Rabbinic students bring rite of passage to Siberian teens

Imagine discussing Torah and the finer points of theology near the top of the world as the day fades away into an 11 p.m. sunset. Imagine bestowing a Hebrew name on a teenager — or an adult — who doesn’t speak a word of English, but who has traveled up to 27 hours by train to experience that very privilege. Imagine being perhaps the first female rabbi to conduct a Shabbat service in the region.

Matt Rosenberg and Rachel Safman no longer need to imagine. The two students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (AJU) lived the experience, and they have the photographs and the memories to prove it.

The two rabbinical students, ambassadors as well as learners themselves, spent a week in early July in Novosibirsk as part of the annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah Project in Siberia. Created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) under the auspices of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson at AJU, the JDC raises money to bring 50 children — and, in certain cases, their parents — to a weeklong family camp.

The week’s activities are a mixture of drama, dance, music, games and religious services. The campers learn a basic haftarah portion, Hebrew songs and Israeli dance, and they get “writing time” to document the experience. At week’s end, the students are called to the Torah, recite the Shema and are called by their newly given Hebrew name.

“Not to minimize the ceremony itself, but even to be in a camp with that many other people who identify as Jews is mind-blowing,” Safman said. “That was the first exposure that those kids had to such a Jewish presence in one place.”

“There are 70,000 Jewish people in a country that once comprised half the Jewish population of the world,” added Elaine Berke, the JDC board member who for six years has raised the $100,000 per year necessary to make the program happen. “And a lot of them are still very interested in being Jewish or at least understanding what that is.”

Every year at AJU, the call goes out to the rabbinical students for volunteers to lead the program. The well-traveled Rosenberg, a fifth-year student who professes to “have been a geographer in a past life,” hit the reply button on his e-mail practically the moment the e-mail hit his inbox.

“I hope to inspire others as I was inspired,” said Rosenberg, a native of Sacramento. “I’ve been biding my time until I was far enough along in the program, and I replied almost immediately.”

Safman had plenty of international experience as well. Trained in medical sociology and having spent 10 years in Southeast Asia as an academic before entering the rabbinate, Safman said she would have applied in years past but for the fact that, prior to 2011, the program had been for male students only. She might have found out about the change sooner, but a frustrated Safman had begun deleting the Siberia e-mails unopened.

“This is the first time that the community itself has actually been faced with the question, directly, as to what they would think about a woman who was also a rabbi,” Safman said. “In their mind, until I appeared on the scene or probably before my arrival when they heard there was going to be a woman participating, I don’t think it ever occurred to them that the concept of combination of female and rabbi would ever mesh.”

Although the program has now been in existence six years — serving some 350 campers — each new pair of rabbinical students has to somewhat reinvent the week’s activities “on the fly” based on the campers’ backgrounds, knowledge and interests. And on the rabbis’. Because Rosenberg’s father’s yahrzeit fell during the camp week, Rosenberg recited the Mourner’s Kaddish during one of the evening services.

“In addition to the regular weekday services, we were able to talk about the components of every service: morning, afternoon and evening. So it was another teaching opportunity,” Rosenberg said. “We had a special Q-and-A session with some of the kids who knew the most about Judaism. So we spent a couple of hours discussing loftier topics.”

As the first female rabbinical student to participate in the program, Safman used the opportunity to conduct a session on the changing roles of women in Jewish life. The discussion, which was attended primarily by parents, was another eye-opening experience.

“For an hour and a half, we engaged in a passionate discussion of what it meant to be a Jewish woman and what possibilities there were for female participation in public Jewish life as well as [women’s] role in the home and the family,” Safman said. “Just saying to them it matters for a woman to be in a place where she can actually pray and participate, that it matters for her own spiritual development, was something significant — not just as support and reflection of her husband’s spirituality.”

As neither Rosenberg nor Safman speaks Russian, the sessions were conducted with the aid of translators. Potential language barriers did not, however, prevent the students from approaching the two rabbis outside of sessions.

