognize that there is a place in the Modern Orthodox community for all of us. Because stepping outside the community has very real consequences. 

I guess what both sides need to figure out now is how to define, and who is defining, today’s Modern Orthodox community.

3 more women file sexual assault complaints against Safed rabbi

Three more Israeli women have filed complaints of sexual assault against a Safed rabbi.

The new complaints filed Monday night bring the total to eight against the rabbi, who was arrested Thursday night at Ben Gurion Airport on his way to Brazil. The arrest was based on an accusation by a woman who claimed that she was raped by the rabbi several years ago.

A gag order was placed on the case, including the name of the rabbi, identified as a yeshiva head from the Safed area who belongs to modern Orthodox Zionist circles.

His name will be released on Wednesday, a Nazareth District Court judge ruled on Tuesday, pending an appeal by the rabbi to the Israeli Supreme Court, Haaretz reported.

The rabbi reportedly denies the accusations.

Chief Rabbinate should have more inclusive outlook

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin called on Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to dedicate itself to a more inclusive outlook on Israeli society.

On Monday, in his first public remarks since the controversy over his tenure as chief rabbi of Efrat, Riskin said the Chief Rabbinate never attempted to reach out to him directly to explain the reason for the unprecedented delay in extending his tenure.

“The Rabbinate should be opening its arms in acceptance and limiting divisiveness in Israeli society,” Riskin said at a reception of Efrat residents hosted by Mayor Oded Ravivi to mark the five-year extension of his tenure.

Riskin turned 75 in May, the age at which municipal rabbis are required to retire unless their tenure is extended five years, as is usually done automatically. But the Chief Rabbinate declined to automatically renew Riskin’s appointment as chief rabbi and called for a hearing, which Riskin said he learned about through media reports.

Riskin has been the chief rabbi of Efrat since 1983, when he helped found the settlement located in the Gush Etzion bloc of the West Bank.

Responding to claims that some of his halachic rulings were deemed problematic by members of the Chief Rabbinate, Riskin said, “I am sure all of my decisions are based on accepted halachic precedent. Even the rulings that some viewed as too far outside the box are based on decisions by former chief rRabbis. This is a debate about differing ideological paths.”

Riskin recently appointed a woman, Jennie Rosenfeld, to serve as a religious leader in Efrat, giving her the title “manhiga ruchanit,” or spiritual adviser. He has also come under fire from the Chief Rabbinate for his views on reforming the conversion process in Israel, supporting a government directive that was overturned by the Cabinet on Sunday that would have allowed municipal chief rabbis to form conversion courts rather than requiring potential converts to appear before four Chief Rabbinate-led courts.

Local rabbis speak up about the drought

The Catholic pope is not the only one seeing moral messages in the issue of climate change and in valuing the Earth’s natural resources. Many rabbis are teaching restraint, particularly in California, where the drought, currently in its fourth year, is causing civic leaders to require residents and farmers to severely cut back on water use.  

“We need to restrain ourselves with dealing with adama [soil],” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a member of the Jewish Renewal movement, known for his work on Jewish environmental ethics. “In the story of the Garden of Eden, God says to the human race, ‘There’s an abundance here, eat it joyfully, just a little self restraint. Don’t eat from that tree.’ They don’t restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes.”

It’s a concept also applied to the commandment of resting on Shabbat or practicing shmita, he explained, the halachic principle of letting the earth lie fallow every seven years.

For many rabbis from different congregations across Los Angeles, the California drought can be studied through a Jewish lens, and the Torah, as well as Jewish law and ethics, can offer the community guidance in how to respond.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation described climate change — which he connected to the drought — as “an enormously religious issue,” as human action is at least partly accountable.

“We are failing perhaps the most basic human commandment we were given,” Kanefsky said, referring to that of taking care of the world. Climate change “is going to create serious hardship, whether for people who are living in areas that can no longer grow food, or living on islands overrun by seawater, or people who are subject to ferocious storms. We have the obligation to think about all of humanity as being part of our realm of responsibility, given that we are largely responsible for climate change.”

Allocation of water resources is a contentious issue in California, and the Gemara emphasizes the need for compromise by referring to situations in which people using a public area must yield to one another. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, referred to a midrash that teaches that when two camels are walking toward one another on the same road and there isn’t room for both, the camel that is not laden must retreat.

“We have different interest groups making claims on water, [and] not enough is available to go around,” Adlerstein said. “One of the things I imagine we’ll be able to do is try to come up with accommodations that produce the least amount of detrimental impact on the fewest people.”

