Amid the ravages of wildfires, Colorado Jews band together


The Sidmans are among the lucky ones: Their Colorado Springs home is still standing, nearly untouched by the flames that left many of their neighbors’ houses in ashes.

“I was just sobbing uncontrollably, even though my house was perfect,” Renee Sidman told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

For the past week Sidman and her family—among some 30,000 Colorado residents who were evacuated from their homes as wildfires spread—have found refuge with fellow congregants from Temple Shalom, which was not in the evacuation area.

As of Tuesday, the fire in Waldo Canyon, which sits on the western edge of Colorado Springs, had destroyed at least 347 homes and claimed two lives, according to the Denver Post.

Temple Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements, had about 20 member families evacuated, according to the Sidmans’ host, Julie Richman.

“It’s been kind of a blur,” Richman told JTA about having her family of four now sharing their home with the four Sidmans.

Ironically, Richman’s younger son, Adam, 13, and the Sidmans’ son, Daniel, 12, had just spent two weeks together as bunk mates at summer camp.

The temple’s Facebook page helped to ensure that everyone was accounted for, Richman said, noting that “Everybody in the congregation was kind of tracked down within about 24 hours.”

She said the synagogue also served as a temporary home to the Alpine Autism Center for a few days.

The communal sense was widespread, both in and out of the Jewish community, Richman added. The Jewish-owned Poor Richard’s restaurant gave out free meals to evacuees, individuals picked up restaurant tabs for police and residents put up signs thanking firefighters for keeping them safe.

“Everybody here has been struck by the extremely strong sense of community,” Richman said, reporting that the shelters set in place for evacuees never reached capacity because most people found home hospitality.

Temple Shalom held a healing service Friday night.

“When we Jews suffer pain and tragedy, we come together to strengthen one another. That is how we begin to heal,” said a notice sent to congregants by Rabbi Mel Glazer.

Unlike Temple Shalom and the city’s other synagogue, Temple Beit Torah, Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs was in the evacuation area.

Chabad’s Rabbi Moshe Liberow and his family evacuated ahead of the flames on June 26, finding refuge in Denver. He returned two days later with rabbinical student Zalman Popack to volunteer at one of the shelters.

Police escorted them to his home and synagogue, so they could retrieve some items. The rabbi was relieved to see that there was no damage to his home or synagogue, or his community’s mikvah.

At his home he picked up a cotton candy machine, which he and Popack took along with beverages and other snacks to one of the Red Cross-run shelters.

“People so enjoyed it; adults and children were lining up for the cotton candy,” he said.

Popack has established a relief fund, as has the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, in conjunction with local synagogues, community organizations and national partners.

Jewish federations throughout the United States have been directing donors to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund online or to send checks with the notation “Colorado Fire Relief Fund” to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, 300 S. Dahlia, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80246.

The donations to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund will go to directly combat the fire and help victims. There will be no administrative fees taken out, said Melissa Gelfand, the federation’s marketing and public relations director.

“We’re working locally with the local VOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster] to help victims, firefighters and any other first responders,” she said.

As of Monday, she was not certain how much money the federation fund had raised nationally, but said $30,000 had been raised locally.

The Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center is serving as a Red Cross drop-off location for supplies.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs is also is collecting relief funds.

“Our heart goes out to those affected,” Liberow said. “We want those people to feel uplifted. Hopefully their lives will be on the mend.”

Israel: More Reform, Conservative than Charedi Jews


Eight percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews, compared to just 7 percent of Israelis who define themselves as “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox). Amazing? I think it is quite amazing, given the never-ending discussion of Charedi power and growing population and the very little regard given to the liberal streams of Judaism within Israel.

But commentary and amazement aside, the data is what counts here, and this data was found buried deep within the vast survey of the Guttman Center — a survey about which I wrote here several weeks ago.

