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Focus on Educators’ Qualities, Not Titles

Who should educate our children? 

As a head of school of a Modern Orthodox high school, I raise this issue because I fear we too often adopt a wrongheaded approach in answering that question.

This wrongheaded approach has, to my mind, been particularly on display during a recent — and largely manufactured — controversy at my own institution, Shalhevet High School, over the appropriate title for a newly hired, and female, member of my Judaic Studies faculty.

As is all too often the case, the controversy devolved into a discussion of what title to give the new faculty member, with some pressing my school to break with our current practice and use a clergylike title for a female faculty member. And while predictable volleys from outsiders were lobbed back and forth, the whole affair struck me as, by and large, a distraction.

My obligation when I wake every morning — not only as a head of school but also as a Jew and father — is to identify people with the right qualities to educate our children. Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education.

Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education

Limited school budgets, combined with preferred and more lucrative career options for prospective teachers, make Jewish education a tough sell to some of our best and brightest. But these challenges cannot serve as a crutch or an excuse.  Jewish education can — and must — provide our children with the right environment to become 21st-century Jews, leading lives infused with Torah values as well as both professional and personal satisfaction. To do that,  Jewish day schools must identify the right people to serve as the front line in this holy endeavor.

I raise this issue now because the challenge inevitably pulls us into hot-button topics like rabbinic authority and egalitarianism. But the truth is that even these weighty topics are, by and large, a distraction. If we are going to fulfill our communal responsibility, we must focus on the qualities of great Jewish educators.

So what are the essential qualities of a Jewish educator in a Modern Orthodox day school? It’s hard to narrow the list, and there are some really important qualities that I don’t have room here to mention. But if pressed, here are the three that I can’t live without: a love and passion for Torah and Jewish values; a constant and insatiable desire to improve as an educator; and a deep-seated love for our students.

Candidates with all three are hard to come by because attaining all three requires a range of personal experiences and professional training. But even that isn’t enough. I set aside a significant portion of my budget for professional development for each faculty member because I know that if I want faculty committed to professional growth, I need to put my institutional money where its mouth is and make that possible. All of this is a prerequisite to creating the educational environment that we desperately seek for our children.

But here is one thing that isn’t on my list: I’m not focused on what I’m going to call them. In recent years, I have hired an aspiring musician, an electrical engineer and a would-be lawyer. For each of them, the litmus test was not whether he or she had rabbinic ordination. To be sure, being a rabbi is a huge plus in that it is one of the best proxies for deep love and passion for Torah. But in the end, it is only a proxy. And as a head of school, I cannot become obsessed with proxies. There simply is too much at stake in Jewish education to abandon the ultimate objective — identifying educators with a deep knowledge of and passion for Torah, who are committed to refining their craft with unbounded love and care for our students.

Let me close with one last point. Lurking in the background of our perceptions about educators is an underlying assumption that non-rabbis are somehow second-class Jewish educators. And so when a particular Jewish educator isn’t called rabbi, there’s an unspoken assumption that he or she is lacking.

But here’s the truth: These clergy expectations are corrosive to Jewish education because they ask our educators to focus more on collecting a title than becoming a first-rate educator. And these expectations of our Jewish educators, in turn, serve to divide our community, pressuring Jewish educators to strive for clergylike titles and forcing educational institutions to make choices about those titles in a highly charged environment.

The reality is that our schools need educators more than they need clergy. Of course, it goes without saying that every Orthodox Jewish day school needs to have first-rate rabbis to provide halachic direction for  students and the school community. But the focus on rabbinic titles puts all the wrong pressures on our educators and distracts them from developing the tools they need to make our schools successful.

It is high time that we stop focusing on what our educators are called and start a far more thoughtful discussion about who we want our educators to be. Ultimately, if we stop worrying so much about what we are calling our educators, we’ll have more time to focus on education’s calling.

RABBI ARI SEGAL is head of school at Shalhevet High School.

Trump’s Jewish lawyer: ‘Shame on’ protesting rabbis

One of Donald Trump’s closest Jewish associates said rabbis who plan to protest the Republican front-runner’s speech at the upcoming AIPAC conference should be ashamed of themselves.

“Anyone who believes that @realDonaldTrump is a racist doesn’t know #Trump at all,” Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization’s executive vice president and Trump’s special counsel, said Thursday night on Twitter. “Shame on the protesting rabbis with #AIPAC.”

Several groups of rabbis — chief among them, the Reform movement’s rabbinical association — have said they plan to protest Trump’s speech Monday evening at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

The rabbis have said they do not fault AIPAC for inviting Trump. The pro-Israel lobby has invited all the major candidates to speak, and all but Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have accepted.

The protesters object to Trump’s broadsides against minorities, including Mexicans and Muslims, and say he must assume responsibility for violence at several of his rallies.

Cohen made headlines last year when he told The Daily Beast news site that there is no such thing as marital rape.

Cohen later apologized, and the Trump campaign distanced itself from him, although he has retained his position in Trump’s corporation.

The Daily Beast was reviving allegations from a 1993 book that Trump had raped his first wife, Ivana. Both Donald and Ivana Trump have said that the allegation is scurrilous.

More than 900 rabbis sign letter opposing Iran nuclear deal

Over the past three weeks, more than 900 rabbis across every major denomination have signed an open letter calling upon the United States Congress to reject the proposed Iran nuclear deal. The letter was written by two Los Angeles rabbis, Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation and Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul. It appears to have garnered more signatures than any of the other campaigns by Jewish spiritual leaders supporting or opposing the deal, of which there have been a few.

An earlier letter supporting the deal was signed by 340 American rabbis and released on Aug. 16 by the nonprofit Ameinu.

The new letter is being released at a time when it has become increasingly uncertain whether Republicans in the Senate will receive enough Democratic support to pass a resolution of disapproval — or to override a presidential veto in the event that the resolution of disapproval passes. If Congress rejects the deal, President Barack Obama has pledged to veto the resolution. Opponents need a two-thirds majority of both houses to override the veto.

“For more than 20 months, our communities have kept keen eyes on the nuclear negotiations overseas. As our diplomats from Washington worked tirelessly to reach a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge — we have hoped, and believed, that a good deal was possible,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, that hope is not yet realized.”

The authors posted the letter on an online petition website, setting as their goal 1,000 signatures from ordained rabbis in the United States by Sept. 7. As of Aug. 25, the letter had received 902 signatures — including from Los Angeles rabbis such as David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Meyer H. May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. 

Rabbis, Bookstein said, “have a responsibility as leaders in the community to speak out when people’s lives are in danger, and to take a stance — we call it in Hebrew pikuach nefesh, saving a life.” 

The letter calls on other Jewish organizations to express a “collective opposition to this dangerous agreement,” at a time when Jewish-American organizations are increasingly divided on how to respond. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are among the many groups that have publicly opposed the agreement. 

J Street, a prominent liberal Zionist group, has backed the agreement, as has Ameinu, the liberal Zionist organization that released the earlier letter.

The letter organized by Topp and Bookstein asserts the deal “will not subject Iran to an airtight, comprehensive inspections structure,” and will provide the regime with the means to “develop a covert nuclear program.” 

“The deal would also lift key arms embargos, so that in eight years Iran will be given international legitimacy to arm terror groups with conventional weapons and ballistic missiles,” the letter states.

Nuclear experts, however, have largely praised the deal’s controls. Twenty-nine prominent American scientists lent support to the deal in another open letter, published in early August. Five of nine Jewish Democratic senators also have publicly backed the deal. So far, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York is the only one of the nine to speak out in opposition. 

As of press time, 56 senators — including Democratic Sens. Schumer and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — were publicly opposed to the deal, though 60 votes will be necessary to pass a resolution of disapproval.

Congress is expected to take up the deal in the coming weeks. The deadline for passing a resolution is Sept. 17.

One question for rabbis who perform same-sex weddings

For most supporters of same-sex marriage, the most persuasive, and certainly the most frequently offered, argument on behalf of same-sex marriage has been that homosexuals have no choice, that they could no more choose to be heterosexual than a heterosexual can choose to be a homosexual. 

Although the argument, as I will explain, is a non sequitur, it is true. Especially in the case of gay men, it is simply silly to say that they have “chosen” to be gay. I ask heterosexual men who make this argument: If you were threatened with death unless you stopped being attracted to women and started desiring men sexually, could you do so?

The answer, of course, is no. Even under threat of death, a heterosexual male could not choose to have a homosexual orientation. (I have referred to men specifically because women’s sexuality is considerably more complex. For many women, though certainly not all, there is an element of choice.)

So, now, given the power of the “gays have no choice” argument, I’d like to ask rabbis who perform religious Jewish same-sex weddings a question.

If a bisexual Jew came to you for religious advice, how would you counsel him or her? Let us imagine a bisexual man asked you, “Rabbi, I am capable of having a fulfilling sex life with either a man or a woman. Does Judaism have anything to say to me on this matter? Should I confine my sexual activity to women with the aim of eventually marrying a woman, or should I continue to have sexual relations with both sexes and marry whomever I fall in love with?”

If this rabbi responds to the bisexual by saying that Judaism has no preference for heterosexual relations and heterosexual marriage, then the argument that gays have no choice is, as I described above, a non sequitur. It is so because this rabbi is saying that even for those individuals who do have a choice, Judaism doesn’t care if a person has sex with the same sex or with the opposite sex, or whether he or she marries a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.

It seems pretty clear that rabbis who wish to be consistent with their argument that not allowing same-sex marriage is unfair to gays because they haven’t chosen to be gay would have to counsel a bisexual to confine his or her sexual activity to, and marry, the opposite sex. Bisexuals, after all, do have a choice.

The bisexual forces rabbis who support same-sex marriage in the name of Judaism to confront the most important question: Does Judaism have a heterosexual ideal or not? The “gays have no choice” argument strongly suggests that Judaism does have a heterosexual ideal, but that gays simply cannot meet it.

No one who has ever argued for black equality based their position on the argument that blacks have no choice, that no black has ever chosen to be black. Why not? Because the argument would clearly suggest that being black is an inferior state to being white. The only argument ever offered — and indeed the only correct one — was that there is no difference between a white human being and a black human being. 

Why then was this not the primary or even the only argument for same-sex marriage — that there is no difference between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage — instead of “gays have no choice”?