“They became very comfortable with the translators, and we did have lot of people coming up to us after sessions and asking us different questions or stopping us in elevators,” Rosenberg said. “I think I was amazed at that aspect, how comfortable they were coming up to us.”

For Rosenberg, one of the week’s most profound experiences was being asked by a young Jewish couple whether it was true that only Orthodox Jews could be married under the chuppah (wedding canopy).

“That’s what they had heard, and it just broke our heart,” Rosenberg said, “that these two young Jewish kids who were obviously in love thought they weren’t able to have a Jewish wedding.”

N.Y. budget includes tuition grants for rabbinic students

New York’s state budget includes tuition grants for college students attending some private religious institutions, including Orthodox rabbinical schools.

The money is available as part of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, under which any theological student who meets certain criteria, including attending a three-year program at a tax-exempt institution based in New York, can be eligible for the grants.

The institution also must be eligible under federal law for Pell grants for undergraduate study; the program does not exclude students studying for the rabbinate.

Some 5,000 men who attend dozens of Orthodox rabbinical schools in New York stand to benefit, according to The New York Times, but most rabbinic seminaries accept only students who have completed college.

Some New York State lawmakers have tried for the last 10 years to eliminate the program’s ban on state tuition assistance for college students who attend yeshivas that are not state-chartered, according to the Times.

Opponents say the provision violates the constitutional provision of separation of church and state.

Shavuot 5768: Midrash love

When I think of Torah, the first thing that comes to mind is a divine, rigorous system of laws that guides an ethical and holy way of life.

The last thing I think about is whimsy and romance.

Yet, over the past few weeks, as part of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, I have indulged in a poetic and literary aspect of Torah that has moved me in an unusual way.

It’s called the midrash.

Midrash is a mysterious part of the rabbinical literature. It comes in many forms, but the major idea is to seek a better understanding of scripture through stories, homilies, parables, poetry, word play and so on.

Midrash is an integral part of the haggadah tradition of Jewish learning, which emphasizes narrative and philosophical commentaries, rather than strict talmudic and legal analysis.

In the yeshiva world, midrash and haggadah are the granolas of Torah learning — not taken as seriously as the meat and potatoes of Talmud. They’re seen as being too wishy-washy, too flaky and open to wide interpretation. The law is grounded, the midrash and haggadah are “out there.”

Well, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a piece of “out there” midrash that has moved me to no end. Last Shabbat, I brought this midrash to B’nai David’s monthly “Nosh ‘n Drosh” class and shared it with a small group of shul members. Here’s the gist of the midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah):

A husband and a wife go to a well-known rabbi to get a divorce. They have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Since they observe Jewish law, the man must marry another woman to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

The rabbi sends the couple away and tells them to make a “holiday” for one night. Since they were united in celebration, he explains, they must separate the same way.

The couple follows the rabbi’s instructions. During their private celebration, the husband, now a little inebriated and in a festive mood, tells his wife that she can have anything she wants from the house and bring it to her father’s house.

While he is sleeping, she orders the servants to pick him up and transport him in his bed to her father’s house.

He awakes at midnight and says: “My beloved, where am I?”

She says to him: “In my father’s house.”

He says: “What am I doing in your father’s house?”

She says: “Is that not what you said to me last night, ‘Anything you desire in my house, take it and go to your father’s house’? There is nothing I desire more in the world than you.”

They went back to the rabbi and he prayed over them and they had children.

The more I reflected on this midrash, the more it moved me. The couple was so obsessed with their obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” that they forgot how much they loved each other. The rabbi (in the actual midrash, it is the famous Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar), by sending them away for a one-night “holiday” — even though the law called for a divorce — liberated them just enough from their obligations that they could rekindle and rediscover their love for each other.

The rabbi could have given them a blessing for children at the beginning, but he wanted to test their love. He knew how important it was for children to have parents who love each other. When he saw how much the husband and wife wanted to be together, he saw they were worthy of the blessing.

For me, the midrash also spoke to a romantic notion of purity in relationships: The idea that “I want to be with you because I want to be with you.”