However, you won’t find this data in the final Guttman Report.  The report divides Israelis by more common categories of “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox, 7 percent), “religious” (15 percent), “traditional” (32 percent), “secular” (43 percent) and “anti-religious secular” (3 percent). Another question that does appear in the report, and that was released to the public, examines Israelis’ practical adherence to tradition. Fourteen percent say they observe tradition “meticulously,” 26 percent observe the Jewish tradition “to a great extent,”  44 percent “to some extent” and 16 percent “not at all.” 

A majority of Israelis (61 percent), we read in the report, “agree that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox in Israel.”  We also read that “most Israeli Jews (69 percent) have never attended a prayer service or religious ceremony in a Reform or Conservative synagogue.”

Does this mean that more than 30 percent of Israelis did attend a service in a liberal congregation? That is not an insignificant number, and it is indeed the number one can find by opening the full SPSS file of survey data now available online (Inbal Hakman of the Jewish People Policy Institute assisted me with the file and with finding the data). (For links, visit this story at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.)

The question is narrowly tailored: “Did you ever attend/not attend a service or a religious ceremony in a Conservative or Reform synagogue?” And the response reflects both the low number (or low level of commitment) of people frequently attending the liberal places of prayer, and also the surprisingly high number of Israelis exposed to services in such places. (Regularly, 1 percent; frequently, 3 percent;  yes, but rarely, 26 percent; never, 69 percent.)

The much more interesting finding, though, is related to the self-definition of Israelis — the one I mentioned in the opening sentence of this article. Question No. 157, the answers to which were not included in the Guttman Report, asked: “How would you define yourself religiously?” The options were: Charedi, Charedi-Leumi (Zionist ultra-Orthodox), Dati-Leumi (Zionist-Orthodox), Conservative, Reform, Other, Do not belong to any stream.

The full list is: Charedi, 7 percent; Charedi-Leumi, 2 percent; Dati Leumi, 22 percent; Conservative, 4 percent; Reform, 4 percent; other, 12 percent; No stream, 50 percent. This latter group constitutes the more than 40 percent of the self-defined “secular,” and probably some “traditional” Israelis, as well. But the combined number of “liberal” religious Israelis, 8 percent, is most surprising. 

Intrigued by the numbers, I called professor Tamar Hermann, the academic supervisor of the Guttman Center. She told me to be careful about jumping to overreaching conclusions based on this very thin data. Hermann believes that many of the Israelis who defined themselves as “Conservative” and “Reform” were really “Israelis with strong religious sense that do not see themselves identifying with the Orthodox establishment.”

Hermann sent me the data for the same question from the Guttman survey of 1999. For some reason, the phrasing of the 1999 question was somewhat different, and that is always a reason for caution: “Do you see yourself as belonging to any stream of Judaism — which one?” it asked. The options were also different: “non-Zionist Charedi,” “Zionist-Charedi,” “Zionist-religious,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “no stream.” Seventy percent of the 1999 respondents didn’t identify with any of the streams (compared to the 50 percent in 2009), and the combined percentage for Conservative and Reform was smaller: 5 percent (compared to 8 percent in 2009). This might be a result of how the question was asked, but it could also reflect a surge in the sense of Reform and Conservative belonging.

Here are some possible conclusions and speculations in light of this new data:

1. If you’re one of those panicked over the strengthening of the Israeli Charedi community, you might want to reconsider.

2. If you’re a Conservative or a Reform leader, tired of hearing that these streams have no way of succeeding in Israel — here’s your window of opportunity, opened wide.

3. Commitment does matter, a lot. Having many self-defined Conservative and Reform Israelis is nice, but it will not be truly important if the number of practicing Conservative and Reform Israelis doesn’t significantly grow.

4. The old formula of dividing Israelis into “religious” and “secular” with some “traditionalists” in the middle is losing relevance. There’s a center of moderates. An important silent center of moderates that needs to be heard. Variations are numerous, but old clichés die hard.

Beck apologizes to Reform Jews


Fox News host Glenn Beck apologized for comparing Reform Judaism to radical Islam.