Because even most of those arguing on behalf of same-sex marriage believe that there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriage — that, for example, at the very least, it is best for a child to have a loving mother and a loving father. Yes, there are some people who argue that if there are two loving fathers, never having a mother means nothing, and that having two loving mothers and never having a father means nothing. But do most people outside of academia really believe this? 

This in no way dismisses the love or the sincerity or the goodness of same-sex couples. It is only an acknowledgement of the obvious. 

The bisexual question posed here forces people — in this case rabbis who perform same-sex weddings — to confront the obvious: that, of course, there is a Jewish ideal — namely male-female sex and male-female marriage. That gay men and many gay women cannot — through absolutely no fault of their own — meet this ideal is truly unfair. Therefore, one can easily understand why many people will conclude that it is worth denying the Jewish heterosexual standard. 

I do not agree with denying this standard, but I can respect those who are preoccupied with fairness for gays. I cannot respect those who deny that Judaism has a male-female sexual and marital ideal. 

Every rabbi who performs same-sex weddings needs to answer the bisexual question. Then we can know whether they are animated exclusively by sympathy for gays or whether they also deny the Jewish male-female ideal. 

Why is this important? Because religion without ideals and standards is no longer religion. Compassion is a major personal virtue, but it is not a standard.

Our task in life is to maintain both compassion and standards. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Rabbis call for eco-social justice in letter on climate crisis

More than 250 rabbis signed on to a letter on the climate crisis that calls for greater involvement in fighting for eco-justice.

The inspiration for the letter dated May 12 began with the decision by Pope Francis to issue an encyclical on the climate “in the context of worsening concentrations of wealth and power and worsening degradations of poverty,” the rabbis wrote.

“So we call for a new sense of eco-social justice – a tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet. We urge those who have been focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those who have been focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice,” the letter said.

In the letter, the rabbis call for the expanded use of wind energy, providing grants to Jewish organizations to power their buildings with solar power and the end of subsidies to energy companies. They also spoke out against fracking, coal mining and oil drilling.

“We believe it is important for the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people to speak to the Jewish people as a whole and to the world on this deep crisis in the history of the human species and of many other life-forms on our planet,” wrote the seven rabbis who initiated the letter.

They are Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University; Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school; Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical  College; Rabbi Susan Talve of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center; and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Advice for after the vows

Before most couples get married, they don’t know what to expect. They’re excited and scared, but ready to make one of their biggest life decisions: forming a union with the one they love. Local rabbis from all different backgrounds and denominations shared their best marital advice for partners about to make the leap. From the day of the wedding ceremony to day-to-day married life, here are their thoughts on how two people can make it work.

Two people, one soul

Rabbi Avi Rabin, who leads Chabad of West Hills and has been married for nine years, said Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, teaches that when people are born, they have only half a soul. 

“When you get married, you’re marrying the other half of your soul. You’re not complete until then,” he said. “It’s not you and your wife [as individuals]. Marriage is something that is greater than both of you. If you see problems in your spouse you need to work through, you have that problem. If she sees a problem in you, it’s because she also has it. You are the same person and the same soul, and you need to work through your problems together.” 

Seek outside help

Rabbi Nick Renner, assistant rabbi at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, said couples shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for advice from an expert. 

“One thing that’s really worthwhile is having some kind of premarital counseling, either with a religious leader or with a family specialist. That kind of experience can be really valuable for couples,” he said. “It’ll help you communicate and learn from each other, and make it easier in the future to make that call [for counseling] if you’ve been in the process before.” 

Don’t expect perfection

Your spouse is going to be flawed, and those shortcomings might never go away. Before you walk down the aisle, keep that in mind, said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. 

“I learned an important counseling tool from the [late] visionary Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” the Reform rabbi said. “In a premarital meeting, he turned to the groom and asked, ‘Is there anything about your fiancee that you can’t stand?’ The groom looked uncomfortable, hemmed and hawed, and finally answered, ‘Well, yes.’ Then he turned to the bride and asked the same question. She, a tad miffed from her beloved’s response, answered, ‘Well, I guess so.’ Then he said: ‘Whatever it is, it will never change. You have to choose each other knowing that some things will never change.’ I ask the same question with each couple. It leads to an important conversation about expectations.” 

Don’t compromise

Rabbi Nicole Guzik works at the Conservative synagogue Temple Sinai in Westwood with her husband of five years, Rabbi Erez Sherman. She said the best marriage advice she ever received was from Rabbi Bill Lebeau at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, indicating that a relationship shouldn’t be viewed as a series of compromises. 

“In a compromise, you always have to give up something,” she remembers him saying. “The definition of compromise is to allow for concessions, and as soon as you feel as if you’ve lost something, the issue between the couple becomes much larger than it usually is in the first place. Instead, as a couple, look for synthesis. Synthesis is coming up with an idea together and working as a family to solve a problem.”

Guzik said many couples come to her afraid of losing their identity and ideals, but it doesn’t have to be that way: “I explain that marriage doesn’t have to take those away. Rather, marriage can be a journey using our individual experiences to create and grow together.” 

Give up your ego

Sometimes, disputes can go in circles and never seem to end. To stop the cycle of fighting, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff of LINK East shul in Pico-Robertson believes one partner should take the blame, even if he or she is right (and knows it). 

“When you really weren’t wrong, to take the blame is a tremendous thing,” Shoff said. “It does a couple of things. It says, ‘I value you more than my pride, and I’m prepared to say I was wrong.’ If the other person is half decent, it’s going to sink in. He or she will say, ‘What, am I a brat? My partner wasn’t wrong.’ This is the easiest way to diffuse a disagreement.” 

The Orthodox rabbi said it’s natural to want to engage in an argument because humans feel the need to defend themselves. However, he said, “You have to say that ‘I’m going to sacrifice that ego for the sake of my marriage.’ It can ensure that fights are extremely rare.” 

Make time for each other

People have busy lives. In between taking care of kids, going to work and running errands, they might not have any time left to pay attention to their partners. This is a mistake, according to Rabbi Spike Anderson from Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform synagogue in Bel Air.

“There has to be a certain amount of proactive mindfulness that goes into a couple spending real quality time with each other,” he said. “They have to make each other a priority, no matter what.”

Anderson said that by celebrating Shabbat, a couple could focus on each other at least one day a week: “It’s an out-of-the-box way of taking time out from the hamster wheel we all run on to spend that sacred time with each other.” 

Write love letters

In preparation for a wedding, Temple Akiba’s Rabbi Zach Shapiro asks both partners to write each other letters that say why they love one another. 

“I also ask them specific questions beyond, ‘How did you meet?’ ” he said. “For example, ‘What was/is it about [your fiance] that made you want to ask him on a second date?’ ”

Shapiro, whose Reform congregation is in Culver City, said he asks this of couples because the letter helps them put into words what they feel. “It’s so important to have a written document that they can read to one another throughout their lives,” he said. 

Look for the feeling behind your partner’s words

Arguments between couples can get nasty because each knows the other’s faults — and what words will hurt the most. When fighting, both parties have to focus on the feeling behind the words to determine what’s really going on, explained Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, who has been married for 12 years. 

“Every conversation has two parts to it: There’s the part where you hear the words and the part where you say the words,” he said. “But every conversation also has the thing that’s not being said. This is the feeling that is contributing to the words being said. It’s very easy to get distracted by the actual words and argue them or discuss them. There is always something that’s much deeper, which is what the conversation should be about. 

“Take a moment before responding to anything you hear or disagree with or might react to, and think about the feeling that the person might have,” the Orthodox rabbi said. “Try to validate those feelings instead of getting caught up in an argument about things that made them say that.”

Only marry ‘The One’

When Rabbi Judith HaLevy from the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue first meets with engaged couples, she sits them down on her couch. 

“I look at my couch when I talk to them, because it says everything I want to know about the couple. Sometimes they sit at different ends of the couch or they won’t leave each other alone while I’m talking to them,” she said. “I can tell by the body language how difficult a marriage is going to be, and I point it out. If you can’t sit together and discuss your wedding, I ask, ‘What are we doing here?’ ” 

The day of the wedding, HaLevy stresses that the bedeken (veiling) ceremony is extremely important. 

“I tell them that when they lift the veil, they need to ask themselves whether the other person is ‘The One,’ ” she said. “I tell them to look their partner in the eye and say ‘I love you.’ At that point, they always cry. I say afterwards that they can fix their makeup.” 

Rabbis bearing witness in Ferguson

Early last week, national faith leaders called rabbis, pastors, priests and imams to Ferguson, Mo., a city rife with racial violence and pain. Along with my rabbinic colleagues from Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Justice, I responded to the call to the people of Ferguson that their struggle for justice is a timeless spiritual struggle. I went with the intention of teaching protesters and police alike a new path for justice, a promise of racial healing.

I realized I had the wrong idea: This wasn’t about clergy teaching anyone anything but about our bearing witness to a movement. After 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer, the youth of Ferguson are demanding that he, and they, not be forgotten.

We rabbis went to Ferguson to hold ourselves accountable. We participated in an interfaith prayer service calling upon community leaders to advocate for racial justice; we stood before the Ferguson police station demanding that they, and we, atone for standing idly by when Michael Brown and so many other young people of color are harassed, jailed and killed. We left the sukkot in our home communities, eschewing comfortable meals and the joy of the festival, and went to Ferguson to build a different sort of sukkah: a sukkat shalom, a “shelter of peace.”

Here is what we learned:

Our children are angry. They are angry that young men of color like Michael Brown are being shot on our streets. They are angry that police caused Brown further indignity by leaving his body in the street for 4 hours and 32 minutes, forcing parents to hide their children’s eyes. They are incensed that even in death, the police did not show his corpse that modicum of dignity.

Our children are committed. For 65 days, these young leaders have shown exquisite leadership, organizing nightly protests, confronting police, demanding answers, crying out for justice.

Our children are hopeful. They believe that with the power of their voices, the gathering of their feet and the sacred work of their hands, they can bring about justice and dignity for all people in this nation.

Our children are righteous. As we stood in front of the police station at Ferguson, one young African-American woman stood face to face with a police officer in riot gear, a sign in her arms held high: “Black Lives Matter!” She testified to him, staring deeply into his eyes: “What you all did to Michael Brown makes me want to hate you. But I won’t have hatred in my heart. I will only have love. And I know you all want to repent for what you’ve done, for creating a system that lets my sisters and brothers of color die. I won’t hate you. I want to hug you.” And she did. With fierce tears, she treated that officer like a human being. And she asked — she demanded — that her humanity be seen.

