Reconstructionists consider dropping ban on intermarried rabbis


The Reconstructionist movement is on the cusp of making a historic decision about whether to drop its longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students.

If the policy change passes, as most expect, Reconstructionism would become the first of America’s four major Jewish religious denominations to ordain intermarried rabbis.

Supporters of the change argue that the ban hews to an outdated way of defining Jewish identity and community, and that eliminating the ban would reaffirm Reconstructionism’s commitment to progressivism and inclusivity. In 1985, the movement was the first among the major Jewish denominations to ordain openly gay rabbis. And it embraced its first woman rabbi in 1974,  just two years after the Reform movement. Last year it became the first to install a gay rabbi, Deborah Waxman, at the helm of its flagship seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

“The Jewish world should steer away from looking at those who marry non-Jews as second-class citizens,” Rabbi Doug Heifitz of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Maryland, told JTA. “Reconstructionism is based on the idea of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We can’t expect our demographic profile to be exactly like what it was 50 to 100 years ago. I think it’s appropriate for us to at least discuss rabbinic policies that reflect the changing nature of the Jewish people.”

For opponents of the change, dropping the ban — which bars admission to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or ordination to those with non-Jewish partners — would undermine the movement’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood and the legitimacy of Reconstructionist rabbis within the wider Jewish world.

“We think it’s a misguided, wrong decision to take,” Rabbi Ron Aigen said of his congregation, Dorshei Emet in Montreal. “We don’t think it promotes peoplehood. It undermines the credibility of rabbis who are trying to promote in-marriage. If rabbis can model intermarriage, then it doesn’t help make the case for trying to create Jewish families that are totally committed to Judaism. And we don’t think it’s going to bring in better students.”

This issue is different from ordaining gay or female rabbis, Aigen said, because marrying a non-Jewish partner is a matter of choice.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, New York, who wrote a widely circulated letter within the movement warning that the change would take Reconstructionism in a “new and unrecognizable direction,” assigning equal value to in-married unions and intermarried ones, and dramatically altering the idea of Jewish peoplehood in ways that would be bad for the Jewish people.

“I believe in continuing to privilege in-marriage, for all the emotional, historic, and even statistical reasons I have always believed in it,” Bronstein wrote, referring to data that show children of intermarriage are far less likely to be Jewishly engaged than children of in-married parents. Bronstein wrote that if the policy changed, his congregation would consider quitting the movement.

“It feels like a deal breaker for me,” Bronstein told JTA.

Though movement leaders are loath to talk about it, the Reconstructionist movement is also considering the policy change for a practical reason: Classes at the rabbinical school, which is in the Philadelphia area, have become so small that the viability of the entire seminary is at risk. Last year it ordained just six new rabbis.

In 2014, America's two main Conservative rabbinical seminaries ordained 31, and the Reform schools 35.

“The question becomes, can the college survive — period,” said one recently ordained Reconstructionist rabbi who asked that her name not be used. “You have a small teaching faculty and a lot of layers of administration. If you’re going to have classes of two students, it’s very hard to justify this whole structure.”

Waxman, the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, declined to be interviewed for this story. But an article she wrote in April 2014 on “The Reconstructionist Movement and Peoplehood” hints at where she stands on the issue.

“Peoplehood is widely seen — by individuals and organizations alike — as an end in and of itself rather than a means to an end. This is counter to classical and contemporary Reconstructionist aspirations,” she wrote. “The Jewish people in America are moving from being primarily a community of ‘descent’ (that is, defined by biology) to a community of ‘consent.’ In the face of many choices and porous boundaries, the challenge to ‘communities of descent’ is to find ways to renew ourselves so that our children might choose to devote their energies to us even after experiencing opportunities for affiliating with other groups and other types of people.”

Launched by the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist movement envisions Judaism as a constantly evolving religious civilization stemming from Jewish history and culture. It really came into its own in the 1960s, when several Reconstructionist congregations formally took root and the college was created. The movement now has more than 100 congregations across North America, with some dually affiliated with other liberal denominations — making Reconstructionism a distant fourth to America's three main Jewish denominations.

In a bid to cut costs, the seminary and the movement’s congregational arm, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, merged in 2012.

Intermarried families are very common in Reconstructionist congregations, as they are in the other liberal American Jewish streams. At the behest of the college, the movement’s congregations have been debating this issue for the past few months and reporting their sentiments back to the movement’s leaders. In some congregations, a significant number of intermarried members support the existing ban on ordaining intermarried rabbis. Overall, however, most congregations appear to back changing the policy, according to synagogue leaders who have spoken with college officials about the issue.

The movement already has some intermarried rabbis — men and women whose unions were consecrated after ordination. Rabbi Michal Woll, who leads the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation in Michigan, is married to a practicing Catholic who goes to Mass every Friday. Woll says the college’s rule is too arbitrary to account for contemporary Jewish life.

“That rule is too blunt an instrument for the world we live in now. It doesn’t have the ability to suss out all the complications of our lives,” said Woll, who was ordained at the college in 2007, when she was single and dating – mostly Jews.

“There are lots of men out there who are Jewish who have no interest in Judaism, no interest in Jewish practice, and could not tolerate the fact that I’m a rabbi. If you are going to evaluate any of our partners, you should evaluate all of our partners,” she said. “Just being Jewish by label doesn’t get you very far. Is it important to me that somebody can be identified as Jewish? No. What’s important to me is that somebody has an active Jewish life.”

Supporters of the ban say the argument in favor of embracing intermarried clergy is belied by the landmark Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews, which found that the children of intermarriages are far less likely to identify as Jewish than the children of in-married parents.

It's not clear when the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will make a final decision on the policy change.