In an apology on his radio program Thursday, Beck said he had made “one of the worst analogies of all time” in saying on a radio show on Tuesday that, like Islamic extremists, Reform rabbis place politics ahead of religion. He delivered a special apology to Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who was among the Jewish leaders who slammed Beck for his comments and demanded he apologize.

“To Abe and everybody else, if I offended you it was not my intent,” Beck said, noting that he often disagreed with Foxman but in this case the ADL chief was correct. “I see how I did that and I apologize for the action and the words. Enough said.”

The comments that got Beck in trouble Tuesday came in the context of a wider discussion about a recent open letter, signed almost exclusively by non-Orthodox rabbis, criticizing him for repeatedly comparing his ideological foes to Nazis. “There are the Orthodox rabbis and there are the Reform rabbis,” Beck said on Tuesday. “Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It’s almost like radicalized Islam in a way where it is just—radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics.”

Foxman welcomed the apology and issued a statement saying the matter had been put to rest.

Jewish Funds for Justice, a liberal group that has scuffled with Beck repeatedly—most recently by taking out full-page advertisements calling on Beck to be censured for his misuse of Nazi analogies—said the statement was “welcome but incomplete.” The organization said Beck’s comments were of a piece with his longstanding hostility to toward religious groups that pursue a social justice agenda, calling it a “systemic” problem.

“We reiterate our call on [Fox News chief] Rupert Murdoch to end Mr. Beck’s tenure at Fox News and for Salem Communications to commit not to add his syndicated radio show to their New York stations,” the group said in a statement. “Anything short of this reflects an unwillingness to take seriously the harm Mr. Beck causes to many in our community and beyond.”

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
 
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
 
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
 
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
 
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
 
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
 
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
 
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
 
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
 
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
 
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
 
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
 
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
 
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
 
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
 
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
 
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
 
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
 
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
 
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
 
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
 
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
 
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
 
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.
 

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews


 

On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.

What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.

While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.

Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”

Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.

I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.

He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”

His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.

As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”

While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.

The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.

These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.

The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.

David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Community Groups Weigh in on Golan


Bennett Zimmerman, a buttoned-down investment fund manager by day, stood up at the end of an evening’s conversation and removed his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with bold Hebrew letters spelling out Ha’am im HaGolan — The People are with the Golan.

Although negotiations between Israel and Syria on the future of the Golan are on hold, concerned Jews, like Zimmerman, think it’s not too early to weigh in on what promises to be an agonizing debate within American Jewry, no less than among Israelis.

At this point, major local Jewish organizations have not yet spoken out, waiting for resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks, under American auspices, and the terms of a final settlement between the two governments.

But Zimmerman feels he has to act now to try and forestall what he perceives as a suicidal surrender of vital Israeli territory and interests.

On the other side, delegations of Reform rabbis and lay leaders met recently with Israeli diplomatic officials here and across the country. They expressed full support for the course being charted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his government, which looks toward Israeli withdrawal from the Golan as the price for a lasting peace with Syria, the Jewish state’s most intractable neighbor.

Zimmerman is the ad-hoc chairman of the newly formed Friends of the Golan and he and four other members sat down with a reporter recently to lay out their case.

“I agree with what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stated that whoever gives up the Golan gives up the security of Israel,” said Zimmerman. “Syria has shown that it really doesn’t want peace, but it looks like Barak’s policy is on autopilot and he is buckling under pressure from President Clinton.”

Taking the Middle Road


The Reform movement’s much-anticipated “Statement of Principles” may rival the Torah for most carefully scrutinized text in Jewish history.

The two-page statement, which seeks to spell out just exactly what Reform Judaism is about, was discussed for close to two years, underwent six drafts, garnered more than 30 amendments and sparked heated debate among Reform rabbis and their congregants.

The controversial document was adopted last Wednesday by an overwhelming margin of 324-68, with nine abstentions. It was the centerpiece of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ four-day convention in Pittsburgh this week.