Our children are capable. I thought they needed the rabbis and ministers and imams and priests who came to Ferguson to “show them the way” to make justice happen. But they don’t need us to do it for them. They need us to amplify their holy work, to bear witness to their righteous anger and their anguish and their longing to be treated with compassion and with dignity and affection.

Our children are impatient. After all, they are children. They should be dreaming of a world unfolding in front of them. They should be impatient with how they’ve been treated. What does it say about us when we ask them to be patient?

And finally, our children are here. Did we need to show up and stand for 4 hours and 32 minutes in the pouring rain to face off with police officers in riot gear? We did. We did so to show that this movement is for repentance: for the police who fail to serve and to protect; for all of us who have allowed this to happen; for each one of us who needs to commit to the hard work of dialogue and social change.

What the mainstream media show are neighborhoods in chaos. What we saw were young people full of passion, skill and moral courage demanding that America live up to its national promise: that we are all created equal, that dignity is not for some of us but for all of us.

(Rabbi Michael Adam Latz is the senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis.)

Reform rabbis nudge ICE on deportations

Reform rabbis are contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in an attempt to delay the deportation of undocumented workers.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis partnered with immigration advocacy organizations to ask the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to exercise discretion when deciding whether or not to deport anyone, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

While “deportation is an important part of border enforcement, we have learned that too many innocent people are caught in the system,” said Rabbi Peter Berg of Atlanta. “The good news is that ICE legally has the right to use discretion about whom to deport and actually will exercise that discretion – if they hear from enough people.”

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than 60 Reform rabbis called or wrote on behalf of Luis Lopez-Acabal, who is facing deportation back to Guatemala following his involvement in a traffic accident.

Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz., met Lopez at the church where he has taken sanctuary. If deported, Lopez would have to leave behind his wife, a legal resident of the United States, and two young children including one with autism.

“We are called as a faith community to stand against injustice,” Linder said, according to the Religious Action Center release. “The family is a sacred institution that is being violated by tragic separation throughout the country, while desperately needed immigration reform is stalled on Capitol Hill. These families should not continue to be victims due to a lack of political resolve.”

Why I went – and went back – to St. Augustine, Fla.

On June 18, 1964, during one of the most violent years of the civil rights struggle, I and 15 other Reform rabbis spent a night in a jail in St. Augustine, Fla. We had responded to an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in a demonstration against segregation there, and most of us felt we were acting on the Torah’s imperative that we Jews “Remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt.” 

This week, exactly 50 years later, I and a good percentage of the others went back there, this time at the invitation of the Jewish community of St. Augustine. Unbeknownst to us, they had collected all the memorabilia they could from our initial visit — apparently, the largest mass incarceration of rabbis in American history.  

In 1964, St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary the following year; King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had decided to stage a campaign against discrimination there, hoping to help win support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

I was 27 and had been ordained a rabbi just two weeks before. Another of the 16, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, now also of Los Angeles, was a year older, but the rest of the group were middle-aged men (no women rabbis 50 years ago), some of whom were major leaders in the Reform movement. We were arrested for trying to integrate two restaurants and a motel swimming pool, and the police deposited us in the city’s un-air-conditioned, segregated jail, run by a sheriff who was the head of the local Ku Klux Klan. By the light of the sole light bulb dangling outside our clammy cell, our only nourishment jars of baby food thrown into our midst, we (mostly the senior members of the group) wrote an elegant statement explaining our motivations, titled “Why We Went.” 

“We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us,” we wrote in our three-page letter. By coming to this violent, Klan-run city, we hoped to show our admiration for King and wanted to share in the “opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means.” We wrote that we did not want to stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters, as so many had done just 25 years before while 6 million of our people were slaughtered in Europe, and that we had come “in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.”

But why, this week, did I go again?  In part, to help the Jews of St. Augustine in their effort not to forget their city’s bloody past, and because they want, bless them, to honor us for standing up for Jewish values at a time when too many white people were afraid to stand up for anything.  My colleagues and I want to thank them for their generosity. 

But I did not go back to the South this week simply to note how much St. Augustine has changed; I also intended to remind us all how much remains to be done. 

Segregation, we must remember, is not dead — it has only changed form. In her 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander reveals how young black men have been disproportionately targeted through the tentacles of the war on drugs, and are often convicted far more harshly than whites for similar offenses, to the extent that a shocking 80 percent of young black men have permanent prison or probation records. These men have been scarred by prisons that do not prepare them for useful lives outside; prisons built with funds that might otherwise go to building schools; prisons that seem, essentially, to train inmates only to return to jail. I wanted to remind myself of our own jail cell, in which we rabbis had a fair amount of room, while the African-Americans arrested with us, who outnumbered us 5-to-1, were jam-packed into the same-size cell. Seeing them there that night was shocking, and yet, today, I wonder: How much have our prisons changed in 50 years?

I went back to St. Augustine this week because I wanted to ask myself, again: What causes are worth being jailed for? Opposing the cruel incarceration of young blacks? Fighting lax gun laws, even as so many of our lawmakers are more concerned about losing the National Rifle Association’s support than about the mass shootings that occur with ever-greater frequency?  

In 1964, St. Augustine was a very unsafe place for blacks; in 2014, America is becoming more and more unsafe for everyone. Is there any connection between the power of the Klan in St. Augustine law enforcement 50 years ago and that of a national association that seems to hold that the right to keep a gun in one’s house outweighs the reasonable rights of other people to safety in their towns or schools? And consider this cruel irony: During the first 300 years of St. Augustine’s history, black slaves were brought here against their will; today, undocumented immigrants looking merely for a better life are hounded back over the border, deported for minor traffic infractions to homes some never knew.  

I am hoping that revisiting that city can call attention to some of these ragged edges of the country to which our own ancestors immigrated looking for a sanctuary from the violence they faced in other lands. 

So much has been accomplished and so much remains to be done. 

Top 50 (okay, 10) ideas for filling the Newsweek rabbis list void

As every rabbi in America no doubt knows by now, the Newsweek/Daily Beast Top 50 Rabbis list is no more.

The list’s founders/authors wrote earlier this week that they had decided to discontinue the annual ranking because it “got out of control.” Not only did the list, launched in 2007 and released each year shortly before Passover, start “to carry too much weight for too many people,” they wrote, but it fueled insistent nudging, with some rabbis enlisting friends and colleagues to lobby on their behalf: “Some even came into our offices with personal pleas to be included, others to pray for our souls.”

Now that the Top 50 Rabbis list is gone, how will rabbis, and those of us who like to gossip about them — not to mention those of us who like to kvetch about the list’s very existence — fill the collective void in our lives? Especially in the weeks leading up to Passover, a time when, as everyone knows, Jews have very little to keep them busy.

In the spirit of the list, here are 10 ideas (sorry we couldn’t give you 50, but hey, we had to leave some time for useful activities today):

1) Compile and publish a list of best guesses as to which rabbis (and/or their mothers) actively lobbied Newsweek/The Daily Beast in order to be included. Make sure to rank the rabbis who made in-person pleas higher than the ones who did it by email.

2) Lobby for something useful, like to get your child into a prestigious nursery school.

3) Aspire to be included on one of the many rabbi lists that the Newsweek/Daily Beast one inspired: Jewrotica’s “Sexiest Rabbis,” the Forward’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis,” Channel 13’s “Hippest Rabbis.”

4) Start your own “Top 50” rabbis/Jewish professionals list. Here are some ideas to get you started: Best-Paid Rabbis, Most Boring Rabbis, Most Beloved Shul Custodians.

5) Review previous Newsweek/Daily Beast Top Rabbis lists, and create detailed data visualizations, highlighting which rabbis appeared the most frequently, which rose and fell the most in their rankings and just how disproportionately male the list was.

6) Make a list of rabbis who “officially piss off” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s allies, who will perhaps be inspired to block access to their synagogue parking lots.

7) Complain about how terribly destructive and inappropriate the Newsweek/Daily Beast list was, even though you appeared on it multiple times.

8) Review previous Top Rabbis lists, and create a detailed Gematria-based analysis of them. Pay special attention to the rabbis ranked with Jewishly significant numbers, like 18 and 36 (chai), 12 (tribes), 10 (commandments/minyan), 7 (Shabbat), 6 (days of creation), 40 (years in the desert), 1 (God), 4 (patriarchs), 5 (books of Moses), 48 (year of State of Israel’s founding), 29 (number of books Philip Roth has published). Try to determine if there is any number under 51 that DOESN’T have some Jewish significance.

9) Plead emphatically to have Newsweek/Daily Beast Top Rabbis list reinstated. Enlist friends or colleagues to lobby insistently. Go to the offices of the list’s authors with personal pleas to reinstate the list and prayers for their souls.

10) Study Jewish texts. Write sermons. Lead worship. Visit the sick and tend to the bereaved. Raise money for a capital campaign. Lament the findings of the Pew report. You know, the stuff rabbis are supposed to spend their time doing.

Jewish embrace of LGBT people recognizes the dignity of all

Attitudes toward same sex marriage in Judaism have undergone a dramatic change in the last quarter century. The prohibition recorded in Leviticus 18 has been affirmed by some, negated by others and reinterpreted by still others. Did the Torah intend loving same sex relationships? Did it understand homosexuality as a fundamental orientation rather than a choice?

For many traditionalists such questions are essentially irrelevant if not marginally blasphemous. That which God has decreed cannot be set aside. For most Jews however, Judaism is a tradition that is both evolving and eternal. The role of women, to take the most obvious example, has changed in dramatic ways in the past century. A female colleague of mine, rabbi of a synagogue for many years, had a young girl approach her and ask, “Can men be rabbis too?”

If you are a partisan of the infallibility of tradition there is no room for accommodation. There are many, however, who would permit the tradition to change in many other ways but draw the line at LGBT acceptance. The question of same sex marriage is admittedly new: it has been a scant twenty-five years since the first arguments appeared arguing for its recognition. But the velocity of social change reminds us of the comment that Hillel once made on a question of Jewish law — go out and see, he said. Trust the people. If you observe what they are doing, you will know what should be done. The rapid acceptance of same sex marriage affirms an American people with open arms.