“Regardless of the outcome, congregations will retain full autonomy to hire rabbis of their choosing,” Josh Peskin, the college's vice president for strategic advancement, told JTA.

Whatever ultimately is decided, Bet Am Shalom's Bronstein says it could splinter his congregation, one of the movement’s oldest. If the college elects to drop the ban, some members are going to insist the synagogue disaffiliate; others will insist it stay in the movement. Either way, some probably will quit in protest, he said.

Even if the ban stays in place, Bronstein faces an uphill battle winning back the confidence of intermarried congregants who feel alienated by the intensity of the debate.

“This debate has begun a process of destabilizing the stasis we’ve created here for decades so intermarrieds could feel welcome and involved,” Bronstein said. “No matter what the college decides, the worms are out of the can here.”

A response to Gerald Steinberg on the Prawer-Begin plan


In his recent column for the Jewish Journal, Gerald Steinberg of NGO monitor once again seeks to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition. He dismisses as anti-Semitic or misguided those of us—including 800 rabbis as well as the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements—who opposed an Israeli government plan that would have expelled some 30-40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev.

This characterization is insulting, dangerous, and wrong.

Steinberg attacks those of us concerned about the fate of the Bedouin as “present[ing] a highly complex issue in simplistic terms, rely[ing] on unreliable sources, distort[ing] data, and ignor[ing] historic facts.”

In fact, it is Steinberg who is guilty of these sins. He insinuates that the Bedouin lay claim to “half the country’s territory,” when, in fact, Bedouin land claims cover only five percent of the Negev. And he misleadingly criticizes Bedouin communities for “illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations” without bothering to mention that the Siyag, the area to which the Israeli government moved the Bedouin in the 1950s, was never zoned residential, nor were the villages added to official maps. Thus, the Bedouin find themselves caught in a tragic Catch-22, forced to live in a defined area, but told that any homes or stores they build there are illegal.

[Related: Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin]

The good news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew the Prawer-Begin plan this week, in response to widespread objections from rabbis and other Jewish community members in

North America and elsewhere, including the 800 rabbis and cantors who signed a letter organized by T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights and the T’ruah rabbis who met with staff at the Israeli Embassy and with General Doron Almog, who is charged with executing the plan.

Steinberg and his organization have a history of stifling discussion within Israel and the

Jewish community by maligning Jewish human rights organizations without engaging the specifics of the debate. This tactic is again evident in his sloppy attempt to classify those who opposed the Prawer-Begin plan out of love and concern for the state of Israel as intent on wiping out the state altogether.

Does he really believe that 800 rabbis and three of the major denominations oppose “Jewish self-determination and sovereignty”? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.

The state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the dream of a state in which the Jewish people can be safe, and that exemplifies the best of our Jewish values.  These values include viewing every human being as a creation in the divine image; opposing injustice; and engaging in open and inquisitive debate. Steinberg instead proposes an Israel that ignores the voices of those most vulnerable, and that shuts down healthy debate.

That doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members


More than 500 rabbis and cantors urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on homosexual members when the youth group’s National Council convenes in Dallas this week.

Representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements signed the letter, which was coordinated by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and sent to the BSA leadership on Tuesday night.

“Many of us are former scouts, the parents of scouts or children who aspire to scouting, and admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the religious leaders wrote. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay scouts and leaders.”

A spokesperson for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said it did not know if any of the signatories were Orthodox.

Some 1,400 leaders from the National Council are scheduled to have their final vote Thursday on changing the long-standing ban on openly gay boys in the scouting movement.

The National Jewish Committee on Scouting has been vocal in calling on the BSA to drop the ban.

In their letter, the rabbis and cantors expressed their dismay that the current proposal would lift only the ban on gay youth and called on the BSA to end the exclusion of homosexual adults as well.

Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe


An Advocate for Divine Honesty

David Hartman was sui generis; he was a unique individual who was very excited about ideas and at the same time pragmatic. Who believed that believing is best expressed in behavior. To believe is to behave.

This is very clear in his latest book, “The God Who Hates Lies.” It was his opportunity to express the great hope that he had for a renaissance of Jewish life in the State of Israel, and his frustrations at the people who were returning to an ideological, self-centered kind of life that was very disillusioning to him.

His great teacher was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he told me as he was working on this book, “I have to break with Soloveitchik.” In his treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Soloveitchik said this was the glory of a divine absurdity; the act of being about to do something that is against logic itself. 

Hartman chastised Soloveitchik for this. He said that this is not what we need; we need divine truthfulness and honesty.

He literally gathered hundreds of rabbis, gathered them together and enabled them to speak together without any of their insularity — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist were able to speak, to present, without hostility and without denigration.

He had a remarkable, charismatic approach to the teaching of Judaism. When he was on, it was sheer idealism and enthusiasm. From my point of view, it’s a monumental loss in the Jewish community. He was able to see within Orthodoxy a liberation. 

— Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Valley Beth Shalom, as told to Susan Freudenheim


‘The crown has fallen from our head’ — Lamentations 5:16

There was a man and he is no more.

A thinker, a teacher and a lover of humanity. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Hartman.

He was larger than life: a dynamic force; a public figure with an international following. But when you became his student, he attached himself to you; he became your rebbe. I was privileged to be one of his students for almost 35 years. He was my rebbe. He was my mentor. He shaped my thinking, and he touched my soul.

My mother passed away just over a month ago. Losing David Hartman feels like I’ve lost my intellectual and spiritual father. 

What made David Hartman so special was that he was a yeshiva bocher who gained enlightenment but never stopped being a yeshiva bocher. And so he was at the same time both critical and loyal. He encouraged us to boldly challenge the tradition but never stop loving it. He gave us the greatest gift that a teacher can bequeath: the freedom to inquire, to ask, to probe and to speculate. He accompanied us on the journey — he wrestled with us — all the while reminding us that our personal growth was bound up in a collective responsibility. He so loved the Jewish people. And he loved humanity.