We don’t need to create something to want to be with each other.

I could have gone to any number of Torah classes on love and relationships and not absorbed as much spiritual nourishment as I did from this one little midrash. The quirky love story drew me in. It disarmed me. It didn’t preach to me or tell me what to do. It worked on my imagination and made it take off.

Even more, it made me marvel at our tradition.

How remarkable that a religion that is literally inundated with laws and codes of behavior can find the time for literature and parable?

How extraordinary that the same rabbis who pontificated endlessly in the Talmud on the minutiae of this law or that law, would find the mental and emotional space to explore the poetic and philosophical unknown?

When comparing the world of law (halacha) to the midrashic world of stories and philosophy (haggadah), the great Jewish poet Haim Bialik wrote: “Halacha wears a frown, aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending — all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable — all mercy. The one is concerned with the shell, with the body, with actions; the other with the kernel, with the soul, with intentions. On one side there is petrified observance, duty, subjection; on the other perpetual rejuvenation, liberty, free volition.”

Lest you think Bialik favored one over the other, he concludes: “Halacha and aggadah are two things which are really one, two sides of a single shield. Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; halacha is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled.”

Some days, the voice of the heart’s yearning is the one we hear the loudest.

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

Pluralistic rabbinical court seeks new funding; InterfaithFamily.com marks 200th issue

Pluralistic Rabbinical Court Seeks New Funding

The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a local pluralistic religious court dealing with conversions, went on hiatus Jan. 1 due to lack of funding.

The beit din was founded in 2002 by George Caplan, in memory of his wife, Sandra Caplan. When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Since 2002, Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, has been the primary funder of the beit din, along with some of his friends. Caplan recently announced the court should seek funding elsewhere, according to Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the beit din’s secretary.

“He feels he’s guided it through the first years to make it all possible — and he’s right,” Goldstein said.

Caplan will continue to fulfill his promise to his wife and is investigating funding for a communitywide mikvah, or ritual bath.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ), helped found the organization and serve as its co-chairs. As the beit din gained momentum, two-dozen rabbis from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements joined the court. To date, the Sandra Caplan Bet Din has trained 96 dayanim, rabbis who can perform conversions.

Since its founding, the beit din has overseen the conversions of 107 people.

Goldstein and Rabbi Dan Shevitz, the av bet din, or the head of the court, insist the court is not closing, but is instead seeking other funding and structuring opportunities. They hope the court will be operational at the end of the month.

“There are fewer and fewer things that the denominations can do cooperatively with one another. The Jewish community has become splintered to an unacceptable degree,” said Shevitz, who is the rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. “Therefore it’s incumbent upon us for whatever we can do together we should do together. Welcoming converts not to one denomination or another but to the totality of the Jewish people — if we can do it, we have to do it.”

For more information, visit scbetdin.us.

InterfaithFamily.com Celebrates 200th Issue

Do the terms “interfaith family” and “interfaith outreach” seem to be everywhere you turn these last few years?

If so, that’s not only due to the rise in intermarriage, but perhaps because of the popular Web site catering to issues for this growing population, at InterfaithFamily.com. The Web magazine, published biweekly since November 1998, will post its 200th issue on Jan. 16.

“InterfaithFamily is a nonprofit that provides resources and services to couples with one Jewish partner and one non-Jewish partner,” said Micah Sachs, the publication’s online managing editor.

The Web magazine, which has 20,000 unique visitors per month, primarily features original personal narrative articles on topics of interest to interfaith families and couples, focusing on holidays, birth ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and mulitcultural relationships. It also features articles from other publications of interest to interfaith families.

The Web site provides a database of programs that are friendly to interfaith families, and does advocacy in the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families. This year they will host a conference of “outreach professionals” in Pennsylvania, and create a rabbinic resource on the subject of interfaith marriage.

Although the mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to “encouraging Jewish choices,” Sachs said, “by the same token, we’re very accepting of interfaith families where they are.

We advocate to the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families regardless of where they’re at. When you close the door to someone who’s on the fence you have no chance of influencing their decision.”