Furthermore, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Gemara presents a framework for how to prioritize in times of scarcity. He referenced a discussion of how a person’s own livelihood comes before anyone else’s, and how when one gives charity, the “poor of the city” preside over the poor who came to the city from elsewhere (Yoreh Deah 251:3).

“The tradition already had a sense that in times of scarcity, whether it be water or food or housing, there has to be a pecking order,” he said. “The general rule is that you have to take care of yourself first.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am added that halachah urges people to prioritize the resources that are essential for one’s well-being. 

“Judaism would say you have to prioritize those usages of a limited resource that are required for sustaining life or health and not those for sustaining enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure,” he said. “Almonds and walnuts, which I love, I don’t need them to live. I happen to know they take an enormous amount of water to produce, per nut.”

Although droughts in the Torah appear as a form of divine punishment and God promises rain as a reward for keeping the commandments, it is difficult for some rabbis to think of the drought as a result of sin.

“We don’t fully understand God’s system of reward and punishment,” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation said. “Our focus needs to be on human initiative.”

Adlerstein explained that there is a type of divine providence associated with the droughts in the Torah because they occur in Israel — a land that, unlike California, has a covenant with God.

“There is the assumption in the Talmud that rain is something that God keeps tabs on and is related more to the spiritual conduct of the Jewish community,” he said. “When rain does not fall on Israel for an extended period of time, the reaction of the community is to turn to prayer and self-reflection. But I don’t think you’re going to find Jews in America saying, ‘Wow, this drought in California — it’s probably because of our sins.’ ”

However, most of the rabbis interviewed insisted that fasting and prayer in a time of drought can motivate people to take action.

“I don’t think that our fasting in and of itself is going to bring water — that’s magic, and that is a real ‘no-no’ in the Jewish tradition,” Dorff said. “If you’re going to fast, and there’s ample [halachic] precedent for that in the case of drought, then the purpose of the fast ought to be to express your fears about an ongoing drought, for water in the future and to motivate you to ensure a reliable source of water in the future.”

According to Adlerstein, conserving water solely to reap economic rewards is permissible. He explained that halachah offers incentives to help people fulfill the obligation to give tzedakah, and the Gemara describes how “the authorities could even seize their property before their very eyes, and take from them what they should have given” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 248:1).

“I don’t see anything wrong with inducing people to act in ways that are healthy, even for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Even when it comes to things that are mitzvot, the Torah does allow for cajoling people to do the right thing by offering inducements.”

Droughts in the Torah often resulted in the displacement of people, illustrating the importance of individual responsibility to take care of the vulnerable.

“During the days of Elijah, the time of Achav, [and] in any situation of drought and in any crisis, that’s a time for every person to do what they can to improve the situation and help those in need,” Topp said. “Judaism emphasizes charity and kindness.”

For all the rabbis, caring about the drought reflects the high value that Judaism places on a human life, for which water is crucial.

“It is a Jewish value to take care of the planet and pay attention to the natural resources, particularly water,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, which hosted a June 24 panel on water conservation. “There are so many references to water as life saving, from the story of Moses who is drawn from the water, from the story of Miriam, who is the source of wells that nurtured us as we wandered in the desert,” Geller said.

“The Jewish lens is to know that this is important and that behaviors need to change. To be responsible, to act personally, and to act collectively.” 

In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Avi Weiss is quitting the Rabbinical Council of America to protest its failure to admit as members rabbis whose sole ordination is from the rabbinical school he founded.

The RCA, the main association of modern Orthodox rabbis in America, has yet to grant membership to rabbis who have been ordained only from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Weiss established the rabbinical seminary in 2000 as an alternative to Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Chovevei Torah, which is located at Weiss’ synagogue, ordains a handful of rabbis each year and is now led by Rabbi Asher Lopatin.

After Chovevei Torah graduates failed to gain membership to the RCA, Weiss co-founded an alternative rabbinic group, the.

“As an act of protest I have not paid my dues to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and have now allowed my membership to lapse,” Weiss wrote in an email message on Monday. “I have chosen to leave the RCA foremost because of its attitude towards Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical school I founded years ago.

“If YCT rabbis – with YCT semikha only – cannot join the RCA, neither can I be part of this rabbinical group,” Weiss wrote.

The RCA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Weiss has been a frequent critic of the RCA, most recently for centralizing control of Orthodox conversions in America.