The statement seeks to reverse the movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which stridently rejected Jewish tradition and rituals. It aims to redefine Reform Judaism for the coming years: celebrating the movement’s growing acceptance of tradition and spirituality, while reaffirming its longtime commitment to inclusion, social action and diversity of thought.

The principles consist of a preamble that urges Reform Jews to “engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition” and statements about Reform Jews’ relationships with God, Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Among other things, the document:

* Affirms the importance of studying Hebrew;

* Promotes lifelong Jewish learning;

* Calls for observance of mitzvot, or commandments, “that address us as individuals and as a community”;

* Urges observance in some form of Shabbat and holidays;

* Encourages tikkun olam, which the Reform movement emphasizes as social action, and tzedakah, or charitable giving.

“Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as a result of the unique context of our own times,” says the document.

Earlier drafts of the principles, including a version that appeared in Reform Judaism magazine six months ago, specified other mitzvot, such as observing kashrut and wearing kippot and tallitot In the end, a document very different from the original was adopted by the Reform rabbis, one that many rabbis here believed had been diluted too much.

The seemingly endless revisions made for a pareve document with little energy or inspiration, critics said.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, called the adoption of the principles a “wonderful moment for Reform Jews.”

Levy, who had authored the Reform Judaism piece and had been pictured wearing a yarmulke and a prayer shawl, said the document “will liberate Reform Jews to say there is nothing to in the Torah which is barred to me.”

When asked to respond to critics who said it was watered down from his original version, Levy said, “What was passed was a statement that reflected the large number of Reform Jews.”

Levy, who stressed the reaffirmation of Reform Judaism’s commitment to inclusiveness and social action, said, “I hope the Pittsburgh principles will deepen the lives of Reform Jews and make the entire community aware of our seriousness.”

Since the publication of Levy article, the principles had sparked debates about the identity of Reform Judaism, which claims more American Jews than any other movement. As rabbis and lay leaders discussed and revised the principles at official meetings, rank-and-file Reform Jews sounded off on the Internet.

In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews throughout North America.

Some respondents were supportive.

“I think without some kind of standards, Reform Judaism will lose its standing in the world Jewish community and either break off as its own religion or eventually disappear,” Ellen Lerner of Rochester, N.Y., wrote.

But the majority were critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

“If I wanted this much dogma, I’d be a Conservative Jew,” wrote Don Rothschild of Denver.

“I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,” wrote Barbara Stern of Winchester, Va. “It is beginning to feel like the only option that will be open to classical Reform Jews is the Unitarian Church, an option that will not be spiritually satisfying for many reasons.”

The board of one Reform temple, Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago, even passed a resolution urging the CCAR not to vote on any statement of principles.

While both supporters and opponents complained of the statement’s blandness, many acknowledged that insipidness is the fate of any committee-written document.

They also said that the Reform movement’s rank-and-file members might not yet be ready for something stronger, and that the statement should be viewed as a beginning rather than the last word on Reform Judaism.

The movement’s commitment to diversity of thought was highlighted during Tuesday night’s lively — if prolonged — discussion on proposed amendments at the CCAR convention. The evening was filled with passionate debate on everything from the correct application of Robert’s Rules of Order and grammatical fine points to just how accepting the movement should be of interfaith families.

One of the most heated discussions surrounded an amendment involving the intermarried. The amendment, which initially implied openness to all intermarried families, was changed — after much debate — to a carefully worded statement saying, “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home.”

Throughout the debate, shouts, ayes and nays alternated with laughter and applause. With the aroma of popcorn and other late-night snacks wafting through the air, the proceeding — in a packed hotel ballroom — took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

At one point, Levy, called out, exasperated by requests for new amendments and revotes, “People, we cannot keep changing our minds!”

Minor skirmishes erupted over the chair’s decision not to let someone speak out of order. There was discord as to whether “encouraging” immigration to Israel would render American Judaism extinct (the rabbis voted, no, it would not).

Although the debate was initially allotted a modest two hours, it quickly became clear Tuesday that the discussion on the statement would spill over. At 5:30 p.m., with only a handful of the proposed amendments discussed, the rabbis voted — after much squabbling on details — to adjourn until 8 p.m.