When I first met R’ Duvid, as I fondly called him, he asserted that the most serious religious question that the Jewish people had to confront was how to rule over a minority as Jews. It was the critical question back in 1978, and it continues to be the most vexing moral issue that we face. 

That’s why I became David Hartman’s student, and that’s why he will always be my rebbe. 

— Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel


The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

Torah commands: “You shall follow after the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) So the Talmud asks: “God is a consuming fire! How is it possible to follow after God?” It answers: Follow the ways of God. My teacher David Hartman offered a different answer: Become the fire! Reflect God’s passion, God’s rage, God’s vision into the world. He was a blazing fire, and learning with Hartman was always an adventure. He thundered. He raged. He wept. Torah meant that much to him.

Hartman’s passion rose from his belief in the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people. There was Sinai, the revelation of the Written Torah, expressed in the language of Mitzvah. There was Yavneh, the revelation of the Oral Torah, expressed in the language of Midrash. And now there is Israel, the revelation of a Living Torah, expressed in the textures and rhythms of Jewish life reborn in its land. Our return to sovereignty in Israel redefines the collective Jewish project. It reshapes our relationship to God. Israel redefines what it means to be a Jew. The holiness of this moment was his Torah. And his fire was our blessing, bringing new life to the soul of the Jewish people. 

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein


A Mensch

Rabbi David Hartman told it like it is. He didn’t mince words. He argued with Maimonides, as if he were living and shouting back.

When he spoke of his love for Israel and the challenges it faces, his words were strong and backed up through action — by educating the Israeli community and military. He didn’t hesitate to share his ambivalences with Orthodox Jewry as we know it; he welcomed women into the Bet Midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute over 25 years ago. I’m so grateful to have studied with him every other year for those 25.  

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple


Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi David Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. Excerpted from “Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z’l.” The full text can be read on the Morethodoxy blog.


A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before making a monumental contribution to Jewish life and Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute,  an innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both rabbinic and lay. In all its programs, and especially within teacher-training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition, and its many texts [speak] to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone, David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career, he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the pre-eminent 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history: Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until … until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80, and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice, accepting some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of non-Jews and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious worldview. Unlike the Charedi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith. And unlike Conservative Judaism, he did not make history paramount and push the halachic worldview to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements, yet deeply regret his untimely passing, for there was much that he left unsaid, once he was free to speak out.

Read the full text of this reflection.

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering  Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics, American Jewish University


Remembering David Hartman

As I enter the courtyard of the Hartman Institute, I am always moved first by the warmth and beauty of its welcoming presence and then by the excitement and challenge of its covenantal drama.   

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman was a master of haknassat orchim — welcoming and gathering countless Jewish — and non-Jewish — guests into his pluralistic beit midrash.

He was also a master of intellectual haknassat orchim.  With passion and drama and humor, he knew how to bring learners to the table so that they would “feel intellectually empowered to participate in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition.”  

On the one hand, he championed the modern virtues of creativity, interpretive freedom and self-assertion, proclaiming: “A discussion concerning Jewish tradition is open-ended.”

On the other hand, in his beit midrash, you felt claimed by the voices and concerns of significant others, who engaged your own limited perspectives and challenged you to deepen your dignity and expand your covenantal responsibility.  

— Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Community High School

Jack Lew meets with Reform, Reconstructionist leaders


President Obama’s chief of staff, Jack Lew, met with leaders of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Lew’s meeting last week follows on similar meetings he has had in recent months with leaders of the Conservative and Orthodox movements.

“Particular emphasis was placed on efforts to enhance Israel’s security, and expand sanctions and other forms of economic and political pressure on Iran to curtail its development of nuclear weapons,” said a statement issued by the Reform movement leaders in attendance. “Much of the discussion addressed the Movement’s concerns about protecting the civil rights of women and minorities and economic plight of the poor and vulnerable.”

Also discussed were health care, food assistance for the poor, immigration law and gay rights.

Among the 17 leaders attending were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Steve Fox, the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Lynn Lazar, the president of Women of Reform Judaism; Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform’s Religious Action Center; and Carol Feder, a member of the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. 

The meetings with Conservative and Orthodox leaders featured “drop-ins” by Obama. Such a drop-in was not seen as necessary in this case, insiders said, because the president had addressed the URJ biennial last December.

Reconstructionist bodies set to merge


The two organizational arms of the Reconstructionist movement are set to merge.

Following a year-and-a-half of negotiations, the boards of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation have voted to form one body that will be responsible for Reconstructionist Judaism in North America.

Reconstructionist leaders say the merger will permit better use of limited resources and allow the movement to focus more effectively on its main concerns: education, movement services and social justice.

The federation represents the movement’s 105 congregations; the college is the Reconstructionist movement’s sole rabbinical seminary.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which represents more than 300 member rabbis, endorsed the move and its rabbis will have a formal role in the newly merged entity.

The proposal will be voted on during an April 10 meeting in Philadelphia. If approved, the new organization will have one board, staff and chief executive.

Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Rabbis on anti-gay marriage Prop 8: Yes, no, maybe


“Prop. 8 is presently the most crucial battle of the culture war here.” — Penny Harrington, legislative director, Concerned Women for America in California

The arguments and epithets surrounding state Prop. 8 are rising in volume and intensity as the Nov. 4 election draws near, so it may be useful to quote its exact wording.

ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT

  • Changes the California constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
  • Provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Jewish advocates on both sides have joined the controversy with customary vigor. Emulating the brevity of the initiative itself, the lineup for the rabbinical and congregational leaders of the main denominations, and most of their adherents, comes down to:

Orthodox: support Prop. 8, marriage only between a man and a woman.

Reform, Reconstructionist: oppose Prop. 8, marriage for all.

Conservative: No official stand.

This equation may be somewhat simplistic, but in general on the left and right of the denominational spectrum the lines are sharply drawn, with little room for mavericks or closet dissenters.

Repeated inquiries by The Journal failed to yield any Orthodox rabbi willing to declare his opposition to Prop. 8 or any Reform rabbi supporting the ballot measure.

However, there was some “crossover,” according to Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who polled the 290 members of his organization on their views.

Of the 120 responding, 112 (or 93 percent) voted against the proposition, six voted for, and two abstained. However, these results are not entirely conclusive, partly because only 41 percent of the membership responded, and because only six congregational Orthodox rabbis have chosen to affiliate with the organization.

However, leading spokesmen for all denominations, and supportive lay groups, discussed their views with The Journal.

Orthodox

Rabbi JJ Rabinowich, California director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel, noted that “marriage between a man and a woman has been fundamental to the Jewish people for thousands of years. We also agree with the many studies showing that children flourish best when raised by a mother and father.”

A more detailed argument for supporting Prop. 8 was put forward by Daniel Korobkin, one of the city’s most visible Orthodox rabbis and one of three signatories of the official statement by the centrist Orthodox Union as its West Coast director for community and synagogue services.

The statement endorses Prop. 8 and notes that “One of G-d’s first acts is to join Adam and Eve in marriage and to command them to build a family.”

It adds, “We know the threat to people of faith and houses of worship is real and under way…. Religious institutions and people face charges of bigotry and could be denied government funding and more if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land.”

Speaking in his capacity as “a community rabbi in Hancock Park,” Korobkin cited both biblical and contemporary reasons for his views.

While the Torah’s strictures against homosexual relations are well known, he said, talmudic literature goes beyond this injunction by warning that a society that endorses such a relationship endangers itself, which is a greater sin than the act itself.

“If we permit same-sex marriage today, why not incestual marriage tomorrow, or bestial marriage after that?” he asked.

Korobkin also expressed fears that defeat of Prop. 8 would endanger the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse adoptions to gay couples or compel schools to teach that all forms of marriage are equally viable.

He estimated that about 90 percent of Orthodox congregants agreed with his views, but that some might vote against Prop. 8 anyhow because they feared a breach in state-church separation or were uneasy about the overwhelming role of evangelical Christians in the pro-Prop. 8 campaign.

However, Korobkin emphasized, “We have tremendous empathy for gay people and what we stand for is not hate speech, nor are we prompted by malice. Some of our people are gay, though not overtly. When they come to us for guidance, we are extremely sympathetic.”

Conservative

Neither the rabbinical nor the congregational arms of the Conservative movement are taking a stand on Prop. 8, according to Rabbi Richard Flom, president of the regional Rabbinical Assembly, and Joel Baker, regional executive director of the United Synagogue.

One reason may be the general reluctance of Conservative congregations to take political stands, given the wide ideological spread among its members, Baker suggested.

Many of his congregants, said Flom of Burbank Temple Emanu El, are trying to strike a balance between support for the civil rights of gays and “personal halachic [Jewish law] concerns.”

Flom himself recently gave a sermon opposing Prop. 8, partly based on his reservations about whether the state has any right to become involved in this issue.

“If I were a betting man, I would wager that the bulk of our members would oppose Prop. 8,” Flom said.

Indeed some of the most respected names in the Conservative rabbinate have publicly come out for the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

Rabbis Harold Schulweis and Edward Feinstein, both of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, can be seen and heard on YouTube strongly advocating the defeat of Prop. 8 (www.cafaithforequality.org/Support1.html).

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, is one of the most eloquent voices opposing Prop. 8.

Positioning same-sex marriage as a civil rights and equality issue, Dorff said, “We Jews have benefited greatly from the Enlightenment; it would be ironic, it would be mean, if we now came out against a minority within a minority.

“Marriage means that two people take responsibility for each other and their biological or adopted children, and society has a vested interest in that,” Dorff added.

Despite the official neutrality of the main Conservative organizations, Dorff believes that “an overwhelming majority” of Conservative rabbis and congregants will oppose Prop. 8.

Reform

Reform rabbis and congregants constitute the most vigorous segment of the Jewish community in fighting Prop. 8, supported by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, a regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited her organization’s resolution, which describes marriage as “a basic human right and an individual personal choice.”

The statement adds, “the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who choose to marry and share freely and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage.”

Taking an active part in the campaign is Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, whose members are reaching out to voters through phone banks and collaboration with interfaith groups.

Eger was the first member of the clergy to officiate at a same-gender marriage in California on June 16 of this year, immediately after the State Supreme Court legalized such marriages by overturning a voter-approved 2000 initiative and statute to ban them.

Also heavily involved are such groups as the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College and Jews for Marriage Equality.

Psychologist Joel Kushner, director of the institute, observed that opposition to Prop. 8 is in line with the “Jewish heritage of justice,” while clearly not forcing any objecting rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages.

Jews for Marriage Equality was founded by Steve Krantz, who retired after a notable career as a computer engineer to become a defender of the rights of one of his two sons, who is gay.

Krantz said he has compiled a list of 220 names, which include the majority of California rabbis, who went on record in opposing Prop. 8.

His goal now is to reach unaffiliated “gustatory” Jews through large ads in the primary Jewish weeklies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, working in partnership with the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

If Prop. 8 wins, he said, his organization will continue its work, but if the ballot measure loses, “we’ll have a big party.”



