Rabbi Elazar Muskin. Photo from Young Israel of Century City

Young Israel of Century City rabbi elected president of Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, has been elected president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), marking the first time a Los Angeles rabbi has headed the organization, which has a membership of 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 18 countries.

“It represents the fact the world has changed,” Muskin said of his election.

He recalled that when he began his rabbinic career more than 35 years ago, a fellow rabbi told him: “If you want to have influence, the national scene is on the East Coast.”

Now, rabbis from all parts of the country make up the organization’s leadership. “There isn’t one officer from the New York area in this coming administration,” he said.

Muskin, who held the position of first vice president at the RCA, was elected to his new post on June 12, succeeding Rabbi Shalom Baum, spiritual leader of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J.

RCA presidents are elected to one-year terms, and most presidents are re-elected to serve a second year, he said.

Muskin hopes the RCA under his stewardship will be “proactive and not reactive.” Among other things, the RCA must work toward improving Diaspora Judaism’s relationship with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, in light of clashes on marriage and conversion, he said.

“We try to sensitize [the Chief Rabbinate] to issues, and we do all the time,” Muskin said. “On marriage issues, on conversion issues, we’re working with them hand-in-hand.There are organizations that would like to see the end of the Chief Rabbinate, [but] that is not our agenda at all. We want to work with them.”

Muskin enters the presidency at a time of contention over female clergy in the Orthodox movement. Earlier this year, the Orthodox Union, a partner of the RCA, issued a ruling banning female clergy in its 400 member congregations across the United States. B’nai-David Judea, a Los Angeles synagogue, is among those at the center of the debate through its employment of Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn.

“The women’s issue is certainly an issue,” Muskin said. “We want to look at it in a positive approach. There are so many areas where women can have important roles in the Orthodox community and that will be our focus.”

Even with the demands of being the RCA’s leader, Muskin said Young Israel of Century City will remain his first priority. The congregation has 500 member families and is in the process of a major expansion of its facilities.

“I will do my work for the rabbinic council as well, but if there’s a [time] conflict, my shul comes first,” Muskin said.

Muskin is a past president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He holds a master’s degree in education from Columbia University and a master’s in medieval Jewish philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Orthodox group makes prenup mandatory for Jewish marriages

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has adopted a resolution requiring a hala-chic prenuptial agreement in any wedding officiated by a member of the organiza-tion, thereby preventing husbands from deny-ing a get, or Jewish divorce document, to their spouse in the future, or a wife from refusing to accept one.

A prenup is expected to do this in two ways: It “designates the rabbinic forum in which claims for a get will be adjudicated and creates finan-cial incentives for both parties to effect the Jew-ish divorce in a timely manner,” according to a statement from the RCA, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox Union.

“I think this is one of the greatest things the Rabbinical Council of America has done, no question about it, and it’s something the Ortho-dox, the Modern Orthodox, rabbinate is very proud of,” said Young Israel of Century City Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who serves as RCA vice president.

In the Orthodox community, a person must be granted a get in order to remarry. Husbands who deny a get to their wives when divorcing are known in the community as “recalcitrant hus-bands,” and a divorced woman who does not re-ceive a get is known as an agunah (chained woman). A man, if his wife denies him a get, is known as an agun.

Declining the issuance of a get is one way for one party to exert power over the other and manipulate the situation into getting, for example, more money in the divorce or full custo-dial rights of children.

The RCA resolution, adopted Sept. 23, is called “2016 Resolution: Requiring the Use of Prenup-tial Agreements for the Prevention of Get-refus-al.” It refers to the “prenuptial agreements of the Beth Din of America (BDA) … [as the] single most effective solution to the agunah problem.” The BDA is a rabbinic court founded by the RCA, and its responsibilities include obtaining Jewish divorces, according to its website. 

“This new resolution now requires all RCA-member rabbis to require the use of prenuptial agreements. … With the adoption of this new resolution, signing the prenup is now no longer about the couple and the expectations that its rabbi has of them, but is about the rabbi and the professional standards that he must maintain,” according to a Sept. 22 RCA press release. In other words, the resolution normalizes the expectation that the marrying couple has signed a prenuptial agreement.

Rabbi Mordechai Willig of the BDA and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva Uni-versity drafted the halachic prenuptial agreement that today is used widely by RCA members officiating mar-riages.

The prenup, entered into by a man and woman before their marriage, obligates the signees to appear before the rabbinic court in the event of a separation and requires the man to pay his wife a sum of money every day until the divorce is finalized — that way, he has no incentive to prolong the proceedings. Financial implications for the wife are explained, too, if she does not abide by the prescribed process. 

A specific California version of the prenup is available on the website of the Beth Din of America (bethdin.org).

RCA has been advocating the use of the get abuse prevention tool since 1993, according to a statement from the organization. Local Modern Orthodox clergy like Muskin, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation have been requiring the use of a prenuptial agreement for some time, according to Muskin. 