Shortly after Weiss made his announcement, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of the Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington and a former assistant rabbi to Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, announced that he, too, was quitting the RCA.

Rapper Ice Cube melts down, beats up rabbi

Ice Cube has never had the most cordial relationship with the Jewish community. In 1991, the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned his album “Death Certificate,” noting that many lyrics were racist and one of the songs called for the murder of a Jewish music industry figure. His song “No Vaseline” has been criticized for its line directed at his former group NWA, which he says “let a white Jew tell [them] what to do.”

However, this latest incident, if true, takes his Jewish relations to a new low.

The 45-year-old rapper and actor allegedly lost his cool outside the MGM casino in Detroit last Sunday when he and a rabbi —who went by the name P. Taras in TMZ — bumped into each other. Taras claims that after he told Ice Cube to watch where he was going, the rapper had his entourage physically beat and stomp on him.

Taras also says that Ice Cube unleashed a string of anti-Semitic epithets at him for wearing a yarmulke. He is suing the rapper for $2 million in damages.

Ice Cube, whose real name is O’Shea Jackson, told TMZ that the rabbi’s claims are not true.

Jackson is in the middle of helping publicize an upcoming biopic about NWA, but he might not be able to rap his way out of this debacle.

Pope Francis to bestow knighthood on New York rabbi

Pope Francis will confer papal knighthood on Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue.
Schneier, the founder of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and a Holocaust survivor, is being honored for his work promoting peace and mutual understanding, according to Vatican officials. Schneier will formally become a knight of Saint Sylvester at a ceremony on April 27 at the official residence of the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations, Archbishop Bernardito Auza. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is slated to be present.
Other members of the Order of Saint Sylvester include the late entertainer Bob Hope and Oskar Schnidler, the German industrialist credited with saving more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis.
“Pope Francis is bestowing the honor on Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who has worked unceasingly to promote peace and mutual understanding, in the firm conviction that respect for fundamental human rights, including religious freedom, are indispensable values for all peoples of the world to enjoy peace, security and shared prosperity,” Auza said in a statement. “A Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Schneier has always held this conviction in his heart and made it a principle of life.”
When the last pope, Benedict XVI, visited New York in April 2008, he visited Schneier’s synagogue, where the two exchanged gifts. Schneier was given a replica of a medieval Jewish manuscript from the Vatican library, and the pope received a seder plate, a Haggadah and a box of matzah.

So you’ve decided to become a rabbi…

Dear Friend,

I understand you’re thinking of becoming a rabbi. Mazel tov!

Getting into a seminary shouldn’t be too hard. During the decade between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, four consequential new rabbinical schools opened in America: the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y.; the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles; and two nondenominational seminaries, at Hebrew College near Boston and at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Ironically, these schools are now competing for fewer students.

Between Hebrew College and the six schools affiliated with the non-Orthodox denominations, the number of incoming students has fallen by 28 percent over the last decade, according to Rabbi Amber Powers, who tracks the data as assistant vice president for enrollment at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In 2004, those schools enrolled 118 new rabbinical students. In 2013, there were just 84.

Even if you don’t make the cut this year, don’t fret: Admissions staff at most schools will work with you to find programs to enhance your Hebrew or Jewish literacy so you can get in next time.

“I would like to oversupply the Reform movement with rabbis — to meet the needs of congregations but also to have other folks who have graduated and can do other things,” says Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has three campuses and accepts about 60 percent of rabbinical program applicants.

Worried you won’t find a school near you? It’s true the only U.S. cities with accredited rabbinical schools are New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Cincinnati. But now you can become a rabbi online! Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, offers a five-year distance-learning program.

If what you really seek is the title, you can become a “rabbi” in just two semesters at the online Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute. Or there’s Rabbinical Seminary International, run out of a Manhattan apartment and with graduation requirements consisting of the ability to conduct services that “include Hebrew” and “familiarity with the Bible, including the main themes of the Torah.”

But let’s get serious. If you’re looking for an accredited, brick-and-mortar institution, you will need to make a four- or five-year commitment, often including a year in Israel, depending on the school.

Do you have cash? The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which is ordaining 14 rabbis this year, costs about $28,000 per year; the movement’s Ziegler school in L.A. (17 rabbis this year) costs $26,500. Hebrew College (14 rabbis) is $25,000. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia (six rabbis) is $21,000. HUC (35 rabbis) is about $20,000. Financial aid and student loans are common.