In the interlude that followed, most seemed to take the delays and quibbling in stride, seeing them as a sign not of discord but of everyone’s desire to create the strongest document possible.

“The problem is it’s like Talmud — everyone takes every word so seriously,” said Rabbi Morris Kipper of Coral Gables, Fla.

“The process is typical,” said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Homewood, Ill. “We like to argue. Two Jews have three opinions, and so much more so for rabbis.”

The vote, which occurred at Temple Rodeph Shalom, the largest Reform temple in Pittsburgh, reflected a consensus view among the rabbis that some statement was necessary, even if it wasn’t everyone’s ideal.

“I supported it in the end with some reservations, but I feel it is a statement that reflects at least in part who we are as Reform Jews,” Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Great Neck, N.Y., said, echoing the views of many here.

“It’s a centrist document, and it moves us from where we were a century ago,” he said.

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.”

Scars Fall on Alabama


Scars Fall on Alabama

Close to half the Reform temples in Alabama are named “Emanuel,” which is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Jews all over the state are hoping it proves true this fall, when voters pick a governor.

In a way, the Alabama governor’s race is the very embodiment of a dilemma Jews face nationwide as they confront the growing strength of the Christian right. On one hand, Republican incumbent Gov. Fob James, a passionate defender of Israel whose conservative domestic views put him sharply at odds with most Jews. On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, best known for not being Fob James.

But James is no mere conservative. He’s one of the nation’s most strident political crusaders for a Christian America. He recently won headlines by defending a judge who hangs the Ten Commandments on his courtroom wall. His advocacy of school prayer reportedly borders on promoting civil disobedience. Critics say that his attacks on federal courts and the First Amendment — he claims that it doesn’t apply to states — are fueling an atmosphere of religious war in Alabama.

He resoundingly clinched his party’s renomination in the June 30 primary runoff after one of the most divisive races in recent memory. Local Jews are shaking their heads.

“The politics here are becoming really frightening,” Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham says. “This seems to be the place where the Christian right is making its beachhead.”

James is not really as devout a Christian as his rhetoric suggests, say most observers. But his wife is. Bobbie James’ brand of fundamentalism is said to be one of the chief influences on the governor’s agenda. A millennialist who considers Israel the key to God’s plan, she’s visited Israel at least 15 times. She’s close to several haredi rabbis and Likud politicians. One rabbi flew from Jerusalem to her husband’s last inauguration, in 1995, to blow a shofar and read from the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Afterward, the band played Hatikvah.

Challenger Siegelman is not Jewish, despite his name. But his wife is. The Siegelmans are regulars at Montgomery’s Conservative synagogue, Agudath Israel, where their older daughter was bat mitzvahed in February. When Hatikvah was played at the 1995 inauguration, the lieutenant governor’s wife was reported to be the only one on the reviewing stand able to sing along.

And, yet, it’s Fob James who has made friendship for Israel and Jews a cornerstone of his agenda. His Alabama-Israel trade mission last fall was a high-profile event that yielded important contracts for Israeli firms. He elevated the state’s annual Holocaust commemoration from a small reception to a major public ceremony. “We stand with you forever,” he declared in his 1997 keynote, “and vow before God Almighty: Never again.”

Few doubt his sincerity. It certainly isn’t a bid for Jewish votes. Only 9,000 of the state’s 4.3 million residents are Jewish, barely one-fifth of 1 percent, and most are Democrats. Last year, a mild ruckus erupted during a meeting at the Birmingham Jewish Federation when the chairman of the community relations committee disclosed that one of the panel’s 15 members was a Republican. “Most people were very nice about it,” says the lone Republican, Hyman “Herc” Levine. “But not everyone.”

A year later, Republican Jews are harder than ever to find, and the reason is Fob James.