“It’s pretty standard today. We’re just trying to make to make it well known that this has been our position,” Muskin said.

Still, the recent decision does not do anything to help the cases of current chained men or women. More than 450 agunot are believed to live in the North America, according to a 2011 survey by Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse. 

“This is a preventative measure,” Muskin said. “It’s not going to resolve that which took place in the past.” 

Married couples who have never signed prenuptial agreements are able to sign postnuptial agreements, which work the same way in that they obligate married couples to settle a divorce in a reputable rabbinic court, among other things.

Esther Macner, president and founder of Get Jewish Divorce Justice, praised the RCA’s decision. The advocacy organization in Los Angeles makes the prenuptial agreement approved by the Beth Din of America available on its website (getjewishdivorce.org). 

Macner called the adoption of the resolution “a big step forward” but added that there are those who attach stigma to the signing of a prenuptial agreement. The adoption of a resolution won’t change that. 

“It isn’t like overnight everyone is going to sign the prenup,” she said. “This is a constant relentless effort [we have been undertaking] since 1993.”

Letters to the editor: UC’s dilemma, The Shabbos Project traffic jam, RCA and more

First Step: Naming the Problem

Thank you for running the excellent column by professor Judea Pearl (“The UC’s New Dilemma: To Name or Not to Name,” Nov. 6). His comments are perfectly succinct. As a parent of four UC students, current and alumni, we have personally felt the ugly whiplash of Zionophobia. 

My own kids have been silenced by teachers for pointing out factual errors in classroom discussions and have been assaulted and spat upon at anti-Israel rallies. My kids have spent all-nighters speaking at student council meetings on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. I have personally written more than a dozen letters to administrators, teachers and department chairs at UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. 

As Pearl states, let’s name names and be explicit about where the First Amendment and discrimination meet.

Thank you for a strong piece.

Anne M. Storm, via email

Rules Are Rules

As an Orthodox Jewish woman, one who is very pro-women and women’s rights, I could not disagree more with the concept of ordaining women as rabbis (“A Time to Stand for Female Spiritual Leadership,” Nov. 6). Female leadership has its rightful place among all streams of Judaism, however, the Orthodox model maintains that women cannot conduct certain religious actions, specifically in regards to men fulfilling their commanded mitzvot. She cannot lead a man in prayer or assist him in the majority of his spiritual work, and therefore cannot fulfill the traditional role of rabbi within Orthodoxy. 

As a therapist — not a rabbi or a rabbi’s wife — I get daily calls with questions about religious matters of all kinds. If a woman wants to lead in the Orthodox movement, then she can and she should. The work is the work by any name. 

The RCA, although by far not free from the influences of power, control and, dare I say, misogyny, has done the right thing. Women do not need the title of rabbi to perform the work of a female community leader and it is presumptuous to assume that all Orthodox women want Orthodox women rabbis. 

No matter what happens, decency, respect and love for our fellow Jew must always be the tone of any discussion, regardless of the outcome. However, it is the responsibility of the established leadership, in this case, the RCA, to guard the gate of Orthodox Torah values. Those who wish for something different can, by all means, create something new under a different umbrella. 

Mia Adler Ozair, Beverly Hills

Project Gridlock

It’s hard “to be sane in an insane world” (as Rabbi Shlomo Yisraeli’s class was titled) when a Shabbat observance shuts down a major east-west thoroughfare — at rush hour on a Friday — with no advance publicity or advisory signage (“The Shabbat Heard ’Round the World,” Oct. 30). Affected businesses likewise were not notified and were forced to close early. From a public relations and traffic perspective, The Shabbos Project was a disaster. 

What was inspiring for Rabbi Yonah Bookstein was infuriating to thousands of commuters who didn’t know their already-rough commute was going to be made much worse by the closing of a critical section of Pico Boulevard during a peak traffic period. Traffic was a nightmare, with many drivers frantically turning north and south through residential neighborhoods to escape the gridlock. 

I hope the Jewish Unity Network can find a more appropriate location (e.g., a private venue or a public park) for its event next year, so Jews and non-Jews alike can get home — some of us for our own Shabbat dinners — without needless disruption and aggravation.

Susan Gans, president, Roxbury-Beverwil Homeowners Alliance

20/20 Hindsight? Continued

How could Rob Eshman yearn for Bill Clinton (“Bring Bill Clinton Back to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Table,” Oct. 30)?  Is he not aware that the Clinton foundation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the leaders of Qatar, the premier sponsor of Hamas terrorism? While Bill and Hillary are cashing those checks and adding to their $150 million influence-peddling treasure trove, Israelis have died from different checks written by Qatar’s leaders.

Shame on him for being so gullible and backing the Clintons, who put our country up for sale.

Jason Goodman, via email


A Business and Finance story about the ride service HopSkipDrive (“Kids Catch a Ride With HopSkipDrive,” Nov. 6) incorrectly identified Smart Capital as one of its investors instead of FirstMark Capital.