If you’re Orthodox, you can breathe a little easier. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (graduating two rabbis this spring) has no tuition and offers students a “generous stipend” for living expenses. Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which ordains about 50 rabbis per year, also is free.

“We’ve had a 100-year tradition of not charging for rabbinical school,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, the acting dean of RIETS. “It’s Y.U.’s gift to the community.”

Of course, attending an Orthodox school comes with its own burdens — like commitment to upholding ideological principles. (RIETS, for example, recently made clear that it would not countenance its students participating in partnership minyans.) Other schools have their own ideological commitments. JTS stresses egalitarian Jewish observance, with both men and women required to lay tefillin every day. (If you’re an Orthodox woman, your only ordination option is Yeshivat Maharat, the New York school founded in 2009 that ordains Orthodox clergywomen.)

The Reconstructionist movement’s seminary is less specific in its demands.

“Our requirements include deep immersion in Jewish modalities,” says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, RRC’s president. “We don’t mandate what Jewish immersion looks like.”

Before you go any further, you may want to give a thought to the rabbinic job marketplace. The best-paying jobs are pulpit positions, but those jobs, while still the single-biggest destination for graduates, are hard to get. Outside Orthodoxy, the number of synagogues is shrinking, thanks to the lingering effects of the recession, disinterest in organized religion among younger Jews and dwindling Jewish populations in small cities and towns. Some synagogues are merging; others are shutting down.

“There’s no jobs for these kids,” says Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who teaches rabbinics at Ziegler and serves as senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. “When I was growing up they told us this was a great field, a burgeoning market. Now it’s shutting down.”

Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, international placement director at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, says about 100 Conservative rabbis in North America are seeking employment right now — including the 31 graduating JTS and Ziegler this year — but only 50-60 synagogue jobs are available.

By contrast, about 80 percent of Reform rabbis ordained by HUC find congregational work, according to HUC’s president.

In the Orthodox world, most of the pulpit openings are “out of town” — that is, outside metropolitan New York. Y.U. says only 25 percent of its newly minted rabbis these days find work in congregations, though 80 percent are involved in some kind of religious or Jewish communal work. The remaining 20 percent go to secular trades — like accounting, law and medicine.

If you do score a pulpit gig, don’t expect an easy ride. Many shuls can afford only part-time rabbis, so you may have to take a second or third job working as a schoolteacher or hospital chaplain. In small Reform congregations, you might serve as cantor, too. (I hope you can play guitar!)

It’s helpful to be young, and not just because you’ll be working weekends. With synagogues desperate to attract the under-40 set, many congregations eschew hiring older rabbis.

“Age discrimination starts earlier than it ever has before,” Schoenberg says. “The assumption is, if I hire someone who’s 30, all those who are 30 and live in the neighborhood will come to the synagogue. But it might very well be that what a synagogue needs is a rabbi who is a good educator, and a good educator might be 45 years old.”

You’re open to a job outside the pulpit? Terrific, because by choice or compulsion, more rabbis than ever are working in day schools, on college campuses, as hospital and military chaplains, in Jewish organizations, even at Jewish community centers. The bad news is job growth in those areas has stalled. Blame the Great Recession.

Now, let’s talk about why you want to be a rabbi. Is it the pursuit of scholarship? If so, you might not get what being a rabbi is all about: Most American rabbinical schools are placing more emphasis on leadership and professional training, not just Talmud and Torah study.

“A rabbi is not just a religious leader, but CEO of the synagogue,” says Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, Y.U.’s director of rabbinic placement.

“So much of their job is working with people, being available to people, responding to people,” says Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College. “It’s not necessarily about the best piece of Torah learning they can come up with.”

At JTS, half of the program’s final three years is devoted to professional and pastoral skills, including communications and nonprofit management. You’ll also have to get a master’s degree.

Wherever you go, expect to intern — and not just at synagogues.

“Over the last 20 years, the movement has been toward field education,” says Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at JTS. “That’s more time out in the community, whether doing critical pastoral education in hospitals or internships in synagogues and schools and camps and agencies.”

I don’t want to sound like your dad, but have you thought about your long-term future? Rabbinic tenure has fallen by the wayside, making rabbi jobs far less secure than in the past, according to Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University.

Still want to be a rabbi? Fantastic! It’s really a calling, isn’t it?

That’s how Sam Taylor feels.

“Early on in college I discovered I have a love of teaching, of people, of Judaism and Torah. I don’t think I’d be satisfied with accounting,” says Taylor, who will be graduating Y.U.’s rabbinical program this June.