“Here’s a man who, with his wife at his side, will stand up and say he’s a friend of the Jews,” says Tuscaloosa attorney Joel Sogol, a member of the regional Anti-Defamation League board. “And, yet, he stands with a group of people who want to make Jews and other non-Christians second-class citizens.”

Sogol points to last year’s Ten Commandments case as typical. A judge in rural Gadsden had hung the tablets of the Law in his courtroom, and he was opening each session with a prayer — Christian only. Sogol, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, sued in federal court to stop the practice. The case was thrown out when the court ruled that nobody with a valid interest had complained.

That didn’t stop Fob James. He filed his own lawsuit, demanding that the federal court specifically endorse the rituals. When the court declined, the governor went on the warpath, claiming that the federal judge was impeding the practice of religion.

James was even more aggressive after another federal court barred recitals of Christian prayers in the public schools of rural DeKalb County.

“The court basically affirmed existing federal law, that children can pray during non-instructional time,” says Birmingham attorney Lenora Pate, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Siegelman. “The governor has used it to make the case that 50 million children throughout America can no longer pray in school. He’s even urged students to some extent to disobey the law.”

“I’m a Christian, and I’m deeply troubled by the rhetoric,” says Pate, who is married to a Jew. “Back in the ’60s, we had this same type of states-rights, ‘those-federal-judges-can’t-push-us-around’ rhetoric. Back then, it was wrapped around race. We had Gov. Wallace, who ran all over the state, whipping people into a frenzy, and out of the blue we had church bombings and little girls were killed.”

“Today, the same rhetoric is wrapped around religion. I can certainly understand how my Jewish friends and family can feel a huge concern.”

James does have Jewish defenders, particularly in Mobile, whose 1,200 Jews include some nationally prominent Republican donors. They say the governor is misunderstood.

“Those who know Fob James don’t feel threatened,” says Mobile attorney Irving Silver, a former chairman of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Public Policy. “I think he has an abiding respect for people of faith, and I think he is crying out — perhaps not as articulately as he should — about the shortage of religious values pervading our society. But the world is not caving in. Those forebodings about Alabama becoming a theocracy are just ludicrous.”

But the fears aren’t just theoretical. Last year, in rural Pike County, a Jewish family named Willis was subjected to violent harassment after protesting the prayers imposed on their children in school. Jews throughout the state, particularly in rural areas, followed the case closely.

“Fob James is a very nice guy,” says Rabbi Miller. “And the fact is that our constitutional protections are still in place. So far, it’s mainly atmospherics. But you don’t know where things may lead. That’s what’s frightening.”

“When non-Jews say they’re scared,” says Pate, “they mean they’re concerned about our image nationally. But when Jews say it’s scary, they mean it personally.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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.”

Education Israel as a Core Requirement?


My daughter flew home for Thanksgiving with two college friends in tow. At the dinner table, the conversation revolved around computers and the antics of the Stanford Band. At some point in the course of that whirlwind four-day visit, Hilary informed me that, though she’s been diligently studying Hebrew since she started college, a Junior Year Abroad at Hebrew University is no longer part of her plans. It’s not that she’s changed her mind about someday returning to Israel, where she spent an amazing summer two years ago. But she’s convinced that, given the stringent requirements of the high-tech major she seems to have settled on, even a semester in Jerusalem would derail her progress toward her degree.

Like most American Jewish moms, I think of myself as both loving and pragmatic. And, so, I fully support Hilary’s decision. When college students make their course of study a top priority, when they march steadily down the path toward graduation and employment, parents can’t help but rejoice. Still, when I heard that Israel was no longer on my daughter’s agenda for the near future, I couldn’t help thinking of a recent breakfast gathering in Jerusalem, where Levi Lauer addressed a contingent from the Jewish Federation’s Golden Anniversary Community Mission to Israel.

Lauer, originally from Ohio, was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972. He ultimately moved to Israel, became halachically observant, and assumed the directorship of a respected coed learning center, the Pardes Institute. He’s currently affiliated with Jerusalem’s Melitz Center for Jewish and Zionist Education. Each summer, he jets to California to serve as scholar-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Collegiate Institute. Both here and in Israel, Lauer spends much of his time with young adults. As a parent, he also knows firsthand what it’s like to raise Israeli children to adulthood.