A Travel story about Goa, India (“Ready, Set, Goa,” Oct. 30), misspelled the first name of the owner of the Cozy Nook. The owner’s name is Agnelo “Aggy” D’Costa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With resolution against hiring women rabbis, RCA votes for confrontation

When America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association voted last week to ban the hiring of clergywomen by its members, the question wasn’t whether to endorse female rabbis.

It was whether to widen the group’s well-established repudiation of female clergy or keep quiet and focus on finding common ground with Modern Orthodox Judaism’s progressive wing.

While the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) membership ultimately voted for the confrontational approach, the margin of victory was narrow, and the group’s president made a point of saying he voted against the motion.

The RCA first addressed the issue of Orthodox clergywomen in 2010, coming out unanimously in opposition. The group reaffirmed that stance in 2013.

The resolution announced Oct. 30 went a step further, barring member rabbis at synagogues, schools and other Orthodox institutions from hiring women who carry clergy-like titles.

“RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution, or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh [Jewish studies] in an Orthodox institution,” the resolution says.

In addition to noting the closeness of the vote, RCA leaders pointed out that the resolution was proposed by members, not by the RCA’s resolution committee. In keeping with RCA policy, it declined to provide the exact vote tally, but said that about of half the association’s 1,000 members participated.

“The vote count on the women’s resolution was very close,” the professional head of the RCA, Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, told JTA. “Many of the people who voted against the resolution weren’t voting against it on the merits, but felt this wasn’t the right way to handle the issue, that it needed to be handled in a more nuanced, proactive and educational manner.”

The RCA’s president, Rabbi Shalom Baum, issued a similar statement in a news release, noting that he, as well as “the vast majority of current officers and rashei yeshiva [yeshiva leaders] with whom he consulted,” felt the resolution was unnecessary and ill-timed.

RCA leaders are doing a delicate dance between their opposition to Orthodox clergywomen and the growing agitation within some segments of Modern Orthodoxy to allow women access to greater leadership opportunities and ritual roles, such as leading prayer services. At the grass-roots level, there is a widening fissure between Modern Orthodox Jews who support pushing the envelope on women’s issues and those who want to hew more closely to tradition.

The envelope-pushing camp, sometimes called Open Orthodoxy, is led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y. He founded a progressive Modern Orthodox rabbinical school for men in 1999, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, as an alternative to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school; established America’s first and only seminary for ordaining Orthodox clergywomen in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat; and ordained the first American Orthodox Jewish clergywoman, Sara Hurwitz, upon whom he conferred the title “rabba,” a feminized version of “rabbi.”

Hurwitz is now dean of Yeshivat Maharat and a clergywoman at Weiss’ synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Like male clergy, she delivers sermons, officiates at weddings, brises and funerals, and provides pastoral counseling. Hurwitz has said she wants to see women lead Orthodox synagogues on their own. Her synagogue recently hired its second clergywoman, Rabba Anat Sharbat, a 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat.

In Los Angeles, the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation hired Alissa Thomas-Newborn last May with the title of Morateinu, to serve as a member of the clergy alongside its senior rabbi, Rav Yosef Kanefsky. Also trained at Yeshivat Maharat, Thomas-Newborn is the first female rabbi to join the clergy of an Orthodox congregation in L.A.

In the traditionalist camp are the RCA and Yeshiva University. In 2014, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, threatened to withhold rabbinic ordination from a student who hosted a so-called partnership minyan: a traditional prayer service with gender-separate seating, but in which women may read from the Torah and lead certain prayers.

In August, an influential rosh yeshiva (rabbinic leader) at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, caused a stir by penning a d’var Torah, or homily, suggesting it may have been a mistake to allow Orthodox women to study Talmud given the subsequent campaigns for expanding the religious roles of Orthodox women.

“The inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated,” Willig wrote in his essay “Trampled Laws.” “While the gedolim [Torah greats] of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah [tradition], an egalitarian attitude has colored some women’s study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.”

For its part, the RCA has long refused to open membership to clergywomen — or even male rabbis whose sole ordination is from Weiss’ seminary. Weiss, who was ordained by Yeshiva University, announced earlier this year that he had quit the RCA over these policies. The rabbinic association Weiss co-founded some years ago as an alternative to the RCA, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, admits clergy from both his male and female seminaries.

The Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America has taken an even harsher line against the purveyors of Open Orthodoxy, seeking to cast them outside the pale of Orthodoxy. On Monday, Agudah leaders decided to issue a fresh condemnation.

“ ‘Open Orthodoxy’ and its leaders and affiliated entities (including, but not limited to, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and International Rabbinic Fellowship), have shown countless times that they reject the basic tenets of our faith, particularly the authority of the Torah and its Sages,” the Agudah’s Council of Sages declared in a statement. “We therefore inform the public that in our considered opinion, ‘Open Orthodoxy’ is not a form of Torah Judaism (Orthodoxy), and that any rabbinic ordination (which they call ‘semicha’) granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority. May the Almighty have mercy on the remnants of His people and repair all breaches in the walls of the Torah.”