Striking an individual stance, separate from his collegial pro and con advocates, is Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He was one of the two abstainers when the Board of Rabbis voted overwhelmingly to oppose Prop. 8.

“I felt that it violated the board’s ethical code to take a stance on a political matter,” he said.

Personally, he asserted, he would never officiate at a same-sex or interfaith marriage.

“I think my congregation would have a feeling of discomfort if its rabbi participated in such a ceremony,” Bouskila said. “In Sephardic tradition, we believe that religion is religion and politics is politics.”

As the saying has it, as goes California, so goes the nation, and the outcome of the Prop. 8 battle is being monitored across the country.

It is expected that the two sides of the issue will together spend a total of $40 million on their campaigns, the most for a social issue proposition, with contributions flowing in from some 10,000 people in 50 states.

The “No on Prop. 8” campaign has announced $100,000 contributions each from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Richard Haas of the Levi Strauss dynasty and actor Brad Pitt.

Same-sex marriage is likely to remain a hot-button issue in the presidential race, with Prop. 8 backers looking to Sen. John McCain for ideological support, and opponents to Sen. Barack Obama.

On Thursday, Oct. 16, The Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee will present a nonpartisan forum on critical ballot issues. It’s at 7 p.m. in The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, Sanders Board Room, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For security reasons, R.S.V.P. by Oct. 13 to (323) 761-8145 or e-mail LAJCRC@JewishLA.org

Liturgy reminds us what we can do to avert evil


Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just six days before Rosh Hashanah. It was the tail end of what had been a difficult 12 months on the Jewish calendar: violence in Israel, a presidential election arbitrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Enron scandal.

Then, on a particularly gorgeous morning, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. Rabbis who had worked hard on their High Holy Days sermons all August rushed to rewrite them.

The liturgy seemed stunningly relevant. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? We acknowledge our vulnerability in light of death, the harsh decree. But, the liturgy tells us, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) will avert — not nullify, but avert — the evilness of the decree.

In other words, we cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

So here we are seven years later, about to enter the Jewish year 5769. The deaths of Sept. 11 have been compounded by more deaths in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. In many ways our world is more violent and certainly more fearful than it had been. Evidence of evilness abounds.

But this is also the time to take stock of the ways in which our liturgy speaks to a universal human theme. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, in the face of tragedy have chosen to move forward in these seven years — to engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

Teshuvah: For some Americans, the first step of repentance was to say, “I don’t know enough; let me repair my ignorance.” Since early 1992, groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women have been joining together in living rooms to discuss books about their respective faiths. The Daughters of Abraham book groups began in Cambridge, Mass., when one Christian woman realized she didn’t personally know any Muslims. Now there are 14 such groups in the Boston area alone. We just began one in Philadelphia and already there is a waiting list.

Tefillah: In 2001, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Albuquerque decided she wanted to pray for peace alongside Muslims. So she called the local mosque, where she knew no one, and found herself on the phone with a scientist and peace activist named Abdul Rauf Marqetti. They came up with the idea of a peace walk — a meditative, prayer-in-motion march for Jews and Muslims together.

In 2003, a group of Philadelphians decided to emulate them, and with no institutional backing, an ad hoc collection of Jews, Christians and Muslims began meeting monthly at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Kensington section of the city. The first walk began at the mosque, stopped for prayer at two churches and culminated at a synagogue. It drew 400 people. Plans are under way for the sixth annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace this coming spring.

Philadelphians are not the only ones praying with others. In 2000, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted a survey to find out how many congregations, if any, had participated in an interfaith service in the past year. The answer was 7 percent. By 2005, the number had grown more than threefold to 23 percent.

Tzedakah: The Hartford study had even more striking news. When it asked about community services, the institute learned that 8 percent of congregations had joined with those of other faiths to improve conditions in their communities. Five years later it found 37 percent — a nearly fivefold increase.

Which brings us to Eboo Patel, a young Muslim born in India and raised in the American Midwest. In 2001, he was in England completing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. When he returned to the United States, he had a big idea. The way Patel saw it, young people want to change the world, and extremists are expert at giving them a cause to believe in, an exciting and dramatic movement to be part of. But what about moderate, pluralistic, liberal men and women, he wondered, those who saw religion as a way to work across faiths to make the world a better place? Could they offer young people a compelling counterpart to what the extremists offered?

Patel thought so. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to bring together young men and women of different faiths to serve their communities. Since 2001, his staff has grown to 20; Jewish teenagers and college students throughout the country are joining with Muslim and Christian peers to create a national interfaith youth movement.

Something is happening out there, something good. It does not eradicate the very troubling developments precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, but in small ways it is helping our society achieve what Jews worldwide seek to achieve at this time of year — to avert the severity of the decree.

That’s worth remembering as we mark another anniversary of that beautiful and horrible September morning — and another Rosh Hashanah. This year our anxiety — who will live and who will die? — must be matched by our belief in our ability to make a difference.

We cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer directs the religious studies program at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

åArticle courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Tikkun for which olam?


If you want to be popular in the Jewish world today, just say tikkun olam.Everywhere you go it seems that Jews of all stripes are jumping on this universal bandwagon.

It’s not just the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, progressive and humanistic groups. Many Orthodox are also getting involved.

What’s going on? What is it about this notion of “repairing the world” that makes Jews go gaga? And who decided that we the Jews — with less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population — should become the Great Fixers of Humanity?

Recently, in one day, I got to experience three different views of tikkun olam. The last view was so politically incorrect, it was almost embarrassing.

Let’s start with the first one. It’s lunchtime at the Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, and I’m enjoying myself with two prominent progressive Jews of the community. It’s the kind of lunch where you get a big “l’chaim” just by blurting out words like social justice and universal health care. If you want a really big hug, just say “Palestinian rights.”