Those who argue for civil unions but not religious ceremonies, proposing some ritual short of marriage, often ask why a different sort of ceremony is not sufficient. Clarification comes if we turn the question around: the same reason that opponents wish to call it anything but marriage is why proponents demand it be called marriage. A man in love with another man — or a woman in love with another woman — wants love acknowledged and sanctified, not merely tolerated. For many of us this is new and jarring but underneath is something we all treasure: commitment, passion, love.

As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people. The Torah repeatedly advises us to care for the stranger precisely because he is strange — that is, we react with suspicion or distance or uncertainty to one who is not like us. Fight against that feeling, teaches the Torah. All of God’s creation is holy and every human being in God’s image. K’vod Habriot, the dignity of all, is a fundamental Jewish principle.

When I sent a letter to my congregation stating that the clergy had unanimously decided to perform same sex marriages I received a good deal of reaction. Some people were angry, some bewildered, some hurt. The letters I most treasure were those from women and men who had felt marginalized, who were grateful that their home was at last welcoming them home. Reading those letters and having those conversations, witnessing the healing after hiddenness and estrangement I could only recall the reaction of my 16 year old daughter when I told her I was sending the letter: “What took you so long?”

What indeed.

Cedars-Sinai’s chaplaincy program puts spirituality on the medical charts

Usually, the frantic words, “Someone get the rabbi!” uttered in a hospital room mean only one thing. So Debbie Marcus burst into tears when Rabbi Jason Weiner was summoned to her grandfather’s room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in July 2008. 

Weiner, then interim Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, quickly assessed the situation: Albert Rubens, 97, had been brought in with a massive heart attack. Although he was still lucid, it was clear he was not going to make it. 

But even with that devastating news, the rabbi detected that Debbie’s tears were about something more. And he was right. Albert, known to his family as Pop-Pop, had been eager to see Debbie, then 39, get married, but she and her then-fiancé, Marty Marcus, had not set a date for the wedding.

So someone floated an idea: Get married. Right now. 


Q&A With Rabbi Elliot Dorff

In the age of 140-character tweets and 38-second video clips, the Conservative movement is putting its foot down with a nearly 1,000-page reference tome, “The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.” The book, published by the Rabbinical Assembly and edited by Rabbis Martin S. Cohen and Michael Katz, elucidates topics ranging from the expected — prayers, lifecycle events, dietary laws — to more abstract matters, such as taxation, intellectual property, being single, and the ethics and obligations of being a co-worker, a sibling or a grandparent.

Thirty-five leading thinkers in the Conservative movement wrote essays for the just-released book, using a thorough treatment of traditional sources to understand the contemporary application for modern Jews.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, penned chapters on charity, caring for the needy and same-sex relationships. Dorff, author of 17 books and a past president of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, as well as chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, sat down in his home to talk about the book and the movement.

Jewish Journal: This is a big book, and it’s dense, with dozens of essays and four introductions. Who is this book written for? Who is going to read it and why?

Elliot Dorff: I think the intentions of the editors, Martin Cohen and Michael Katz, and the intention of [the publisher], the Rabbinical Assembly, is that, minimally, it is for rabbis to use in adult education kinds of settings. There are extensive essays on a whole series of issues of the observant life. So it includes kashrut, and Shabbat and holidays, but it’s not only that. It’s very much how you act in business; with medical issues; how you speak to each other and about each other; questions of citizenship in a democracy; of war — a whole series of things that Judaism really has a lot to say about.

But I think this book was deliberately written so anyone with a college education, and even someone with a somewhat reasonable high school education, should be able to read the essays and gain a lot from them. 


JJ: Much of American Judaism is moving away from denominational distinctions. People are identifying more as “just Jewish” than as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. The Conservative movement, in particular, is the most rapidly shrinking. This is a very denominational book. Why do this now?

ED: There are several reasons to do it. Those of us involved in the Conservative movement for a long time have known that its vision of Judaism is intellectually honest and passionate and very wide-ranging. And this is an attempt to try to express that vision to anybody who is interested in reading it. 

I think the people who wrote for it, myself included, believe that the denominations do have a role to play in modern Jewish life. Young Jews who are trying to be post-denominational in the end, I think, will find that they’re going to have to create institutions for themselves and their children, and those institutions will be of different sorts, depending on what kind of Judaism they want to practice. So even if you don’t call it Orthodox, Conservative or Reform anymore, in the end, you have something like denominations.


JJ: What wisdom does Conservative Judaism in particular have to offer?

ED: Like every other American, I was not born with “Conservative Jew” branded on my forehead. This was something I actively chose, first as a teenager and later as an adult. And I think the reasons are very simple, namely that Conservative Judaism effectively says you can be traditional and modern in the strongest senses of those terms, while being completely intellectually honest, barring no questions whatsoever, and also really passionate and joyful.

For me the most important thing in my own religious development was a series of discussions with Rabbi David Mogilner, alav ha-shalom [may he rest in peace], who was director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in 1958, when I was 15 years old. We had a series of discussions with him on Monday nights with those in the division, and he was on the attack, saying ‘Why would anyone in his or her right mind believe any of these Jewish things, or do them?’ And he started with very concrete things, like kashrut and Shabbat, and he went to more abstract things, like revelation and prayer and God. And the thing that was most important to me was not any of the answers anyone suggested, but that here was someone clearly devoted to Jewish tradition, and yet he was not only willing, but actually eager to ask all kinds of questions that would upset the entire apple cart. What he showed me through that was, you didn’t have turn off your mind in order to be seriously Jewish. 


JJ:  So why is the movement shrinking, and what is going to turn it around?

ED: The vast majority of Jews are not getting married till their late 20s or early 30s. You have a 30 percent chance of having infertility problems [between ages 27 and 35], but if they are lucky enough to have children, it’s probably going to be one or two, and not three or four. 

And the tendency is not to get involved in trying to build a community until you are married and having children. That was the case even in my generation, but in my generation people got married earlier. 

So I understand that stage in life when you’re a young adult and want to be independent and don’t like institutions, and that’s fine up until around age 25, and beyond that you need to grow out of it. I think the thing that helps people grow out of that is getting married and having children. The fact that people are postponing that sometimes till their late 30s — I think that is the major reason the Conservative movement has shrunk.

I go around telling young Jews that it’s not too early to get married while in graduate school and to begin to have children, because the pressures of your first jobs, if anything, are going to be worse than the pressures of graduate school.


JJ: So you think it’s more of an issue of birthrate and demographics than people just deciding to leave?

ED: I don’t think it’s an ideological thing at all. To be honest, I think Conservative Judaism is the most authentic and wisest form of Judaism around. 


JJ: You wrote the chapter on same-sex relationships in this book. Early on, you staked out a very supportive stance on same-sex relationships. The chapter encompasses the range of views within the Conservative movement, but do you think that when the editors asked you to write this chapter they were making a statement about how this question is ultimately going to be answered in Conservative Judaism?

ED: You’d have to ask Martin Cohen, but that did occur to me. …

This is still very much an open issue in the Conservative movement. That was indicated by the vote of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on Dec. 6, 2006, where after a lot of discussion and draft papers, there ultimately was a vote of 13 in favor of Rabbi [Joel] Roth’s teshuva [responsum] that would not permit gay and lesbian marriage or openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students, and 13 for the teshuva [that allowed both of those.]

Having said that, I have always thought that in many ways this is a generational issue. (I’m 69 and really old to be on this side of this debate.) The statistics are that people under age 40 are much more accepting of gays, and now we have statistics that say that a majority of Americans favor gay civil marriage. So do I think this is the way in which the Conservative movement is going to go over the course of the next generation? Yes, because I think that is the way America in general is already going. 

But that is not the reason why I came to my own personal decision. It was first the fact that I knew a lot of gay people who were seriously Jewish, along with the scientific evidence [about the nature of homosexuality] that convinced me that we simply had to confront this issue in a way that our ancestors had not.


JJ: In your chapter on caring for the needy, you touch on a lot of issues that are potentially political, such as immigration, health policy and public support for the poor. This is such a polarized political environment; did you feel you had to be careful with what you said?

ED: Yes. Yes.  Well, I mean, I’m a member of Rabbis for Obama — I think I’m actually a vice president of Rabbis for Obama — and that’s public, so my political leanings are pretty clear.

One of the things I learned a lot from was a project I did on poverty in the 1980s with the American Jewish Committee. … In Washington, D.C., we listened to staffers of a liberal member of congress, a moderate member and a conservative member. And I went in there expecting that the conservative member was going to be just mean and self-centered, but that wasn’t the case. He was arguing for us not to be enablers for families who one generation after another depend on welfare. And to some extent, the welfare-to-work approach is very Jewish, because if you look at Maimonides’ ladder of charity, the highest rung is to help someone earn a living. 

Having said that … the Republican budget takes away Head Start, it takes away programs for pre-K and it takes away a lot of the Pell grants and funds for college. I don’t know how you can justify that in any kind of reading of the Jewish tradition. And in terms of the poor, yes, everyone wants to get them the skills they need to earn a living, but in the meantime you have to recognize that you need to have a safety net in terms of food, clothing, health care and shelter to enable people to live while they’re getting the skills to earn a living on their own. And I don’t see how Jewish tradition can be read any other way, to be honest.

The Hollywood treatment

“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.

“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added. 

It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories. 

“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”

This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.

“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.” 

In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.

But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”

Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.

Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein. 

“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”  

“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.” 

Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ” 

Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”

It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.

But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.

Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes. 

“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”

Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.

“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”

And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.

“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”

For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”

Conservative rabbis approve same-sex marriage ceremonies

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—which sets halachic policy for the Conservative movement—has voted unanimously to provide the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis with guidelines on performing same-sex marriages.

The move is an official sanction of the ceremonies by the movement.

The CLJS approved the documents Thursday by a 13-0 vote with one abstaining ballot. For years, the Conservative movement has debated how to approach same-sex unions. Traditionalists often opposed such relationships while urging respect as progressives—particularly some rabbinical students—pushed for full equality.

In 2006, the CLJS officially sanctioned gay relationships. At the time, it stressed that rabbis were not obligated to perform such ceremonies, but could do so and not be violating RA standards.

Rabbis Daniel Nevins, Avram Reisner and Elliot Dorff created the new ritual guidelines. They offer two types of gay weddings, as well as gay divorce.

“Both versions are egalitarian,” Nevins told the Forward. “They differ mostly in style—one hews closely to the traditional wedding ceremony while the other departs from it.”

The templates do not include kiddushin, the ceremony in which the groom presents his bride with a ring. However, they do detail a ring exchange that is based on Jewish partnership law, an established halachic concept, Nevins told the Forward.