By contrast, RCA leaders in recent months have sought to steer clear of doing direct battle with Weiss and the proponents of Open Orthodoxy. The RCA says it supports expanded leadership roles for women within the bounds of Jewish law, or what is “halakhically and communally appropriate.” That means no to female rabbis or clergy, yes to female yoatzot halachah — Jewish legal advisers who may serve as authorities on such women’s issues as laws of sexual purity —and female lawyers in religious courts.

“The RCA stands for a lot of positive things about the Modern Orthodox community; unfortunately, we don’t get those out enough,” said Baum, who assumed the RCA presidency this summer. “While I don’t support women as rabbis, I don’t for a second question their motivation, sincerity or commitment to the Jewish community.”

Baum said RCA leaders tried to derail last week’s resolution but were outnumbered by member rabbis determined to draw a line in the sand. Those backing the resolution — according to RCA rules, they were not publicly identified — were motivated by a number of developments over the past year, according to Dratch, including the growing acceptance of Maharat graduates as clergy, the ordination of Orthodox clergywomen by Har’el Beit Midrash in Israel and the activities of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat in the West Bank.

Riskin has established a Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership at the Midreshet Lindenbaum college for women in Jerusalem that offers women the same training offered to male clergy, and in January he hired an American-Israeli woman in Efrat, Jennie Rosenfeld, to be the first woman to jointly lead an Orthodox community in Israel.

It remains to be seen whether last week’s RCA resolution empowers the organization to take punitive action against rabbis who violate the ban. Dratch said the RCA’s executive committee is in the process of determining whether the resolution constitutes a new rule or is merely a statement. The RCA has no authority over Orthodox institutions.

One thing is clear: The resolution is likely to exacerbate the growing divide within Orthodoxy over women’s roles, mobilizing opposition rather than quelling controversy and unifying the movement.

On Sunday, a Chicago-area doctor, Noam Stadlan, launched an online petition called “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles” that as of press time on Tuesday had garnered more than 1,500 signatories. Also on Sunday, Hurwitz distributed a fact sheet about Yeshivat Maharat that underscored the seminary’s growing cadre of female Orthodox clergy.

Hurwitz told JTA she didn’t think the RCA resolution would have any impact on Yeshivat Maharat’s clergywomen.

“Our graduates are continuing to do what they’ve always been doing, which is to teach and to serve and to do what they were trained to do,” Hurwitz said. “We’re continuing to train women, and synagogues are hiring our women. We’re creating facts on the ground.”

The Jewish Journal contributed additional information to this report.

Rabbinical Council of America officially bans ordination and hiring of women rabbis

The Rabbinical Council of America, the main modern Orthodox rabbinical group, formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.

The policy announced Friday by the RCA came after a direct vote of its membership, according to the organization.

The resolution states: “RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.”

Limudei Kodesh refers to religious studies.

“This resolution does not concern or address non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha (advisers on Jewish law), community scholars, Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study, and non-rabbinic school teachers,” the resolution concludes. “So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as ‘Maharat’ is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable.”

Maharat is an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader. It is a designation granted by Yeshivat Maharat, an institution for women in Riverdale, New York, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss.

In 2010, following the establishment of Yeshivat Maharat, the RCA issued a resolution on women’s communal roles stating that the RCA “reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah (tradition) of the Jewish people.”

A follow-up 2013 resolution on Yeshivat Maharat, as it ordained its first cohort of maharats, said: “Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title. The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”

In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some Orthodox converts, biggest challenges come after mikvah

There was the convert who was barred from a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Jamaican convert whose boyfriend’s rabbi offered him a coveted synagogue honor if only he’d dump her, the grandmother who told her granddaughter she’d be going to hell because she became a Jew.

The road to conversion can be long and difficult for many prospective converts to Orthodox Judaism, filled with uncertainties and fear about gaining final rabbinic approval. Yet even once they emerge from the mikvah as newly minted American Jews, many find the challenges hardly end.

“Most of my negative experiences were after the conversion,” said Aliza Hausman, a 34-year-old writer and former public school teacher in Los Angeles.

“I was really excited about [attending] my first bar mitzvah. But when I got there the rabbi’s shtick was that he would tell the most derogatory jokes about goyim he could think of,” Hausman recalled. “My first Pesach was listening to someone whose daughter was in a matchmaking situation, and out of nowhere she starts talking about shiksas,” a derogatory word for non-Jewish women.

One Yom Kippur, Hausman, who is of mixed-race parentage, said she was stopped at the door of her in-laws’ synagogue by people who assumed she couldn’t possibly be Jewish. She ran back to her in-laws’ home in tears.

Many Orthodox converts contend that the Orthodox community is less accepting of Jews by choice than the more liberal Jewish denominations, where converts are far more numerous.