OU Offers $20,000 Award for Best Unaffiliated Outreach

The Orthodox Union (OU) is offering a grant of up to $20,000 to a member synagogue that can create an outreach program targeted at unaffiliated Jews with minimal or marginal synagogue involvement. The program should be able to be replicated by other communities.

The initiative, made possible through the OU’s Department of Community Services and the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, comes at a time when the assimilation rate in the North American Jewish community is hovering at 50 percent or above, and there are a large number of unaffiliated or marginally affiliated Jewish individuals and families, according to the OU press release.

The award is intended to support a variety of activities in the area of outreach, including discussion series, multifaceted conferences, symposia, public forums, and hands-on learning experiences, among other initiatives.

This is not the first time the OU has made a large grant available for synagogue programming. Last year, the OU awarded grants of up to $20,000 for unique programs having a positive impact on their communities and synagogues. The programs included Israel action; education for children and adults; and lay leadership development, among others.

“Last year’s grants program was so successful that the OU was determined to bring it back,” OU President Stephen J. Savitsky said. “While last year’s programs touched on many aspects of Jewish life, given current Jewish population statistics the OU decided to dedicate the new initiative solely to outreach.”

“Outreach is one of the ways we show our care and love for our fellow Jews,” OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said. “With this grant, the OU is proud to encourage our synagogues to think of creative new approaches to involve more people in Jewish life.”

Applications are due at OU headquarters by March 1, 2007. Applicants will be notified by letter on or before March 29, 2007.

For an application more information, visit ou.org or call Frank Bushweiz at (212) 613-8188.

The Path for Growth

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I was interviewing at Adat Ari El for the position of assistant rabbi. The parsha on which I had to speak was Terumah. I wondered if there was any chance I would get the job.

Let me explain.

Some Torah portions lend themselves very easily to sermons. Yitro, which contains the giving of the Ten Commandments has lots of material about which to talk. Others are more challenging, like Tazria-Metzorah, which has extensive discussions about skin diseases, inflammations and rashes.

Terumah focuses on the details of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were to carry with them through their wilderness sojourn. So we read about the height, width and length of the various items in the Mishkan, like the ark, the menorah, the altars and with what and how these things were to be decorated and covered — a dream for an interior decorator but a nightmare for a fifth-year rabbinical student looking for a job.

However, details communicate to us. They convey messages about our priorities, values and beliefs. Similarly, the details surrounding the Mishkan — whether something was covered in gold or bronze, where it was located and how was it made — contain their own lessons and meanings.

We see an instance of this in the rabbinic commentary on the wood used to build the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, we read: “You shall make the planks for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright” (Exodus 26:15).

The rabbis ask the following question: Why does the Torah insist on acacia wood? What is so special about it over and against other wood? Their answer is at once succinct and profound: Because it is not wood from a fruit-bearing tree.

What does this mean? Just as the Mishkan cannot be built by destroying that which gives food and sustenance and provides for the future, so, too, we cannot build our religion on beliefs, practices and attitudes that are destructive to those around us at the same time. God is the source and creator of all life, and it is God that permeates and infuses the entire world around us. Therefore, it is illogical to build a house dedicated to God that destroys that which God has made at the same time.

And what is true for God’s house is also true for us as individuals, for what are we if not portable tabernacles for God’s presence?

When we are little, we learn that what goes up must come down. It is the most basic rule of gravity and the first one we learn as children. But as we grow older, we learn a new twist on this basic law: I can build myself up by putting others down.

However, if we truly want to live life to the fullest and embrace it to the greatest extent possible, we need to find the inner resolve and sense of self-worth to feel good about who we are in a manner that does not put down others.

Hence, be it as religious tradition or an individual, the Torah teaches through a seemingly minor detail a crucial lesson: If we wish to find holiness comparable to the Mishkan and draw closer to God, it can only be done when we create in a way that does not also destroy at the same time. Our own growth can only be sanctified when it does not come at the expense of others.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El in Valley Village. He can be reached at rabbijjb@adatariel.org.