Was Taylor nervous about finding a job? You bet. That’s why he did rabbinic internships, summer programs and fellowships. It paid off: He’s accepted a position in his native London, as an assistant rabbi at Western Marble Arch Synagogue.

“A lot of it is you just got to have faith in the hand of God,” Taylor says. “Faith counts for a lot.”

Online kosher, extra rabbis for visiting Jews in Sochi

Sochi's lone rabbi has drawn on reinforcements from the United States and shipped in 7,000 kosher meals to help cater for Jewish visitors to the Winter Olympics in Russia, a country where Judaism is reviving after decades of repression.

Speaking virtually no Russian at the time, Ari Edelkopf, a native of California, moved to Sochi 12 years ago with his wife Chani to establish a synagogue. In the run-up to the Olympics, he said he received emails from Jews from around the world, anxious to find out where they could eat kosher food and celebrate the Shabbat, or Sabbath.

“Yes there's a synagogue, there is a mikveh (ritual bath), there is children's education here and there's kosher food and there's Shabbat, so you can come to Sochi, you can spend time here and have all your Jewish needs taken care of,” Edelkopf told Reuters in an interview.

Jews from Israel, Russia, Australia, Ukraine and the United States are among those who have gathered to pray and sing together in Sochi and share kosher meals of gefilte fish, chicken and wine.

“That deserves respect and appreciation – I'm sure that took some coordination,” said Yossi Sharon, 29, an American of Israeli origin who works for a financial advisory company in Moscow. “It's nice to bring Jews from all over the world together.”

Via the website JewishSochi.com, visitors can place orders for kosher food, which has mainly been sent in from Moscow. They can also find directions to the synagogue and two prayer rooms, equipped with Shabbat candles and Torah scrolls, in hotels in Sochi and in the mountains above the city.


Much of Judaism's revival in Russia has been driven by Chabad-Lubavitch, a worldwide Jewish movement that has flown in 12 rabbinical interns to back up Edelkopf for the duration of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which run until March 16.

“We do feel that our roots are here in this land and we're coming back,” said JJ Hecht, a rabbi from Ellenville, New York, referring to the 250-year old origins of Chabad-Lubavitch in what is now Belarus.

“Now that I've come, after all those tragic experiences happened, after the past 20 years of Chabad building Judaism in Russia… I am fascinated and I'm very excited.”

Jennifer Ullman, a volunteer with the U.S. Olympic Committee's hospitality team, joined Hecht and another rabbi, Dovid Katz, last Friday evening to mark the start of the sabbath in one of the makeshift hotel prayer sites, having met them by chance in a supermarket.

“I felt their energy and I felt it was positive,” she said. “What's important for me is the community, and being connected to my faith.”


In Soviet times, the few functioning synagogues operated under the gaze of the KGB and it was impossible for most Jews to be circumcised, learn Hebrew, get access to kosher food and practise their religion openly.

All of them, whether practising or not, had 'Evrey' (Jew) entered in their passport, and were liable to suffer discrimination at university or at work. More than a million emigrated, mostly to Israel.

“It's no secret that for many, many years there was no Jewish life in Russia, many Jews were scared to say that they were Jewish. It was very hard to be Jewish here in those days,” said local rabbi Edelkopf.

But since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new synagogues have opened and many Jews have rediscovered their roots. “It's become a normative thing for Jews to be openly Jewish, which is a massive change,” said Philip Carmel, spokesman for the European Jewish Congress in Brussels.

While anti-Semitism exists here as in the West, fanned by a rise in nationalism and xenophobia since the fall of Communism, it does not pose an existential threat for Russia's estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Jews, he said in a telephone interview.

Edelkopf calls it a 'miracle' that Sochi now boasts a synagogue with 30-40 regular worshippers, a kosher store, a pre-school with a dozen children and a summer camp that attracts about 30.

“The truth is that it's part of a big Jewish renaissance that's happening in Russia today,” he said.

“We've seen a big awakening from the youth… They're really wanting to find out what being Jewish really means – not only in negative way, the way they were used to in Russia, but as a positive.

“What is this heritage about, what is our Torah about, how the grandparents and great grandparents lived in the Jewish way of life – they want also to adopt that way of life today here in Russia.”

Editing by Mitch Phillips

Poem: Sound Advice

You have to know
who to talk to:
choose a dry
so that what is said
is kept there;
like the rabbi’s
never leaking out,
it will remain sweet
as water in a sealed pit.