Israel allows government councils to pay non-Orthodox rabbis

The Israeli government will begin paying non-Orthodox rabbis and recognizing them as community leaders.

The attorney general’s office advised the Supreme Court Tuesday that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

Only rabbis in farming communities and regional councils—not in cities—will be able to receive this funding. The vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative communities are in large population centers.

The attorney general’s office has said that for now, up to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis may receive state support. Before this decision, only Orthodox rabbis received state funding.

The non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salary from the Culture and Sports Ministry, rather than the Religious Services Ministry—which funds Orthodox rabbis. In addition, according to The Jerusalem Post, funding will go only to the rabbis of communities that request it.

“We have a long-term goal to have an inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “We’re going to be patient and persevere until the ideal meets the real. This is one step forward in that effort.”

The attorney general’s announcement follows out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Miri Cohen, a Reform rabbi in central Israel’s Kibbutz Gezer.

The movement and Cohen petitioned for the state to fund the Gezer Reform community and Cohen in the same manner it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

Earlier this month, the panel of judges presiding over the negotiations—led by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein—asked the attorney general to intervene.

Shul Business

No one taught Rabbi Ahud Sela how to read a budget when he was in the seminary. Talmud and pastoral counseling took precedence over the basics of planned giving.

So when the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly teamed up with American Jewish University (AJU) to create the Rabbinic Management Institute—a certificate program in nonprofit management offering business skills, management training and more—he jumped at the opportunity.

“Every part of the synagogue has to function well, including the business side, and it’s important for the rabbi to understand that,” said Sela, 35, of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge.

“I needed help in everything,” he continued. “I needed to learn how to read a budget sheet. I didn’t know what it meant to lay out a strategic plan. I didn’t know the different kinds of fundraising that can be done. I didn’t know the latest trends in board management.”

For years there has been a growing need for rabbis to be able to run their institutions, or at least understand how they operate, said Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, director of the institute and associate dean of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which is a partner in the program with the university’s Graduate School of Nonprofit Management.

“While rabbinical school might offer a little bit of that training, that’s not really how they spend their time,” Peretz said.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the membership organization for Conservative rabbis, said in a statement that the program equips rabbis with important skills to address the myriad challenges facing religious institutions with creativity and foresight.

“In today’s economy, it is more important than ever for rabbis to learn effective business models and management skills, ones guided by the deepest values of Judaism,” she said.

An initial cohort of 14 Conservative rabbis graduated last month following a year of activities and coursework. Participants came from across the country—as far away as Maine and Florida—for two in-person seminars. The rest of the curriculum was completed through videotaped lectures, paired-learning exercises and individual conversations with faculty.

Topics included leadership, supervision, board development, accounting, marketing, conflict management, budgeting, and development. These skills are needed now more than ever, Peretz said.

“In today’s world, organizations are having a rough time financially. There was a great need to gain an understanding of how to look at the financial picture and brainstorm ideas,” she said.

Ditto for issues of nonprofit management and helping clergy create healthy relationships with lay leaders, boards and volunteers.

Richard Siegel, director of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles, said the importance of all of these issues becomes magnified as rabbis take on more responsibility in their congregations.

“In recognition of this, increasingly we’re encouraging rabbinical students to either take management courses with us or take the full graduate certificate [in Jewish nonprofit management],” he said. “We have found that those rabbis in the field who have participated in our program have found it incredibly valuable. It’s clear that this is something that will be even more relevant in the years ahead.”

Siegel said that creating a program similar to the one at AJU for rabbis who already have been ordained is on his agenda.

A number of changes already are in the works for the certificate, Peretz said. First, it will be opened up to rabbis of all denominations, not just Conservative ones.

“The truth is the issues are the same when we’re talking organizational management,” she said.

Web-conferencing technology will supplant the videotapes and allow for interactive lectures, and individual mentoring will be significantly increased. Additionally, the next cohort will begin in the fall instead of February, and the price will drop from $2,200 to $1,800.

Rabbi Mark Bisman, a veteran clergy member preparing to retire in May, signed up for the program more out of curiosity than necessity. He had been learning about similar topics in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he is rabbi at Har Zion Congregation, and it sounded like an opportunity to explore them in more detail.

What he ultimately got was insight into his synagogue that paid dividends quickly.

“I learned how to look at the books in a different way and that makes all the difference,” he said. “It certainly has been helpful to me in terms of understanding how we can put our house in order to [prepare] for the next rabbi. I’m much more secure in some of these matters than I would have been.”

It has proven particularly helpful in dealing with the challenges of a 220-family congregation that has seen its membership decline, the rabbi added.

“We’re reorganizing … and finding donors and lenders to help us. We have a plan laid out, and it’s going to work,” he said. “Certainly the education that I got through this program helped me be a better articulator of what the situations are and how to move them along.”

For Sela, being part of the program has empowered him to make a number of changes to a 315-family congregation with no executive director that has seen its membership and revenue decline in recent years.

“I wanted to be able to help the synagogue with some of the administrative functions, and I didn’t have the capacity [before],” he said.

Now he’s helped create a five-year programmatic plan and revamped the temple’s fundraising strategy. Instead of simply distributing envelopes and hoping they come back filled with checks, everyone receives a phone call or personal conversation from a member of the fundraising committee as part of the annual appeal. Already the change is showing results.

“We’ve raised more money this year than in past years even though we have a smaller membership,” he said.

Sela brought in the dean of AJU’s Graduate School of Nonprofit Management to work with Temple Ramat Zion’s board, reduce its size and discuss its responsibilities. And from a marketing perspective, the rabbi learned to expand the synagogue’s offerings outside of its physical structure.

“You have to bring it to the people,” he said.

That realization has led him to hold classes periodically at local coffee shops. That way, congregants who work in the area can drop by during lunch to study Talmud or other topics.

Who knows how many more changes may be on the way for Sela and his congregation, but the rabbi said it’s a great beginning thanks to the new certificate program.

“I recommend it to all of my colleagues, especially ones working in smaller congregations,” he said. “It was all new information that has helped me tremendously.”

Calif. Methodist seminary to train rabbis, imams

The Claremont School of Theology, a Christian divinity school in Los Angeles, will use a $40 million gift to begin training Jewish and Muslim clergy.

The gift from David and Joan Lincoln of Arizona, which was announced Monday, will help Claremont transform itself into a multifaith institution offering interfaith degree programs as well as training for rabbis, imams and ministers, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The Claremont Lincoln University, as the new school will be called, will be the first U.S. school to offer clerical degrees in all three religions, according to Tamar Frankiel, dean of academic affairs for the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. The academy, which is not affiliated with a particular Jewish stream, will provide the Jewish clerical training.

The academy has 60 students enrolled in its rabbinic, cantorial and chaplaincy programs. It plans to institute distance learning as early as this fall to help students not located in Los Angeles, Frankiel told JTA.

The Islamic Center of Southern California will train the Muslim clerics. The Claremont School of Theology, which has about 240 students enrolled in master’s and doctorate programs in religion and counseling, and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, will continue to educate Christian ministers.

All three institutions will remain in their existing locations, with degree programs and courses coordinated through the new university.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a plan announced last year to train clergy for all three faiths in one college upset the United Methodist Church, which has funded the seminary since its creation. The three-part structure for the new university was developed so that only the Christian program will receive church monies.

Claremont officials are hailing the interfaith initiative as unique.

Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., a nondenominational theological institution founded as a training school for Congregationalist ministers, also offers a degree program in Islamic chaplaincy, as well as a graduate certificate in education for imams, a school spokesman told JTA.  But it does not train imams or rabbis.

Neither that spokesman nor Frankiel were aware of other similar programs in the United States.

Rabbis measure response to Bin Laden’s death

As details of the special operation that took out Osama bin Laden continue to unfold, rabbis in Los Angeles are pulling from biblical verses, Jewish traditions and their own gut reactions to help formulate an appropriate Jewish response to the news.

Early Monday morning, Rabbi David Wolpe posted this on Facebook:

“Yesterday, Yom HaShoah, bin Laden was killed. The proper reaction is sobriety, not revelry. This is a time to remember those who died, pray for those who fight, meditate anew on wickedness and redouble our dedication to justice.”

Within hours, more than 350 people “liked” his post, and more than 60 commented, most of them in support of Wolpe’s call for a more measured reaction.

He said he was motivated to write the post when he saw the circus atmosphere in front of the White House and in Times Square after the news broke late Sunday night.

“It felt like people were celebrating a football victory, and it seemed to be, while understandable, not something you cheer about, any more than people would cheer when a killer is executed. A grim satisfaction is understandable, but cheering not so much,” Wolpe said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, disagrees.

“This is a time to say ‘mazal tov.’ It’s a time of great jubilation,” Hier said, noting God’s sense of humor in bin Laden’s death occurring on the same date that Hitler’s death was announced in 1945.

Hier sees precedent in the Jewish holiday of Purim for celebrating — drinking, eating, merrymaking — the death of a sworn enemy.

“Haman and his ilk wanted to destroy the Jewish people and are, themselves, destroyed, and that is the only time during the year where Jews must become merry. There’s no way of interpreting your way out of that,” he said.

Rabbi Sharon Brous at IKAR praised U.S. intelligence and affirmed the necessity to eliminate bin Laden but encouraged her congregants to use this as a moment for reflection, not gloating.

“We have to move beyond an impulsive reaction to his death. It might feel really good in the moment to have caught the bad guy, but that is not the best of us. There is a side of our tradition that calls for us to react with deep humility to the news of any death,” she said. “Bin Laden’s work was to destroy and undermine the sanctity of human life — he was a horrible human being. But rather than take to the streets and cheer, our work now is to start to put the pieces back together — to work toward more healing and understanding in the world, to honor the victims of his violence and to reaffirm the sanctity of human life.”

Brous quoted a rabbinic midrash in which God rebuked the angels for rejoicing when the Egyptian army was caught in the receding waters after the splitting of the Red Sea. “ ‘How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the Sea?’ God rebukes them (Megillah 10b),” Brous wrote in a letter to congregants. The drop of wine spilled at the seder reflects this idea as well.

Brous turns to another midrash for deeper meaning. As the Egyptians drowned, an archangel challenges God, “How dare you drown my children in the Sea?” God convenes a heavenly court and finds the acts of the Egyptians so heinous that justice outweighs mercy, and Pharaoh and his army are killed.