One of Lauer’s central themes is the difference between young Israelis and young American Jews. His own children have lived through the sealed rooms and gas masks of the Gulf War era. And they have gone a dozen times to the cemetery on Mount Herzl to bury friends who died in military clashes or terrorist attacks. They accept being part of a culture where those still too young to shave are required to make life-and-death decisions on the field of battle.

Today’s American Jewish kids are different, both from Israelis and from earlier generations of Americans who had their own wars to fight (or to resist). American young people, says Lauer, “take it for granted that the world is a safe place. They don’t foresee real suffering. They literally believe that anything is possible.

“[As a father], I envy your kids the fact that the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make is what car to buy or who to go out with or what graduate school to apply to.”

But an objective eye could find American Jewish young adults “intolerably pampered.” They are lacking in basic moral education. They’ve never really had to think beyond themselves.

The fact is: Young American Jews need Israel, and Israel needs them. Israelis can teach our kids the value of commitment to a community. As Lauer puts it: “They need to learn the language of their ancestors. They need to share the experiences of real people, not Zionist propaganda.” In exchange, American Jewish young adults can make important contributions to Israeli society.

Beyond studying at Israeli universities, they can — and should — significantly participate in Israel’s daily life. Lauer makes clear (though many who heard his talk failed to grasp this important distinction) that he does not advocate sending American Jews to fight on Israeli battlefields. But he does envision young Americans forming a sort of Job Corps to do the public work for which Israel is currently importing Third World laborers at enormous cost. He can imagine Americans building roads and hooking up Arab villages to Israel’s central power grid. Such labor would teach them the meaning of social interdependence. As a bonus, it “just might lead them to marry someone who’s also Jewish.”

Lauer doesn’t let young Israelis off the hook. Like their American Jewish counterparts, they are developing a tendency to measure their self-worth in terms of intellectual achievement and material gains. Israelis, he quips, “will buy anything that’s electric and lights up — even if it doesn’t work.”

But young Israeli men and women are soon taught by their army experiences that they are not a world unto themselves. Klal Yisrael takes on a whole new meaning for those who, as part of the Ethiopian rescue operation, were asked to “get up in the middle of the night and schlep 14,000 Jews six centuries.” Israelis may grumble about the constant need to look out for their fellow Jews, but they pitch in when the chips are down. Lauer’s message is that, through an extended stay in Israel, young Jewish Americans can absorb the same lesson.

But how willingly would our kids disrupt their busy American lives to make the trip? Here’s where parents come in. Lauer gently suggests that we, in our eagerness to give our youngsters the best that America has to offer, have steered them down the wrong path. He proposes that we start teaching our children, from age five onward, “not to go to UCLA or Stanford but to go to Israel between the ages of 18 and 20.”

Later, perhaps, after they’ve learned from Israelis what it’s like to live in a Jewish society (and, by their own example, have helped teach Israelis the value of American Jewish pluralism), they can

Unsolved Mysteries


Over the High Holidays, somebody scrawled Nazi swastikas and the epithets “Cursed evildoers” and “Evildoers, you will die” on the front door of the Reform movement’s Har-El Congregation synagogue in midtown Jerusalem.

This was only the latest act of vandalism against Har-El, Israel’s oldest Reform synagogue, in recent months. Over the summer, someone smeared human excrement on the synagogue door. On two other occasions, somebody poured acid on the synagogue garden, turning the grass yellow. All these incidents took place when the building was closed.

The police haven’t arrested anybody, and local Reform Jews don’t think the police — or Israel as a whole, for that matter — are terribly interested in the problem.

“After the swastikas and the graffiti, the policeman who came to investigate asked us, ‘Are you connected with the Jews for Jesus?’ From his tone, you could infer that he thought we should expect that things like this would happen to us,” said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, leader of the Har-El Congregation.