Bor sud, in Hebrew, is a water-proofed cistern, or sealed pit, which holds all the water that enters it and lets nothing escape. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkinos is referred to as “bor sud,” because he retained everything he learned.

Linda Stern Zisquit’s most recent book is “Havoc: New & Selected Poems” (Sheep Meadow Press, 2013), where this poem originally appeared. Her award-winning translations from Hebrew include “These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam” and “Wild Light: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach.” She lives in Jerusalem, is associate professor of poetry at Bar Ilan University, and runs ARTSPACE, an art gallery in Jerusalem representing contemporary Israeli artists.

Mendel Tevel in Los Angeles jail awaiting extradition

Menachem Mendel Tewel, who goes by the name Mendel Tevel, remains in a Los Angeles jail awaiting extradition to Brooklyn. The rabbi and youth worker ” target=”_blank”>In an article in the Journal in August, four men said they had been victims of Tevel when they were minors (ranging from ages 6 to 14 at the time of the alleged abuse). They claimed Tevel performed acts that included spanking on bare skin, to sexually suggestive rubbing. The instances described by those who spoke with the Journal took place as early as around 1995 and as recently as around 2004.

On Wednesday, the Journal contacted one of Tevel’s alleged male victims, who in August, had recounted to an audience in L.A. that in around 2004, when he was 14, Tevel  inappropriately spanked, rubbed, and massaged him. 

“I would like him to see going away forever,” the Brooklyn resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said by phone.

“There’s a massive sense of relief, however there’s a massive, big sense of stress that just came due to the fact he will be here in New York again,” the alleged victim said.

Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, director and founder of the JEM Center and Tevel’s father-in-law, would not comment when contacted in August, and did not respond to multiple calls this week to his cell phone.

In an interview with KABC TV, Illulian said, “God will help that it will show that it’s all false and will clear up, and people will see while we [JEM] will still continue our good job for the community,”

Dana Cole, the JEM Center’s attorney dismissed questions as to whether the center could face any liability for allowing Tevel to work around youth following the allegations of abuse in New York. “I couldn't possibly think of any potential liability,” Cole said.

“As far as we know there’s been nothing improper whatsoever in terms of people he came in contact with at the JEM center,” Cole said.

Hoshino said BHPD investigators in August had investigated Tevel and concluded there had been “no complaints” of any criminal or inappropriate sexual acts with students at the JEM Center.

Walking on the wild side and returning to the sacred side: Or becoming a rabbi because of Lou Reed

Word of Lou Reed walking beyond the wild side, never to return, reached me as I was leaving campus, having just finished teaching a class on Modern Jewish Philosophy. As I recovered my copy of Take No Prisoners on my i-Phone and flicking to his 1978 strung-out rendition of “Sweet Jane”, I wondered why Lou Reed ( March 2, 1942, Brooklyn, as Lewis Allan Rabinowitz, later changed to Reed,) was not included on my syllabus for the study of Modern Jewish philosophers! After all, Lou Reed was probably the greatest abiding influence in my life’s journey that lead me to the rabbinate— Lewis Allan Reed was my “Satellite of Love”, leading me time and again back New York from Toronto on a never-ending pilgrimage to CBGB’s in what was then a frightening trip in the Bowery and Bleeker Bob’s in the West Village from my high school days onwards. What was it about this renegade rocker, the punk zeyde I never had, that inspired me to the point of teaching about him in one of my year-long men’s group, strategically nestled off site from my synagogue, once Beeber’s The Heebie Jeebie’s at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk Rock (2006) was finally released. Perhaps Lou Reed— who sang so poignantly about “make-believe love” on that 1978 live recording from the no longer extant legendary West Village watering hole, The Bottom Line—was not included as a Jewish philosopher for the same reason that I had subconsciously excluded Gillian Rose. After all, in the final year of her life, she gave an extraordinary lecture in 1994 with an intense reading of the Rilke sonnet that begins Sei allem Abschied voran or “Be ahead of all departures”. In that same live recording from 1978, decades before his own actual death —even if every moment of his music was always Sein-zum-Todt or “being-towards-death” —Lou quoted Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), while attempting to keep hecklers at bay in his inimitable way, when he retorted: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’—so you try and figure out where I’m at right now!” At that ever-recurring moment of confronting one’s own death, with less than a year to live, in Rose’s last masterpiece, Love’s Work (1996), she confirmed that studying philosophy at Oxford almost destroyed her passion of the mind, and furthermore “the earnest stupidity of her schooling” was succeeded by “the deeper stupidity of reading philosophy at university.” What Lou Reed, and to a lesser degree Gillian Rose, have taught me is that life is a laboratory and that university should never get in the way of your education about love’s work in life. That struck me the first time I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” – I was fifteen and in love for the first time with Kaza in art school. Something about crossing the lines, and walking on the other side together– the wild side that Kaza took me to– was transformational. Years later, Lou Reed remained that abiding force of embracing the role of the real ‘ivri or Hebrew, which I later learned is how Hasidic master, Reb Nahman of Bratzlav defined the Jew as epitomizing the ‘boundary-crosser’. I came to appreciate this again years later at one of Lou Reed’s “last suppers” at the Downtown Seder that he haunted with his third wife, Laurie Anderson. Last year, Laurie was the Tam or “simple child” intoning “The Dream Before” while Lou was always called upon as the resident Hakham or “wise child” doing his riff on Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. Years earlier, I recall a Downtown Seder in 2004 when Lou was called on again to occupy his seat as the Hakham when he chose to incorporate his recent project of setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” to music at an SRO room full of New York Jews reciting his re-writing of the classic in these words: “Sometimes I wonder who am I?/Who made the trees?/Who made the sky?/Who made the storms?/Who made a heart break?/I wonder how much life I can take?”