“But in those moments, even when dealing with the worst of the worst, we recognize that there is justice but no joy,” Brous wrote.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), quoted the same midrash about the angels at the Red Sea to make a different point. God rebuked the angels but didn’t rebuke the Jewish people for rejoicing, because they were celebrating their newfound freedom and the complete removal of any threat.

Klein believes that the continuing threat of al-Qaeda should temper celebrations of bin Laden’s death, as multiple war fronts remain active and the specter of terror continues to drag America through a torrent of violence.

“We have a responsibility to move on and say, ‘OK, now what? Now what are we going to do?’ Are we going to be aggressive about peace in America now that we can say, ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead,’ or are we going to go back to a place of maintaining a violence paradigm that leads to more Iraqis, Afghanis and Americans dead?”

Look to the Israelis for a balanced response to such acts, suggests Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. “In all of the years that Israel has had to engage in hunting down and killing terrorists, have we ever once seen Israelis take to the streets with flags shouting ‘Go Israel’ as a reaction to any one terrorist being killed?” he asked. “As we painfully observe another Yom Hazikaron this coming week, when families who lost loved ones in wars and acts of terror gather to mourn by singing songs and reading poems that speak of peace — not of glorifying war or taking revenge — Israeli society models how to respectfully deal with downing terrorists while confronting the pain they created.”

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea believes that while gloating is inappropriate, there is room for appreciating the moment.

“The fall of the wicked is regarded in our tradition as reason to praise God in the sense that God is a God of justice,” he said.

He believes the public celebrations were visceral, temporary reactions that will give way to a more sober acknowledgment that, while momentous, bin Laden’s death was mostly symbolic.

“I think ultimately the real perspective we should have on this is that we are engaged in a battle against an ideology that is morally inverted and hateful and heinous and believes that the killing of innocent people is a legitimate political tactic. What we need to do as the ideological opponent of that view is to make the statement that human life really does matter and is sacred … and that this world isn’t a place where we can tolerate moral chaos.”

Kanefsky said he spent less time Monday morning thinking about bin Laden than trying to work out logistics to send congregants to Alabama to help with the cleanup following last week’s storms.

“In the end, that’s what this struggle is about,” he said. “This is about our values and our ideology that understands that human life matters, that love for one another matters, that mutual concern matters.”

After Santa Monica bombing, shuls ponder openness vs. security

Nobody thought much about the shabby but quiet middle-aged man who showed up last weekend at an Orthodox study hall in suburban Cleveland.

But when police came Monday and arrested the man, Ron Hirsch, 60, on charges of setting off a bomb next to the Chabad synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., it sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community.

It also raised the question of how Jewish institutions should balance openness with security.

“You want people to feel safe, but still welcome,” said Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in downtown Los Angeles.

Jewish institutions in the United States have beefed up security since 9/11, following the lead of Israeli embassies around the world as well as synagogues and Jewish centers in Europe and South America. But measures designed to thwart terrorists can make worshipers feel uncomfortable and newcomers unwelcome. No one wants to pray in a fortress, religious leaders say.

“It’s a dilemma we face every day,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad of Yorba Linda, Calif.

Cleveland-area Jews were particularly disturbed that Hirsch, a transient who often slept near the Santa Monica Chabad shul and asked for handouts at Jewish doors, sought out an Orthodox neighborhood when he fled Los Angeles for Ohio last Friday. Those interviewed surmised that Hirsch knew he would be welcomed as a fellow Jew, with few questions asked.

“He felt comfortable enough to come into a community that offered him shelter and offered him money because the Orthodox community is very hospitable and takes care of its own,” Rabbi Sruly Wolf of Cleveland Heights told The Associated Press.

Churches traditionally have kept their doors unlocked round the clock on the principle that the house of God should be open to all, but few U.S. synagogues follow that practice over concerns about everything from petty vandalism and Torah thefts to anti-Semitic attacks.

At the same time, some rabbis fear that overdoing security will keep away precisely those unaffiliated Jews they want to attract.

“We should not send the message to a Jew that walking into the synagogue is dangerous,” Eliezrie told JTA.

A year ago, he said, half a dozen unfamiliar young men walked into his synagogue right before Saturday morning services. He went to the lobby to check them out—“I was welcoming, but wondering,” he recalls—and learned that they were being initiated into a Jewish fraternity and had to visit five Chabad centers on one Shabbat.

Eliezrie invited them in for kiddush and wouldn’t let them leave until they listened to his 6-year-old grandson pontificate on the weekly Torah portion.

“If I would have overreacted, I would have driven them away,” he said.

Eliezrie said metal detectors and security guards do more harm than good—but he’s in a quiet suburb. Those in the big city, where transients are more common, have more to worry about, he acknowledges.

At Sinai Temple, a large Conservative synagogue in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, visitors are screened, wanded and eyeballed by a bevy of security personnel. Members of the congregation get a special decal allowing them to park in the building’s secure parking lot. The temple employs a full-time security director and brings in nearly three dozen guards for High Holidays services that draw upward of 5,000 people.

“On Shabbat we have 1,000 people at services,” Lesner said. “More than half of them are not members. They’re all screened, but we do it in a dignified manner. I’ve never had anyone refuse and walk away.”

Temple Beth Sholom, a large Reform synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla., also runs a tight ship. The synagogue was rebuilt four years ago, and a perimeter wall of Jerusalem stone was constructed around the building.

“It looks very pretty, but we did it on purpose,” Rabbi Gary Glickstein said. “There is just one entrance, so we can control access.”

Glickstein said it has the optimal balance between security and openness.

Beginners’ services, also called learners’ minyans, are particularly confounding for security concerns because they are consciously trying to attract newcomers rather than congregants who know each other.

“Too much security and people get turned away,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, which sponsors services for unaffiliated Jews throughout the United States. “We have beginners’ services, so that means you have all kinds of strange people walking in.”

The key, he says, is to keep tight security outside and a discrete watchfulness inside.

“We have a committee of lay leaders who keep an eye out to make sure nothing untoward occurs,” Rosenbaum said.

In general, rabbis say, worshipers who seem suspicious have to be watched, but discretely, so they and everyone else in the room is unaware of the surveillance.
Eliezrie says no one would be denied access to the kiddush or not counted in a minyan because of such suspicions.

“A human being is a human being,” Eliezrie said, adding that he’s never had to ask someone to leave his synagogue. “I’m going to treat everyone with respect. “I have to welcome him in and just wonder a little bit.”

Dancing rabbis win cheers

A sell-out crowd packed the American Jewish University’s (AJU) Gindi Auditorium on April 3 and watched as Rabbi Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah tangoed her way to the inaugural “Dancing With the Rabbis” trophy. An ecstatic Klein, cheered on by her family, wowed the audience with her passionate routine with professional partner Daniel Ponickly.

In what turned out to be an incredibly fun evening, the rabbis and their partners put on a show that had people clapping and cheering in their seats.  Rabbi Mark Borovitz opened the night with a playful, jaunty cha-cha, and was followed by a game Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who danced the fox-trot in a top hat and tux.  Rabbi Nina Feinstein got deeply into the spirit, wearing glittering bell-bottoms as she danced the hustle with partner Forrest Walsh.  And perhaps the sweetest moment of the evening came when Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s partner, Brittany Palmer, spoke glowingly of the respected scholar, saying that she left every rehearsal with him feeling like she’d had a great day.

Louis Van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff of ABC-TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” made a special guest appearance and tore up the stage with some truly impressive dance moves, though their last dance was so racy that it may have had more than a few members of the audience wondering whether they should clap or head home for a cold shower.

But the evening was Klein’s, and she won a generous donation for the American Jewish World Service with her dance moves. Asked what if felt like to be the rabbinic dancing champion, Klein called the experience “once in a lifetime” and said she was “so excited” that her family was there to watch her win. If the success of the inaugural event is any indication, this may not be the last that Los Angeles will see of “Dancing With the Rabbis.”

And for those wishing to get in on the act themselves, the AJU will be offering dance classes taught by the rabbis’ professional partners, so that everyone can learn to tango like a champion.

North American rabbis protest conversion policy

Dozens of North American Orthodox rabbis protested to Israel’s Interior Ministry following reports that converts under Orthodox auspices are being denied the right to immigrate.

“We are concerned that conversions performed under our auspices are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility,” said a letter delivered to the ministry on Tuesday. “We find this unacceptable, and turn to you in an effort to insure that those individuals whom we convert will automatically be eligible for aliyah as they have been in the past.”

On Wednesday, a meeting was held in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. Participants included representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, ITIM—The Jewish Life Information Center, the Jewish Federations of North America, Israel’s Interior Ministry and the chief rabbinate, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, ITIM’s director. Farber, a central figure in organizing the letter, told JTA that the Interior Ministry, led by the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, did not agree during Wednesday’s meeting to retract its policy of consulting with the chief rabbinate on issues of Orthodox conversions, but did agree to consider each aliyah request by Orthodox converts on a case-by-case basis and to continue the discussion.

The Chief Rabbinate has become the defacto central body in determining the validity of Orthodox conversions, and it only recognizes about 20 religious courts in North America, mostly affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. Conservative and Reform converts are certified as Jewish by the central bodies of their respective movements.

In response to the letter, the plenary of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors adopted a resolution brought by the Unity of the Jewish People Committee calling on the Israeli government to confirm the Jewish Agency’s role in determining the eligibility of new immigrants.

The resolution passed Tuesday on the last day of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem and was initiated by Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told the board that Israel’s chief rabbinate should not be involved in determining who can be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

“I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return,” Sharansky told Haaretz. “It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return.”

The rabbi and his ‘calling’

In the fall of 2007, then-rabbinical student Shmuly Yanklowitz traveled with a few of his colleagues from the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York to San Diego. Wildfires had just burned through 500,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 homes. “I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Yanklowitz said at the time. “I just knew that we had to be there.”

By that point, a camera crew had been following Yanklowitz for months, shooting footage for what would become part of “The Calling,” a four-hour television documentary premiering on PBS on Dec. 20 and 21. The film follows seven young clergy members from four different religious groups through their training. Shot over 18 months, it offers a behind-the-scenes look at the moving and trying process of becoming a religious leader.