This is classic tikkun olam: There are problems and injustices in the world, and it is our duty to try to fix them. Economic injustice; reforming the criminal justice system; promoting interfaith dialogue; fighting hunger and homelessness; fighting global warming; helping the dying children of Darfur; and so on.

This approach has talmudic roots in the mishnaic term “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” which can be translated as “in the interest of public policy.” As you can read on the Web site MyJewishLearning.com, the term refers to “social policy legislation providing extra protection to those potentially at a disadvantage — governing, for example, just conditions for the writing of divorce decrees and for the freeing of slaves.”

In modern-day America, classic tikkun olam has evolved into full-blown social activism that for many Jews is the primary expression of their Judaism.

I got my second view of tikkun olam several hours later when I attended “An Encounter With Jewish Spirituality” at the home of Rabbi Abner Weiss in Westwood. Rabbi Weiss is one of those renaissance Jews: an Orthodox scholar, author, trained psychologist, expert in kabbalah and leader of a congregation (Westwood Village Synagogue). He has just launched this new “Encounter” program to provide a “kosher” Jewish yoga and meditation experience for those who haven’t found spirituality in traditional Judaism.

In his introduction, the rabbi went back to the time of Abraham to talk about a world “not lit, but in flames” and how we partner with God to put out the flames. Abraham was the first hero of tikkun olam, not as a holy priest, but as an everyman who “chose God,” “loved without reason” and performed simple acts of loving kindness.

But in kabbalah, the rabbi went on, “Tikkun olam is a lot more than social activism.”

In this “spiritual” view, all mitzvot have the power to change the world. Because the mitzvah has a Divine origin, it also has a Divine effect. Thus, lighting the Shabbat candles, making a blessing before you eat or honoring your parents has the same cosmic power to “repair the world” as any demonstration in front of the federal building to raise the minimum wage.

While lauding the work of social activism, the rabbi impressed on us that in the mystical tradition, tikkun olam starts from the “inside out” — we repair ourselves through deep contemplation and by clinging to God and His commandments, like Abraham did, which, in turn, gives us the strength, humility and wisdom to make our world holy.

That same night, on an Internet reader forum, I stumbled on yet a third view of tikkun olam, one I can charitably describe as “tribal.”

It was a rambling, passionate rant that boiled down to this: “The Jews should take care of Jews, and let others worry about their own.” In other words: Tikkun, yes, but for our own olam.

This wasn’t just politically incorrect; it was downright offensive. How dare we focus on ourselves and forget the rest of the world?

But that response seemed too predictable, so I gave it some serious thought. That’s when it got embarrassing. You see, I confess that the tribal rant struck a deep tribal chord in me, and brought out stuff that had been brewing inside for a while.

I wondered: Have we gone a little too far with our passion for tikkun olam? Can this grand love affair with “repairing humanity” become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?

For every million we raise for children in Africa, certainly a worthy cause, how many hungry Jewish kids will we not feed or help send to a Jewish school?

I know the classic response: “It’s not either/or, we must do both.” Well, that may be ideal, but in the real world, where 90 percent of Jewish tzedakah goes to non-Jewish causes, too many Jews are not doing both.

Let’s face it: there’s something quite intoxicating about tikkun olam — this notion of a little tribe looking out for the whole planet. After you’ve tasted that global Kool-Aid, who feels like schlepping to La Brea Boulevard to pack food boxes for needy Jews?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t care about Muslim children dying in Darfur. But why can’t we hold accountable the billion Muslims around the world who haven’t lifted a finger to help their own brothers and sisters? If we encourage other groups and nations to take better care of their own, does that count as tikkun olam?

For Jews, what is the appropriate balance between “repair of the whole world” and “repair of the Jewish world”? Is it in balance now? Has our glorifying of tikkun olam contributed to the modest percentage of Jewish money that goes to Jewish causes — and the declining interest in Zionism among young American Jews?

If, for many Jews, social activism has become “the new Judaism,” will this overshadow foundational Jewish practices like Shabbat and Torah learning that may not seem as “sexy” and “relevant”?

And should we pay more attention to the spiritual approach to tikkun olam that teaches us that all of God’s mitzvot can help repair the world?

If you ask me, we’re due for an honest debate on the untouchable — and touchy — subject of tikkun olam.

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

Reconstructionists try to manage growth


When Dorshei Tzedek, a small Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton, Mass., began an explosive growth spurt in 1997, some of its members were concerned.

The addition of more than 100 families had nearly tripled the congregation’s size in just a few years, and some worried that it was losing its intimate character.

“It was an anxiety-ridden issue for a long time, but that’s partly because we didn’t understand it,” said Nancy Gertz, whose two-year term as president ended in July. “There were people who felt if we get any bigger, they’re going to be scared to lose the sense of familiarity they have with everybody in the congregation, lose a sense of intimate connection with the rabbi, their peers.”

The establishment of a growth committee and a strategic planning effort have put some of those fears to rest, and led to a more thoughtful growth process, Gertz said.

While some synagogues would kill for that kind of growth spurt, Reconstructionists, who prize a highly participatory form of worship and whose congregations tend to be smaller than those of other movements, see growth as something to be carefully managed so as not to compromise what’s essential to the movement.

“We’re thinking about growth in lots of different ways,” said Carl Sheingold, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the movement’s congregational arm.

Sheingold said the movement’s development is important and there’s greater recognition now of the need to get larger, but not at the expense of what he calls a “critical feature” of Reconstructionism: the willingness to experiment and serve as a kind of laboratory for American Jewish life.

“There may be limits to growth we want to think about,” Sheingold said. It’s “not just a question of running headlong into numbers, but at the same time wanting to grow the movement.”