Lou Reed was that “Wild Child” he sang about on his debut album in 1972. He troubled his Jewish parents— accountant, Sidney Reed and his wife and former beauty queen, Toby Futterman Reed— to the point where they sent him for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens. Not such a usual chapter for an all-American Jew growing up in Freeport, Long Island. That was only the beginning of Lou Reed’s descent into his decades long inferno, so that even in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment. Reed’s transfer to Syracuse University brought him momentary solace inside the circle surrounding American Jewish poet, writer, and English professor, Delmore Schwartz. When Reed met Schwartz, the latter was only six years away from his death in a Bowery room flophouse (doors away from what would later become the renowned punk club, CBGBs). While Lou would ride around on his motorcycle, clad in leather with his guitar slung over his shoulder, never to be caught dead in any frat—much less a Jewish one—he did allow himself to become the mascot for the Jewish “Sammies” of Sigma Alpha Mu, given they were the most progressive of the lot and served as one of his most receptive audiences throughout his career. Unsurprisingly though, Lou skipped classes frequently to play in black bars with his band, LA and Eldorados (for Lewis, his given name, and Allen the first name of childhood friend, Allen Hyman). Although Syracuse University was a time when Lou flourished, the scars of his electrified, broken heart would never fully mend. By the time Blue Mask (1982) was released— a partial eulogy to his all-American Jewish mentor, Delmore Schwarz referred to explicitly in “My House” as “My friend and teacher [who] occupies a spare room/He’s dead—at peace at last the Wandering Jew” —Reed’s scars irrupted as he decried: “Take the blue mask down from my face/and look me in the eye/…Don’t take death away”. By daring to stare death in the face and continue to embrace life as a Jew, Lou Reed defined his own rock n’ roll path as a uniquely Jewish path. Daring to do more than “walk on the wild side” but enter into the realm the Jewish mystics call the Sitra Ahra or the “Other Side” and then return to the Sitra de’Kedusha or the “Sacred Side” was something I only experienced in his music. This musical journey of Lou Reed—one that in 1965 accompanied Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable— is what inspired me along my path to the rabbinate. Through his music as life, Lou Reed reminded me of that annual obligation of crossing all boundaries with the utter seriousness of carnivale that Jews still call Purim—that “Halloween Parade”. That same album New York from1989 is where Lou confronts the Nazi fugitives like Kurt Waldheim and anti-semitic candidates like Jesse Jackson, so that with “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” Lou dares to remove the mask! Reed saw the absurdity of life surrounding him and despite it all–following Fackenheim’s call for the 614th commandment not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory–he embraced life! May the memory of rock n’ roll animal, Louis Rabinowitz— Lou Reed, be a blessing, and in the final words of the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe in 1943: Es zol zich zingen a shira —“So shall the song sing itself.”

Goy until proven Jewish

“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

Outmoded divorce law leading to back-alley beatings a real shandah

The FBI arrested two prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbis and two of their associates overnight Oct. 9 in New York. Allegedly, these rabbis arranged back-alley beatings for men who refuse to divorce their wives. Understanding their alleged crimes requires a short background in Jewish law.