In the first couple of days after the arrest last month of Rabbi Barry Freundel on charges that he installed a secret camera in the mikvah at his Orthodox shul in Washington, Kesher Israel, many of Freundel’s converts expressed concern that the legitimacy of their conversions would be challenged. The Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinical group, quickly announced that it would stand by Freundel’s conversions, and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate eventually offered similar indications.

Orthodox converts say it’s not unusual to be asked to produce their conversion papers – either by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, if they seek to marry in Israel, or by a Jewish institution, potential matchmaker or prospective in-law.

One woman who asked to be identified only as Sarah due to the personal nature of her experience said that when she became involved in a serious relationship with a man from a Chabad family, his father demanded to see her conversion papers and decided her conversion wasn’t kosher. Thus began a long odyssey to convince her future in-laws that hers was a bona fide conversion. (Sarah did not convert through the RCA system, whose certified conversions are broadly accepted, because she said RCA rabbis refused to meet her or respond to her inquiries.) Eventually her future father-in-law’s concerns were assuaged.

Back when she was studying for conversion, a rabbi offered Sarah an early indication that finding a mate would not be easy.

“The rabbi said to me, ‘We don’t have much to offer you in the way of husbands. The only thing we would have to offer is the bottom of the barrel,’ ” she recalled.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a Yeshiva University spiritual adviser who is among the 15 or so rabbinic volunteers who staff the RCA’s conversion courts in New York, says the courts are very cognizant of the challenges of integrating converts into the Orthodox community — and wary of converting those unlikely to succeed. That’s partly why the conversion courts require that every convert have a sponsoring rabbi, he said.

“There has to be a sponsoring rabbi so there’s someone who is gong to take responsibility to keep up with that person after the conversion takes place – making sure the community accepts that individual fully as Jewish, has a place to go to holidays, for example,” he said. “It’s hard enough for a single person to function in the Orthodox community, which is family oriented. The convert doesn’t have any of these support mechanisms.”

Unmarried converts often are fixed up with the community’s least desirables, converts say. Non-white converts say they are frequently fixed up only with members of the same race, even if they have nothing else in common.

Converts “receive the absolute worst shidduch [matchmaking] recommendations for potential marriage partners, if they receive them at all,” wrote Bethany Mandel, a convert in her “Bill of rights for Jewish converts” in the Times of Israel after the Freundel scandal broke. “A corporate lawyer does not deserve to be constantly matched with the likes of a janitor just because he happens to be another black convert (yes, this happened to a friend on a serial basis).”

Rabbi Zvi Romm, who administers the Orthodox conversions in New York certified by the Rabbinical Council of America, says the demographic profile of most converts doesn’t make things any easier: Most are women in their late 20s and early 30s.

“A convert who is in her late 20s or older may have a harder time meeting men, and some Orthodox men are reluctant to date a convert,” Romm said. “It’s tragic that converts who typically enter the community with tremendous idealism often find it difficult to find a marriage partner.”

Conversion also can be lonely. New to the community, converts often have no place to go for Shabbat or holidays.

Yossi Ginzberg, an Orthodox activist who along with his wife runs support programs for converts, including hosting them for Shabbat and holidays, says the community needs to more attuned to welcoming converts – a mitzvah the Torah makes clear in passages about “loving the ger,” or convert.

Ginzberg says some of the greatest resistance to converts comes from their own families. At a wedding last week for a convert who remarried her Jewish husband just hours after formally becoming a Jew, the bride’s mother unexpectedly refused to attend because she was upset that her daughter had rejected Jesus. The mother eventually was coaxed into the Brooklyn synagogue basement where the wedding took place by interlocutors who argued that her daughter’s conversion to Judaism amounted to an embrace of Jesus’ original religion.

Some converts say they face hostility within their own families when they explain that they can no longer eat in their parents’ kitchen or face the predicament of a sibling’s church wedding (Orthodox authorities commonly forbid entering churches or attending church services).

“The biggest transition for me was adjusting to always having to rely on close friends for certain things, like the holidays, especially since I come from an Italian family that’s really close knit,” said Stephanie McCourt, an Orthodox convert in her 20s originally from Connecticut. “Balance between religion and family will always be a struggle.”

Ariella Barker, a 34-year-old single attorney, says that after her conversion she would often leave her lower Manhattan home to spend Shabbat on the borough’s Upper West Side, home to America’s single-largest concentration of modern Orthodox singles. But the scene there felt like a club in which she clearly was not welcome.

“I felt like an outsider. I really couldn’t break through and make a lot of friends,” Barker said. “People would always ask me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ or ‘What’s your Hebrew name?’ I never felt like I fit in.”

Barker immigrated to Israel a year after her conversion and said she immediately found a warm embrace in her multinational Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. But four years later she became ill, forcing her to move back in with her mother near Charlotte, N.C. Now she says her greatest challenge as a Jew is her isolation. The closest Orthodox synagogue is a 45-minute drive away, and it’s Chabad, which Barker says is not an ideal fit for her modern Orthodox sensibility.