Studies show that roughly 2 percent of American Jews identify as Reconstructionist, but Reconstructionist federation officials say the number of affiliated households is growing by 6 percent to 10 percent a year.

Currently, 109 congregations affiliate with the federation and a growing number are looking to erect buildings, hire full-time rabbis and become more established, full-service synagogues.

That growth poses a challenge to a movement with a high percentage of smaller congregations and that sees highly participatory services and democratic decision-making as central values. Many Reconstructionist communities spun off from more established synagogues, and some fear a loss of intensive commitment and sense of purpose as new members join a core group of founders.

At Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in White Plains, N.Y., members considered limiting new members when the synagogue’s size threatened to become unwieldy, but instead decided to cap the number of bar mitzvahs at 36 a year as a way to control expansion without actually turning anyone away.

“We were worried if we had a bar mitzvah every week, that eventually we’d have two every week, and then all we’d be doing was bar mitzvahs and there would no longer be an identifiable central prayer experience for the congregation,” Rabbi Lester Bronstein said.

Even so, Bronstein’s congregation has grown significantly, from 185 families when he arrived in 1989 to 420 today. That number is considered large for the Reconstructionist movement, but it pales next to Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — which, with roughly 1,000 households, is the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world.

Like Bet Am Shalom, Kehillat Israel, locally known as K.I., also experienced a period of rapid expansion, doubling its membership since it built a larger facility in 1997.

That growth prompted calls to limit new members, although the synagogue rejected it in favor of other strategies — including what its rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, calls “constant vigilance” to small groups: creating opportunities for individuals to gather in smaller subcommunities around issues of common interest.

“Our key to success is to create communities within communities,” Carr Reuben said. “We recognize the synagogue isn’t just one community. Those communities function on their own level and in their own way.”

Still, Reconstructionists are hardly growth-averse. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the movement’s seminary, is more than halfway through its first development campaign. The $50 million fund-raising drive may be small by the standards of the other denominations, but it’s a milestone for a movement that represents a tiny fraction of American Jewry.

At its biennial convention in Philadelphia in November, the movement introduced a range of new fundraising instruments, including a soon-to-be- launched Web site aimed at educating congregations about opportunities for planned giving.

The federation also hired its first development director, Barry Nove, a further sign of the professionalization of its fund-raising operations.

“The movement is maturing,” said Nove, who joined the federation three months ago. “If we don’t plant seeds now, there won’t be trees later.”

Some of the movement’s younger congregations are aggressively pursuing participants. Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is unique in the movement for marketing her congregation, Kol Tzedek, to young unaffiliated Jews in West Philadelphia.

But more common are the challenges posed by the movement’s passage to a more advanced stage of life. Many at the convention spoke of Reconstructionism’s “maturation” and its evolution from a school of thought spun off of Conservative Judaism by Mordecai Kaplan to a full-fledged movement, with a network of synagogues, a youth group and, as of last year, a summer camp.

To Sheingold, that maturation is evident at least as much in the attitudes of Reconstructionists as in the movement’s structural development.

“The origins of the movement had a lot to do with a desire for a form of religious life in Judaism that was compatible with rationality, with scientific progress,” Sheingold said. “In the last 10 to 15 years there have emerged approaches within Reconstructionism that are more tuned in to what has been called the spiritual aspect of life. You really become mature when you can find ways to reconcile those things and you’re not debating whether it’s about the mind and the heart, but you’re finding ways for it to be both.”

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard


Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

University Moves to Permanent Home


Whenever Rabbi Arnie Rachlis came from Illinois as University Synagogue’s guest rabbi, the founders went out of their way to lend him a convertible and hold meetings at a beachfront home. One trip occurred during a winter day when temperatures soared to summertime highs. Incredulous, Rachlis noted the literal 100-degree difference between his destination and point of departure.

While the courtship took several years, "when he got off the airplane in shorts, I thought, ‘I think we’ve got him,’" said Hinda Beral, a former president and among the eight founding families that in 1987 established the county’s only Reconstructionist synagogue.

After sharing space with Irvine United Church of Christ since 1991 and growing from 80 families to 600, University Synagogue starts a new chapter in its history, moving on Aug. 22 into its own building.

Following a traditional custom, University’s leaders will carry their Torahs in a 3-mile procession between the present Alton Parkway location and the new one, which adds a third synagogue to Michaelson Drive. The public is invited to join the 1 p.m. walk, witness the fixing of the synagogue’s mezuzah and the placing of the scrolls within the new sanctuary ark.

The rehab of the 33,000-square-foot former ice rink took less than a year, though the project sat idle for three years when the original appraiser died and more capital was required than initially expected. Opposite a game arcade and bowling alley, University is walking distance from a Reform and Orthodox congregation, Shir Ha-Ma’alot and Beth Jacob, respectively.

The founders anticipate University’s move will deepen their guiding value, which was to create community. "Having a place of our own will enhance that feeling; people will have more of an opportunity to connect," Beral said. "It’s a gift to ourselves and the community."

The biggest change by University is shifting religious school to Sunday from Saturday, which conflicts with youth sports activities. "That will be wonderfully helpful," Beral said. A variety of new weekday educational classes are also now being planned.

University’s founders, like an earlier group that established Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, split off from Shir Ha-Ma’alot where Beral had served as president. "It wasn’t meeting our needs," she said.

Known as the South Coast Reconstructionist Chavura, the group met for weekly Shabbat get-togethers at homes, studied with visiting rabbis and by 1987 renamed itself University Synagogue. The founding president was Carol Richmond.