Jewish law recognizes that some marriages may end in divorce, and includes provisions for how it should be done. In order to divorce in Jewish law, the husband, who accepted the responsibilities of marriage and the financial obligations of divorce at the wedding ceremony, must formally end the marriage with a divorce document, a “get.” This document must be given by the husband to the wife.

Most divorces go smoothly, with the parties in full cooperation. The husband gives the get and all ties are severed. However, there are a significant number of cases in which a recalcitrant husband refuses to give the get. It can be for financial reasons, it can be for vindictive reasons and it can be simply because the husband is holding out hope for reconciliation. Whatever the reason, when a husband does not give his wife a get, she is chained to him and cannot remarry under Jewish law. We call this woman an agunah.

Few things play at the heartstrings in a more profound way than the agunah. The woman is a double victim. She is a victim of an arcane, one-sided system of dissolving a marriage, and she is a victim of a husband who is taking advantage of that system.

A woman can become desperate for her get. It can begin to consume her life. Protests and social pressure might help, but sometimes the recalcitrant husband digs in his heels.

In extreme cases, the woman in these dire straits would call the two rabbis who were arrested on Wednesday evening. For a fee, the FBI describes, these rabbis would make the husband “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” Allegedly, the rabbis’ thugs would physically coerce deadbeat husbands to give their desperate wives a get. Using props more familiar to mob films and torture scenes, the FBI complaint describes, the thugs would beat husbands until they actually handed over a signed get. Perhaps most shocking of all is that their actions, according to the complaint, were sanctioned by a rabbinical court.

It’s a clumsy solution, but it has precedent in Jewish law. It has its roots in the Talmud and is explicitly codified by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains the precedent well in his book “Jewish Wisdom”:

“Because the Rabbis were conscious of the inherent unfairness in divorce laws, over the centuries they established new laws to protect women. The tenth-century Rabbi Gershom, who also issued a decree against polygamy, legislated that it was illegal to divorce a woman against her will, a law that has remained in effect since. During the twelfth century, Maimonides ruled that if a man refused to grant a divorce to a woman who was entitled to it, he was to be whipped without mercy until he did so (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Divorce,” 2:20). The legal precedent for his ruling was the talmudic law, “If a man refused to give a woman a divorce, he is forced until he declares ‘I am willing’ (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a). That Maimonides was willing to accept as voluntary a statement elicited by whipping indicates how anxious he was to assist a woman who was being mistreated.”

However, in the United States this kind of activity is illegal, and the public is painting these rabbis as villains.

It’s not so simple. In the ugly mess of the agunah crisis, these rabbis could be a woman’s only hope. While I can’t condone violence, and while I can’t support thuggery, we must see these rabbis for what they are. They are knights in shining armor for these chained women. Like our favorite fictional vigilante, they may not be the hero that we want or deserve, but sometimes they are the hero that we need.

Disgusted might not adequately describe our feeling over the allegations of violence and Mafia-like tactics toward recalcitrant husbands, but these rabbis were heroes to women left with no options.

There is no doubt that these arrests will serve as another wake-up call to the Orthodox Jewish community. The agunah crisis must be solved.

One solution for preventing an agunah crisis is the Halachic Prenup. This is available and comes recommended by foremost rabbinic authorities. The prenuptial agreement triggers a daily fine of $150 if a husband withholds a get. It’s not a very elegant solution, but it works. The Halachic Prenup is gaining traction and hopefully our discomfort with violent solutions will push more rabbis to insist on it at every wedding they officiate.

Perhaps there is also an alternative solution: a conditional get that triggers after an agreed-upon event. There are halachic nuances that would be required to make it work, but I believe there is a way. Perhaps all Orthodox Jewish marriages should include a conditional get that triggers with a specific future event. If the husband refuses to give a new get during subsequent divorce proceedings, the conditional get takes effect. I think it’s at least an option worth exploring.

Until such time that all Orthodox Jewish marriages are subject to the Halachic Prenup or some other preemptive solution we will have an agunah issue. That it came to violence in the most recently reported case is a very sad commentary on what it feels like to be an agunah.

That rabbis were inflicting violence is a terrible consequence. But the real villains are the recalcitrant husbands. Let’s not forget that these rabbis were heroes to the chained women. But at the same time, we should not need such complicated heroes. There are preemptive solutions, and they must become universally instituted.

A version of this column originally appeared in Haaretz.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at Pacific Jewish Center/The Shul on the Beach in Venice. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. He blogs at finkorswim.com