“It’s very difficult for me living with my family because my family is not Jewish,” Barker said. “I still keep kosher, I still keep Shabbat. It’s just not what it was when I was living in a community.”

Of course, not all Orthodox converts have difficult transitions.

Clark Valbur, who lives in Brooklyn, said he was worried about acceptance before he converted five years ago. But his fears turned out to be unfounded.

“I have only had really good people who were genuinely interested in helping me, who were there for me and continue to be,” said Valbur, who is married to a Yemenite Jewish woman, with whom he has a child. “Most people that know me don’t know I’m a convert.”


Rabbi in voyeurism case seen as distant and — until now — morally strict

Rabbi Barry Freundel was known to the Washington Jewish community as a champion of moral rectitude. But on Tuesday, the spiritual leader of Kesher Israel congregation for the past 25 years, was charged with the most intimate of transgressions: voyeurism.

Freundel, 62, was taken away Tuesday in handcuffs, after uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department searched his home in the Georgetown section of Washington. A local NBC affiliate reported that the rabbi had installed a clock radio with a hidden camera, called the “Dream Machine,” in the women’s showers of the congregation’s mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.

The arrest marks a startling turn in the career of a rabbi known as a national leader in establishing precepts for conversion and as a strict moralist, who just last month railed against the corrosive effect of pornography on marriages. His synagogue, Kesher Israel, is one of the most prominent in Washington; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier are members, and former Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is a former congregant.

The synagogue board in a statement said it had reported Freundel to authorities. “Upon receiving information regarding potentially inappropriate activity, the Board of Directors quickly alerted the appropriate officials,” the statement, posted on the congregation’s website, said. “Throughout the investigation, we cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so.”

Cathy Lanier, the city’s police chief, is set to meet Sunday night at another Orthodox shul, Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, to discuss privacy issues related to the case, Ohev Sholom stated in an alert to the community, citing “what images may exist, from what time period, whether those images may have been disclosed or distributed, and how will those images be treated with sensitivity by law enforcement and prosecutors.”

The Forward on Wednesday reported that the Rabbinical Council of America investigated Freundel over the summer on a separate allegation of sexual impropriety. The RCA never took action because the complainant was not able to provide evidence. An insider said the RCA never notified the synagogue’s board of directors of this charge.

Congregants told JTA they were shocked by the allegation. They described Freundel as somewhat aloof and said he delegated much of the personal outreach to his wife, Sharon.

“He came off as academic, intellectual, a space cadet, head in the clouds,” said one former male congregant, a young professional. “The word was out — if you wanted an emotional experience, someone who would hold your hand, go to Rabbi Shemtov,” this congregant said, referring to the senior Chabad rabbi in Washington, Levi Shemtov. “If you wanted rigorous study, go to Kesher.”

“He wasn’t a super warm and cuddly rabbi,” said another male congregant, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“He would answer whatever she’elahs you had,” this congregant said, using the Hebrew term for questions regarding Jewish law. “He was more than happy to share his thought process from a religious perspective. He was very much the doctor-rabbi.”

Freundel is a on the faculty of  Georgetown University’s law school and Towson University in Maryland.

Yet another former congregant, a woman, acknowledged Freundel’s reputation as distant, but said his compassion was manifest through his intellect.

Freundel, a leading rabbi for conversions, was known for his strict adherence to the precepts laid down by the RCA, but would also take care to guide closely converts through what could be a protracted and arduous process. “He has fought so hard for those who wished to make a halachic conversion to Judaism,” this congregant said, using the term for conversion according to Orthodox Jewish precepts. “He would not cut corners, but he was a voice of reason with the rabbinate.”

Freundel hewed a centrist line in some of the recent controversies affecting Orthodoxy: He was among the first to embrace the notion of women presidents for Orthodox congregations, drawing ire from some right-wingers. But he rejected attempts on the Orthodox left to create a class of women clergy, or “rabbahs.” He was known, congregants said, for dismissing rabbis he believed were his intellectual inferiors.

Just last month he told the Washington Jewish Week that the Orthodox community was afflicted by changes in sexual mores. “The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place,” he said, “and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems.”

He went on to say: “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages. It’s two keystrokes away. You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA executive vice president, noted Freundel’s role as the chairman of the RCA committee negotiating shared precepts for conversion with the Israeli rabbinate, which in recent years has accused American modern Orthodoxy of laxity in its approach. But Dratch said Freundel was just one figure in an ongoing process, and that it would not be affected by his departure. “Hopefully it doesn’t mean anything, because the process and the protocols are larger than any one individual,” he said.

Dratch extended the RCA’s sympathy to Freundel’s alleged victims.