By serendipity, Beral recruited the synagogue’s founding rabbi, meeting Rachlis in Washington, D.C., where he was a fellow in the Clinton White House during a sabbatical from a Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston, Ill. She wangled her way into a White House ceremony where Soviet dissident Natan Scharansky was receiving the Medal of Freedom. There on business for the American Jewish Committee, Beral and her husband, Hal, had also visited refuseniks in the former Soviet Union.

It took a year to arrange the first visit, but Rachlis then was a frequent visitor over the next several years. He relocated full time in April 1991 when the congregation stood at 80 families. At the time, sensitive over the accusation of raiding, Beral said a review of applications found a small percentage of former Shir Ha-Ma’alot members.

"Building a congregation was intriguing and exciting to him," she said. "He was excited by our vision.

"We all wanted something interesting, exciting and welcoming, and not boring," she said. "We don’t think we’re so weird."

Possessing an entrepreneur’s confidence in innovation, Rachlis experiments with Shabbat services, drums up congregational support for trips to international Jewish communities, and fearlessly courts high-profile speakers on controversial topics.

Today, Beral said many members were previously unaffiliated or disengaged from Jewish organizations. "We have a lot of families who found us a congregation with which they could connect. We’ve brought those people into the Jewish community.

"I love that we all share in this, that it’s a big extended family."

Open Enrollment


The Academy for Jewish Religion, a transdenominational rabbinical seminary, will open its doors in Los Angeles this fall, giving formal expression to a longtime trend toward a more personalized, spiritually oriented, pluralistic Judaism, academy founders say.

The branch in New York, which was established in 1956, draws its faculty from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, but is not formally affiliated with any of them. The Los Angeles academy has already assembled an impressive academic council of local rabbis and educators from all movements.

“The dream here is a transdenominational seminary that will train rabbis and cantors to serve God and the Jewish world, not just movements and institutions,” says Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founder of N’vay Shalom, a small kabbalah–and spirituality-oriented congregation that meets at the Milken Community High School.

The undercurrent in all classes — from Talmud to kabbalah, liturgy to meditation — will be deciphering the personal relationship each Jew is supposed to have with God, according to Rabbi Stan Levy, leader of Congregation B’nai Horin-Children of Freedom, a Jewish Renewal minyan that meets on the Westside. Levy and Robbins initially conceived of the West Coast branch two years ago, when both sensed a growing demand for a pluralistic, spirit-centered school for rabbis and cantors.

That focus on spirituality is what American Jews are craving more and more, says Shohama Weiner, dean of the New York school. Having seminaries on both coasts will allow the school to meet the growing demands of its graduates, she says.

“This will give us an exciting synergy for changing the face of American Judaism, to make synagogues more spiritually based and inclusive,” she says from her New York office.

Rabbi Wayne Dosick, a San Diego-based author and educator who will serve as dean of the school, says the pluralistic nature of the school will also serve to heal the rifts that threaten the Jewish community nationally.

“If we haven’t yet come to a place where we dismiss the rigid differences between denominations or branches of American Judaism, we are coming to a place, at the very least, where we are respectful and honoring each other,” says Dosick.

Like the other main players in the academy, Dosick also leads a small, spiritually centered congregation — the Elijah Minyan.

Robbins says it is this type of model that increasingly characterizes what American Jews are looking for. And as the structure of the synagogue changes to meets those needs, so will the role of the rabbi. He sees the rabbi as a personal guide and mentor to congregants.

“In addition to the very high level of rabbinic academics, we will focus on the spiritual traditions in Judaism, and psychology and health and healing, and knowing how to synergize all elements of familial and individual and communal life into a more unified whole,” says Robbins, who has a private practice that combines his work as a rabbi and psychologist. He is also completing his doctorate in natural medicine.

Robbins sees the West Coast, where many of these creative congregations have already sprung up organically, as a natural fit for the academy.

“There is an openness in structure that makes choice and change more possible here,” he says. “There is less divisiveness, less rigidity and boundaries between people and movements. That makes the creative possibilities more exciting.”

The opening of the Los Angeles branch is also another indication that the West Coast is taking its place as a center of national Jewish leadership. The Conservative movement’s University of Judaism and Reform’s Hebrew Union College also, in recent years, began ordaining rabbis in Los Angeles.

In fact, the demand for another rabbinic school is what prompted Levy and Robbins to even begin discussing this new seminary. When they approached Dosick about founding a new seminary, he put them in touch with the New York academy, which proved to be a natural match.

All three rabbis, in their 50s, had been approached by congregants and students who, though they had successful careers, were interested in becoming rabbis to deepen their own spiritual lives, and the lives of others. Because they already had careers and families, potential students couldn’t simply pick up and move back East.

The Los Angeles school’s schedule will be structured to meet the needs of students with careers and families, and organizers are looking for a location convenient for those commuting from other areas on the West Coast. Classes for the first group of 12 to 18 students will meet only three days a week, probably Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. Ordination will require about five or six years.

Levy, who is also a lawyer and co-founder of the Bet Tzedek legal fund, predicts that the students ordained at the academy will have little trouble finding jobs. In fact, Weiner, dean of the New York school, says the academy’s placement office can’t fill all the requests that come in for rabbis and cantors.

Dosick believes that the heightened demand for pluralistic, spiritual rabbis is a symptom of where American Jewry is headed.

“We Jews in postwar America have been good at creating community and doing mitzvahs and social justice and supporting Israel and oppressed Jewry. But we haven’t been good at what we’re supposed to do best, which is help create personal, intimate relationship with God,” he says. “Our young people are hungering for the sacred and are running to the Buddhist retreats and the ashrams seeking the sacred. And everything those people are looking for is in Judaism. But in this rational, intellectual age, no one told them.”

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core .”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom , or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha , or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am , the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Taking the First Step


Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”