Yanklowitz, now 29, was ordained as a rabbi earlier this year and has taken a position as the Senior Jewish Educator at the Hillel at UCLA. In the second two-hour segment of “The Calling,” viewers meet this tall, preternaturally smiling, Modern Orthodox rabbinical student and watch as he spends some of his time on screen doing things that many such students do — poring over pages of Talmud, facilitating discussions with teenagers on a summer program, trying (and failing) to address a congregation whose members are more interested in noshing and schmoozing than in listening to words of Torah.

As the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, a group that works to organize the Orthodox Jewish community around social justice issues, Yanklowitz is one of his movement’s most outspoken activists. Within moments of his being introduced on screen, Yanklowitz can be seen at a pro-Tibetan protest outside the Chinese Embassy. When he and a few of his fellow students went to Postville, Iowa, to support workers about to be deported after the raid on the kosher Agriprocessors plant, the cameras were there. They were also rolling in New York, when Yanklowitz spoke about the need for ethical standards for kosher and Jewish-owned businesses at a forum at Yeshiva University.

Yanklowitz sometimes seems to be everywhere: He is working toward a doctorate in moral development and epistemology at Columbia University, he grooved to the sounds of the Marine Corps Chamber Orchestra at this year’s White House Chanukah party, and he writes frequently in Jewish news outlets, including The Jewish Journal.

Illustrating how Yanklowitz has cobbled together his current multifaceted rabbinate would be an accomplishment in itself — but “The Calling” is accessible and compelling to religious and secular audiences because it presents its seven young subjects not simply as clerics-to-be but as living, complex characters.

“I was looking for a way to show how modernity and faith are living together — or trying to live together — in the United States,” executive producer Daniel Alpert, who directed the series, said. Alpert and his team also offer a look into the private lives of young clergy, into what goes on when it’s not Saturday or Sunday morning. A Catholic priest winds down his day by flipping between a San Antonio Spurs game and an episode of “Survivor.” A hijab-wearing female Muslim cleric goes toe to toe with a male fellow seminarian on the subject of whether sex exists in the afterlife. A young rabbi negotiates with his board over how much food should be served at an upcoming event.

There’s Jeneen, a former actress and beauty queen ministering in the African Methodist Episcopal church; Rob, the Samoan-born rapping Evangelical Christian minister; Bilal, an African American imam working with inmates in a Connecticut jail — and then there’s Yanklowitz.

“The main reason I decided to be a part of this when they asked me,” Yanklowitz said, “was because I believe in the mission, which is to show the humanity of clergy and show that religious leadership is struggling with very human issues, just like everyone else.”

Yanklowitz — like all of the film’s subjects — did not shrink from the camera, even when it was recording some of his quietest, most private moments. “It was uncomfortable opening my life,” he recalled. “They would sometimes be there right when I woke up in the morning, at my bed. And other times they would be with me in my dating relationships, or with my family.”

“Something about his combination of ambition and honesty was really refreshing,” said Yoni Brook, who directed the sections of “The Calling” about Yanklowitz and his fellow Chovevei Torah graduate Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, who now leads a congregation in Baltimore, Md. “Shmuly just struck us as someone who was going to be open with his time and what he was thinking about,” Brook said.

Publicly, what Yanklowitz is always thinking about is getting the Jewish community — and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community — active in matters relating to social justice, even when it means working on behalf of people who are not themselves Jewish, let alone Orthodox.

Privately, as “The Calling” makes clear, the young Jewish spiritual leader was working through more personal challenges at the same time. “I feel a tremendous pressure to get married as soon as possible,” Yanklowitz tells the camera at one point, sounding at once disarmingly earnest and completely self-aware. “I should’ve been married — according to shadchen, according to the matchmaker — about eight years ago.

“The problem is,” Yanklowitz continues, with a devious smile, “I’m pretty crazy. I get on a plane when I feel I need to … and the idea of restraint that would come with marriage or with a deep romantic commitment was so scary to me.”

The question Yanklowitz struggled with — how and when and whether to settle down — is one that applies to many emerging adults across America and might have once been deemed too risky for a person of the cloth to discuss. Indeed, filmmaker Alpert found to his surprise that his seven young clerics all faced dilemmas similar to those of their nonclergy (or even nonreligious) peers. “They’re not willing to conform to ideas of what a religious leader is supposed to be,” Alpert said. “They certainly have to live their lives religiously … but they want to listen to the music they like, and they want to tell jokes the way they want to tell them.

“It’s not a reality series,” Alpert said, noting that 1,400 hours of raw footage was edited to create the four-hour finished product. (Some of that footage is on a Web site dedicated to the film’s central question, at “It’s a completely different approach,” he said. “Reality TV is based on manipulation, and this is based on trust.”

At UCLA, what stands out about Yanklowitz is his intense energy. “If you ever come across Shmuly in person, it would hit you like a train,” Arlene Miller, associate executive director of the Hillel at UCLA, said. “He’s present when you’re talking to him, and he’s got his hands in so many things that he can really make connections with people — and he cares, deeply.”

“Shmuly is a dynamo,” Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea wrote in an e-mail. Kanefsky is on the advisory committee of the Los Angeles branch of Uri L’Tzedek, which Yanklowitz established earlier this year. “I’ve never seen anyone impact so quickly and decisively on a brand-new town.”

Yanklowitz said he is committed to showing that rabbis, too, have moments of self-doubt. But when talking about his work at UCLA and with Uri L’Tzedek, he becomes more, well, rabbinic. “I’m very content where I am now,” he said, “both doing national and global social justice work, and the opposite, very intimate one-on-one learning with students.

“Having that local presence and that global national reach has been —” Yanklowitz stopped himself, and then spoke again. “I feel just tremendously privileged.”

Diaspora rabbis urge Israeli colleagues to speak out on rental ruling

Over 750 rabbis and cantors of all denominations signed a letter urging their Israeli colleagues to speak out against a ruling by 39 municipal rabbis banning renting to non-Jews.

“The recent halakhic ruling from community rabbis in Israel that forbids leasing apartments to non-Jews has caused great shock and pain in our communities,” said the letter, initiated by the New Israel Fund. “The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition.”

The letter, open for two days for signatures and released on Tuesday, concludes: “For the sake of our people, our Torah, and Israel, we beseech you to take a strong public stand and oppose those who misrepresent our tradition.”

Signatories include rabbis and cantors from the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox streams, including Rabbi Marc D. Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City; Rabbi Michael Lerner editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish and interfaith magazine based in Berkeley, California; Rabbi Leonard S. Levin, Jewish Theological Seminary Of America; Rabbi Rachel Cowan, director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality; and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman to become a Reconstructionist rabbi when she was ordained in 1974.

The bulk of the signatories are from the United States, with significant numbers from Canada and Britain and a smattering from small communities.

A number of rabbinical leaders in Israel have condemned the original ruling as has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli attorney general is looking into whether the rabbis who ruled against renting to non-Jews broke the law in their capacity as government employees.

Barriers broken, female rabbis look to broader influence

Lynne Kern knew at 13 that she wanted to be a rabbi, even though in 1970 there were no female rabbis to act as role models.

So Kern became a writer, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

But she never forgot her passion, and in 2001 she completed her rabbinic studies and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Now, four decades since her bat mitzvah, Kern is working with filmmaker Ronda Spinak on a documentary about female rabbis. Kern was behind the camera in Boston last week filming a panel discussion by the first four women to become rabbis in their respective denominations.

The latest addition to the group was Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who had the title, a feminized version of “rabbi,” conferred upon her about a year ago by a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss.

The Dec. 6 event was the first time that the four women—Hurwitz, Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand, Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg – had ever appeared together.

An audience of 600, men and women, packed the sanctuary at Temple Reyim, outside of Boston, for the program.

“These women were part of my narrative, part of my story that I tell,” Hurwitz told JTA. “To be standing in front of these real pioneers, it was an overwhelming sense of awe.”

The Dec. 6 program, titled “Raising Up the Light,” was sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. In a stirring tribute, 50 female rabbis from around the region who were in the audience were called up to the bimah to join the panelists at one point during the event.

“When I started, there was no one. I was alone,” Eisenberg Sasso said. “Now I wasn’t alone anymore.”

Priesand was the first woman to break the rabbinate barrier when she was ordained by the Reform movement in 1972. The Reconstructinist’s Eisenberg Sasso followed a year later. It was more than a decade before Eilberg’s ordination in 1985 by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Today there are 167 female Reconstructionist rabbis—approximately half of the rabbis ordained by the movement since 1974. The Conservative movement has 273 female rabbis worldwide among the total of 1,648. The Reform movement says it has 575 female rabbis in North America.

Hurwitz is the only Orthodox woman with the title of rabba; Weiss has said he will not bestow the title upon future female graduates of the institute he is launching to train women. The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America, has ruled against the ordination of women as rabbis.

With the barriers in the non-Orthodox movements long broken, some female rabbis say it’s time to move beyond talk of how they were pioneers to discuss how they are influencing the general Jewish community.

“It’s time we got beyond how innovative it is to have women rabbis,” Rabbi Barbara Penzner, who was ordained in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, told JTA. “These are women who’ve made significant contributions to Jewish life.”

When Priesand started out, she was the only female student at Hebrew Union College. Now she’s the rabbi emeritus at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., where she served as the spiritual leader for 25 years. Priesand credits women not only with pushing their way into the rabbinate, but also with changing the way men practice the trade, making male rabbis more open and nurturing.

Eilberg’s rabbinic work has been focused largely in pastoral care through hospice, spiritual direction and conflict resolution. She also directs an interfaith dialogue program in Minneapolis.

While these are areas not exclusive to women, Eilberg said in an interview, the responsibilities require deep listening skills—skills with a strong resonance among women of her generation.

In interviews for her documentary with more than 25 female rabbis, Kern found a common thread in their pursuit of creating community through prayer while engaging in social action.

Anita Diamant, founder of a Boston-area mikvah called Mayyim Hayyim and author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” said that many of the ceremonies observed at the mikvah by women and men owe a great deal to the insights and efforts of female rabbis who were ordained in the last 30 years.

Hurwitz, whose ordination was met with a sharp rebuke in some Orthodox circles, is the only one of the four first female rabbis who does not embrace full egalitarianism. Women cannot perform some ritual roles in Orthodoxy, she said, such as leading certain parts of the prayer services. But, she noted, women can serve in significant rituals and lifecycle events, such as officiating at weddings and funerals.

Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women to become spiritual leaders, and a member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the spiritual leader.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, does not believe that Hurwitz’s breach of the Orthodox line on female rabbis will lead to a shift within that community on the ordination of women. And outside the Orthodox community, he said, some congregations have concerns that the rabbinate is becoming feminized and, as a result, men are retreating from synagogue life.

Synagogues increasingly are being perceived as women’s prayer spaces and not male-friendly, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman found in a 2008 report published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.

Sasso Eisenberg, who yearned for the company of women during her student days and early years as a rabbi, said a sense of sisterhood is very important to her. But she also feels strongly that women should not focus on setting a separate table.

“Ultimately what we want to do is bring women’s voices and stories to the traditional table of Jewish life,” Sasso Eisenberg said.

Bibi slams rabbis’ ban on renting to non-Jews

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blasted a ruling by dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis that forbids renting homes to gentiles, and more specifically to Arabs.

Netanyahu said the ruling, which became public Tuesday, was inconsistent with democratic values.

The ruling comes less than two months after leading rabbis in Safed signed on to a letter drafted by the city’s chief rabbi calling on Jews not to rent to non-Jews in the northern Israeli city, as well as a month after rabbis in the haredi Orthodox Israeli city of Bnei Brak issued a religious ruling forbidding residents to rent apartments to African refugees, echoing a similar ruling for southern Tel Aviv.

“How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews?” The Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as saying Tuesday evening at a Bible contest. “We would protest, and we do protest when it is said among our neighbors. It is forbidden that such things are said about Jews or Arabs.”

Among those signing the letter are the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, Carmiel, Gadera, Afula, Nahariya, Herzliya, Nahariya and Pardes Hannah. Top national-religious Rabbi Shlomo Aviner signed the letter, as did Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, son of the Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Top haredi leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also signed.

The ruling states that renting to non-Jews and Arabs will deflate the value of the home and of homes in the area. It says that neighbors of those who are renting or considering selling to non-Jews or Arabs should first warn the neighbor personally, and if the behavior continues to notify the community. The offending landlord, according to the ruling, must be ignored and not be called to the Torah for an aliyah.

Israeli civil rights organizations and Knesset members criticized the ruling and called for rabbis who signed to be fired from their jobs. Municipal chief rabbis’ salaries are paid for by the state.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued a statement calling on Netanyahu to condemn the ruling and take action against those who signed it.

“Rabbis who are civil servants have an obligation to the entire public, including Israel’s Arab citizens” the statement said. “It is unthinkable that they would use their public status to promote racism and incitement.”

Two U.S. Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the New Israel Fund, praised Netanyahu for his denunciation of the ruling.

“It is outrageous and unacceptable that rabbis across Israel are promoting blatant discrimination against non-Jews,” the ADL said.

The NIF called on Netanyahu to set in motion the suspension of the municipal rabbis from their posts.

N.Y. rabbis pull out of Muslim-Jewish twinning project

Two rabbis in western New York have pulled out of a Muslim-Jewish outreach effort, charging that the national sponsor is involved in Islamic fundamentalism.

The “twinning” project, which has been held each November since 2008, is a project of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America, which was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terrorist financing case.

Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am and Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai, both of Amherst, declined to participate in the twinning events this month, despite participating last year, citing concerns about the Islamic Society’s links to Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Buffalo News reported Nov. 11.

Rabbi Drorah Setel of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is the only area rabbi to go forward with the program, according to the newspaper.

“The conflict in the Middle East ends up affecting passions here,” Lazarus-Klein told the Buffalo News. “The issues are very close to people’s hearts, and it’s difficult to separate the world politics from local politics, and that’s unfortunate.”

A national group based in Boston last year warned Buffalo-area Jews that radical Muslims posing as moderates had infiltrated the area.

“What we found was that the entities behind the Buffalo interfaith effort are anything but moderate,” Ilya Feoktistov, research director of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, wrote in an online publication.

One event held last week in western New York had to be moved from a small synagogue to a private home after objections by members of the congregation, the Buffalo News reported.

Glenn Beck reneges on promise to rabbis

Yesterday, Glenn Beck and the leadership of Fox News made a mockery of their commitment to me and two rabbis. Let me take a few steps back to tell you why what happened yesterday scares me.

On Tuesday night, many in our community were gathered together, in Brooklyn, in Dayton, in Santa Barbara. Seventy-two years ago, the homes, shops, and synagogues of many of our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were ransacked, broken, and burned as Nazi storm troopers destroyed towns and villages across Germany and Austria. Many historians view Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Final Solution and the Holocaust.

Washington Post journalist Dana Milbank has observed that Fox News host Glenn Beck has a bit of a Nazi fetish. From Obama’s inauguration through June 2010, Beck had “202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels.” Yesterday he spoke again about the Holocaust. But it was not to commemorate Kristallnacht. It was to engage in an insidious form of Holocaust revisionism. His motivation? To score political points against George Soros, a prominent Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor.

As many of you know, I was the subject of a personal attack by Glenn Beck in May of this year. Responding to an article I wrote supporting a government role to advance the common good, Beck scolded me, declaring that my words “are what led to the death camps in Germany” and that I “as a Jew, should know better.” To discuss this and other, similar comments, on July 26, I joined rabbis Steve Gutow and David Ellenson, on behalf of fourteen prominent leaders of national Jewish organizations, in a meeting with Fox News President Roger Ailes and the producer of Glenn Beck’s television show, Joel Cheatwood. We spoke for almost an hour about the concerns held by many Jews about Glenn Beck’s constant and often inappropriate invocation of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany on the air.

We were assured by Ailes and Cheatwood that they understand our concerns and would explain them to Beck. Two days later, I received a hand-written note from Beck, which stated: “Simon, Joel shared the details of your meeting yesterday. Please know that I understand the sensitivity and sacred nature of this dark chapter in Human History. Thank you for your candor and helpful thoughts.”

Yesterday, Glenn Beck and the leadership of Fox News made a mockery of their professed understanding. In his own words, “George Soros used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps.”

No one who truly understands “the sensitivity and sacred nature” of the Holocaust would deliberately and grotesquely mischaracterize the experience of a 13-year-old Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary whose father hid him with a non-Jewish family to keep him alive. Many other Jews survived the attempted extermination of the Jewish people by changing their identities and hiding with Righteous Gentiles. With today’s falsehoods, Beck has engaged in a form of Holocaust revisionism.

I have had the privilege recently of getting to know George Soros. During our conversations, he made it clear that his experience surviving the Holocaust seared a simple but profound truth in his brain. Jews suffer in nationalist societies and thrive in open societies. When he began his philanthropy, it was driven by this insight. It’s why he named his foundation the Open Society Institute. This year alone, he has donated $700 million in an effort to make the world safe for all outsiders, to protect the weak from being preyed on by the powerful. It is what motivated one of his sons to pursue a PhD in Jewish Studies, with a focus on Modern European Jewish history.

Yet according to Glenn Beck, Soros “is a collaborator” who “saw people into the gas chambers.” So what’s the truth? It’s no secret. Here is the account provided by Michael T. Kaufman in his 2002 biography, Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire.

This is what actually happened. Shortly after George went to live with Baumbach [the Righteous Gentile hiding Soros], the man was assigned to take inventory on the vast estate of Mor Kornfeld, an extremely wealthy aristocrat of Jewish origin. The Kornfeld family had the wealth, wisdom and connections to be able to leave some of its belongings behind in exchange for permission to make their way to Lisbon. Baumbach was ordered to go to the Kornfeld estate and inventory the artworks, furnishings, and other property. Rather than leave his “godson” [Soros] behind in Budapest for three days, he took the boy with him. As Baumbach itemized the material, George walked around the grounds and spent time with Kornfeld’s staff. It was his first visit to such a mansion, and the first time he rode a horse. He collaborated with no one and he paid attention to what he understood to be his primary responsibility: making sure that no one doubted that he was Sandor Kiss. Among his practical concerns was to make sure that no one saw him pee.

Of all the new “Tea Party” leaders, Glenn Beck is one of the most vitriolic, and – with more than 800 hours of on-air time a year – the most visible. His portrayal of Soros today as the “Puppet Master,” as the special was called, evokes anti-Semitic stereotypes from the “devaluer of many currencies” to “advocate for one world government” from “anti-American” to “thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us.”

Beck’s words have consequences. They advance a world view that ultimately places Jews like Soros in the crosshairs, not unlike what we saw with Father Coughlin in the 1930s or the John Birch Society in the 1950s. Byron Williams, a Beck acolyte who recently engaged in a shoot-out with police on his way to kill “people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU,” shares his hero’s hatred of Soros and other “progressives.” Given the more than 40 percent of Jews self-identify as liberal, this hatred targets us.

I will be sending a letter with other Jewish leaders to Glenn Beck, Roger Ailes, and Rupert Murdoch, expressing to them what I have expressed to you. I will be in touch with you again tomorrow as we begin to respond to this most recent outrage. Thank you in advance for your continued support in the days and weeks to come.

Rabbis Pay Condolence Call to Poles

Four rabbis representing The Board of Rabbis of Southern California visited the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles last week to offer letters and wishes of condolence after the April 10 plane crash that killed the Polish president and 94 others, including many governmental leaders.

What started as a brief, official condolence call turned into a half-hour session of pastoral counseling, according to Rabbi Denise Eger, president of The Board of Rabbis. Also attending were Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of The Board of Rabbis; Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim; and Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, a founder of the social-action organization Jews on First.

The consul general, Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, formerly an ambassador in Mexico, told the rabbis she knew half the people on the plane.

“The sense of grief was palpable, even personal,” Beliak wrote in an e-mail following the visit. Beliak had just returned from two months of serving as a rabbi at Beit Warszawa, a liberal congregation in Warsaw, and he arranged the visit.

The rabbis and Kozinska-Frybes, along with Vice Consul Malgorzata Cup, discussed the paths of reconciliation now opening between Jews and Poles, as Poland tries to heal the wounds of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Burt Schuman, rabbi of Beit Warszawa, and the consul general will be participating in a dialogue about Polish-Jewish relations at the end of May at the Rabbi Harold Schulweis Institute at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Go ahead, make my High Holy Day


It’s high noon for the high holidays.

Fearing jihadists will attack synagogues during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a group of badass rabbis has developed a program to turn your average shul-goer into a lean, mean fighting machine.

The group, which calls itself the International Security Coalition of Clergy, was founded by Rabbi Gary Moscowitz, who boasts a black belt in karate, teaches martial arts and was an NYPD cop for nine years.

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