“We have a lot of empathy for the alleged victims, for all women now who feel vulnerable who come to the mikvah, as well as for the family and for the rabbi himself,” Dratch said. “There’s too much we don’t know to pass judgment, but if true, we are outraged by the behavior of a rabbi in general and especially in an area of religious practice.”


Agunah crowd shouldn’t target families

The preeminent sacred cow to many Jews is compassion for agunot (“chained” women whose husbands withhold a Jewish bill of divorce, or “Get”). But enough already: the Internet crowd attacking Avrohom Meir Weiss in his divorce from Gital Dodelson is becoming as heartless and halachically problematic as Weiss himself.

Dodelson fired the first public salvo with a Nov. 4 article in The New York Post stating that Weiss has refused her a Get for more than three years. She provided unquestionably disturbing details, such as that Weiss demanded $350,000 to back down and said “I can’t give you a Get – how else would I control you?”

I sympathize with Dodelson – and here I completely accept her version of the truth. Every agunah situation is a tragedy, more so when children are involved (the couple has a son). Dodelson’s supporters have organized a Web site, setgitalfree.com, and an associated Facebook page.

But their methods reflect poorly on the entire urgent movement to help agunot. Instead of the traditional focus on the recalcitrant husband, this bandwagon mostly targets Weiss’s relatives.

First, Internet warriors boycotted Orthodox publisher ArtScroll until it fired Weiss’s father and uncle. A Facebook commenter claimed victory, saying ArtScroll “heard us loud and clear, and they did exactly what we asked.”

Next, agunah activists turned against Yeshiva of Staten Island (YSI), where Weiss learns and which is run by his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. They demanded that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) remove YSI’s accreditation and reject rabbis ordained by the yeshiva’s sister school. They also convinced at least one synagogue to cancel an appearance by Rabbi Feinstein.

“Set Gital Free” even bullied Weiss’s elderly grandmother by publishing her telephone number and urging people to “politely and respectfully” inundate her with calls until a Get is granted.

The pro-Dodelson site calls these family members “enablers” who “support” Weiss’s actions. But the relatives are pretty much chained themselves – caught in the no-win position of wishing to succor a humiliated loved one while wanting an ugly divorce resolved. Besides, who knows what they’ve said to Weiss privately?

Those who punish relatives of Get refusers remind me of opponents of Israel’s policies on the West Bank who randomly say “I know – let’s boycott Israeli universities and scholars!” Only this improvisation is worse.

No act, however spiteful, justifies a posse deciding to assault the livelihoods and reputations of relatives and colleagues. It doesn’t seem very Jewish to me: Did a horde attack Jacob because of Esau’s misdeeds, or Jonathan because of Saul’s?

So I contacted RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, the rabbi “Set Gital Free” recommended to explain the Torah basis for their strategy. To my surprise, he said absolutely nothing in halachic literature endorses communal pressure on family members of Get refusers, and he never prescribed that approach. Thus, the activists are disregarding the counsel of the man they claim is their rabbi. Orthodox Jews just don’t do that.

I later consulted Rabbi Jeremy Stern from the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), who also could think of no text in a Jewish source describing anything like the “Free Gital” tactics – and he would know. ORA’s extensive Web site promotes many ways to pressure husbands but none to pressure relatives.

Rabbi Stern referenced the impressive “Kol Koreh” (proclamation) signed by ten leading American rabbis, including five from the renowned Council of Torah Sages and ORA’s halachic expert, Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

The Kol Koreh imposes more than a dozen harsh penalties on Weiss, but only one regarding his family: that ArtScroll must terminate the father and uncle. That directive clearly relates to the laws of a Jewish court (beit din), not those of agunot, since any man who flouts a beit din’s rulings risks retribution. But the rabbis didn’t call for a boycott. (The Facebook site’s supposed triumph over ArtScroll is absurd – as if it had more sway than our generation’s most respected rabbis.) The proclamation also says nothing about canceled speeches, disaccreditations, rejected ordinations, or harassment of old ladies.

Rabbi Schachter and several other Kol Koreh rabbis have been “consulted” throughout the process, Rabbi Stern said. But he would not answer specific questions whether Rabbi Schachter (who declined comment) approved the extreme actions against the relatives. Surely the Gedolei Hador (today’s leading rabbis) would have demanded further steps against the family in the Kol Koreh if they felt them licit and necessary.

It’s alarming that poor Gital’s agunah case would arouse the most disproportionate response in Jewish history undoubtedly due to a 2,500-word essay in a non-Jewish newspaper. Now, before you get out the pitchforks: I don’t defend Weiss one bit. I just think we should heed the measured voice of the Kol Koreh instead of the “Set Gital Free” overreaction.

David Benkof lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

A more modern view of homosexuality

The American Modern Orthodox community has just entered uncharted territory. Last week, our largest rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) formally withdrew its support of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). JONAH has long been the Orthodox community’s address for reparative therapy, a process that is intended to cure people of their homosexual attractions and to replace these with heterosexual ones. The recently announced lawsuits against JONAH brought by four of its former clients, accusing JONAH of both fraud and abusive practices, was apparently the last straw for the RCA. 

Strictly speaking, the RCA’s statement rejects only JONAH. It, in fact, goes on to say, “We believe that properly trained mental health professionals who abide by the values and ethics of their professions can and do make a difference in the lives of their patients and clients [and that these professionals] should be able to work on whatever issues [their] clients voluntarily bring to their session.” This is, of course, indisputably correct. But the statement’s acknowledgement of  “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation” represents a paradigm shift. It is a rejection of the very premise that JONAH and all reparative therapy is built on, namely that sexual orientation is subject to change, and that any client who works hard enough at it can become heterosexual. This may not strike many readers as being a revelation at all. But through this RCA statement, the Modern Orthodox community has formally crossed into a brave, new world. 

[Related: Israel gets same-sex divorce before same-sex marriage]

Any discussion about what the practical implications of this might be needs to be grounded in an understanding — even an appreciation — of the context out of which it emerged. Any of us who grew up in Orthodox institutions in the 1980s or earlier knows firsthand that homosexuality, and, in particular, male homosexuality, was spoken of with disgust and revulsion, and that homosexual slurs were de rigueur. (In our own defense of course, the larger social landscape wasn’t much different.) And even as the campaigns for gay rights and recognition played out over the ensuing decades, Orthodoxy remained largely unmoved and unchanged. There was only one serious grappling with the issue during this period, and that was the essay written by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1974 which, while utilizing language that is offensive in today’s context, took the unprecedented step of distinguishing between the “sin” and the “sinner,” asserting that while “the act itself remains an abomination, the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy.”  

Though Rabbi Lamm’s words undoubtedly, and with good cause, arouse anger, pain and resentment in many contemporary readers, understanding why he used them is crucial to understanding the true significance and implications of last week’s developments. The “illness” paradigm for explaining homosexuality (which was, indeed, the American Psychological Association’s paradigm as well until 1973, just one year prior) was Rabbi Lamm’s — and Orthodoxy’s — legal and theological lynchpin. Legal in that it provided access to the legal category of “transgression as a result of compulsion,” a category that elicits a more generous judgment. Theological in that it provided a response to the conundrum that God, who is all-knowing, just and kind, could not possibly prohibit that which cannot humanly be resisted. As long as homosexuality was an illness, a person’s failure to resist its temptations need not be ascribed to a Divine failure, but to an unfortunate human one. Needless to say, the “illness” paradigm also led inexorably to the obligation to seek therapeutic intervention. And while the most modern end of the Orthodox spectrum began to eschew reparative therapy some years ago — see, for example, the July 2010 “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews With a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community” (http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/) — the balance continued to insist upon it. (See, for example, the 2011 “Declaration on the Torah Approach to Homosexuality” — www.torahdec.org.)

The statement of the RCA however, quietly, boldly and courageously breaks new ground. In recognizing that there is no evidence that reparative therapy is effective, and that there is, consequently, no obligation to pursue it, our community is acknowledging that homosexuality may very well be simply part of the human condition. Accordingly, we have decided that homosexuals should not any longer have to pay the psychological, emotional and even physical price for our theological comfort. We have effectively designated our theological question as a teyku, one whose answer still needs to be determined. But one that will, meanwhile, not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes. 

It is not realistic to expect that Orthodoxy will some day recognize homosexual relationships as being equal to heterosexual ones, or to authorize gay marriage, or even to drop the idea that gay sex is a transgression of biblical law. Orthodoxy’s foundational beliefs concerning the Divinity of Torah and the authority of halachah (received Jewish law) preclude such developments. In other words, if the Torah declares a particular action prohibited, it’s not within our authority to say otherwise. But we can regard homosexual acts as we do other forms of nonobservance, as we do, for example, the nonobservance of kashrut, both in the sense that it doesn’t carry the charge of immorality and also in the sense that it doesn’t harm our ability to have a normal familial relationship with someone. The shift from Rabbi Lamm’s “sympathy” to the RCA’s recognition of the reality of sexual orientation can and should bring us to a place in which we can accept our friends and children and siblings for who they are, grant them the dignity and respect that any person deserves, and love them as our own. 

Within our community, it’s a brave, new and better world.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Rabbi Basil Herring is out as RCA head

Rabbi Basil Herring is leaving his position as head of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Herring has served as executive vice president of the RCA, the umbrella organization for nearly 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 14 countries, since 2003.

RCA President Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., told JTA that Herring was “transitioning out of his position,” but will continue with the RCA in some other capacity yet to be worked out.

A search committee will be convened to find his replacement, Goldin said.

Goldin described the move as Herring’s decision.

The Failed Messiah blog reported, however, that Herring was forced out by the RCA’s new elected leadership. The more moderate new leaders, according to Failed Messiah, were unhappy with the organization’s rightward shift during his tenure, particularly on the issues of conversion and organ donation.