“In Europe, when swastikas are written on a synagogue, the police usually catch the criminal and put him in jail. Israel is the only country in the world where anti-Semitic acts can be carried out — swastikas can be printed on a synagogue, [non-Orthodox] rabbis can be vilified — and it doesn’t seem to move anyone.”

There was no outcry, to say the least, after any of the acts of vandalism against the synagogue. After the swastika incident, the only Israeli public figure who spoke out was Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, who said that anyone who commits such a sin should forget about being forgiven on Yom Kippur.

The vandalism at Har-El was not the only attack on non-Orthodox synagogues over the holidays. On the morning of Yom Kippur, members of the Conservative Hod V’Hadar synagogue in Kfar Saba discovered that the glass front door had been smashed and the mezuzah yanked from the doorway. On Rosh Hashanah night, a side window of the synagogue had been broken, and, last month, the mailbox had been pulled off the wall.

Emily Levy-Shochat, president of the congregation, said that she had written down the two earlier incidents as simple hooliganism, but the Yom Kippur vandalism of the mezuzah made it obvious that these were religiously motivated crimes.

If recent history is a teacher, the vandals who attacked Har-El and Hod V’Hadar will not be caught. No one has been apprehended in the recent torching of a Reform nursery school in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. Neither has anyone been arrested for the hundreds of threatening telephone calls and faxes received by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.

“I’ve basically given up hope with the police,” said Action Center spokeswoman Anat Galili. “Whenever something happens, I call to remind them, but I don’t expect anything. One policeman actually told me that if we make a noise in the media, we encourage the hoodlums to attack us. In other words, we should keep silent.”

A Jerusalem police spokesman claims that the threats against the Action Center have subsided since the summer of 1996, thanks to police phone taps that traced the calls to five or six yeshivot in the capital. At the urging of police officials, rabbis of these yeshivot warned their students against harassing the Reform, and the harassment ended, according to the spokesman.

Galili has evidence to the contrary — the Action Center’s answering machine. “Almost every morning, there is at least one hostile, threatening message on it. We’re not getting the flood of threats we had before, but they’re still coming in.”

She notes that the immediate neighborhood around Har-El, located on Shmuel HaNagid Street, is a model of religious tolerance. Right nearby are a strictly Orthodox synagogue, a Baptist church and a Jews for Jesus congregation. The wider surroundings, however, are a source of fiercely anti-Reform elements — small pockets of fervently Orthodox residents lie about a five-minute walk away, and the area, not far from Mahane Yehuda, is known for its concentration of Kach members and sympathizers.

But because the graffiti featured well-worn haredi curses such as “cursed evildoers,” Galili suspects that the hand of a haredi, not a Kachnik, drew the swastika and wrote down the curses. It could have been worse. Two years ago, a cafe on Har-El’s grounds that had been opening on Shabbat was torched. Some 15 years ago, the Baptist church was torched. No one has been arrested for those crimes either. n

Nazi swastikas, not unlike the one above, were scrawled on the front door of a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem during the High Holidays , but there was no outcry nor any arrests. Photo by David Margolis.

Pushing Each Other’s Buttons


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Predictably, it happened again. Conservative and Reform Jews choseto demonstrate their right to worship at the Kotel in their way, menand women together. This time, however, the worshipers had officialclearance. But their permit did not help. Sadly, but alsopredictably, Orthodox Jews prevented them from praying in their way.Passions flared. The scene became ugly. Religious extremists,unconcerned about Torah prohibitions against striking another person,became violent. Hurt and humiliated, the non-Orthodox worshipers wereforcibly removed by the police. And, of course, the media had beenprepped. The cameras were ready. They captured the tears of thevanquished and the jeers of the violent. The angry scenes wereflashed across the world.

Effective Demonstration

I do not doubt that the only motive of most of the Reform andConservative worshipers was to experience Tisha B’Av in the precinctsof the Temple, whose destruction they had come to lament.

But I do have a sneaking suspicion that the organizers of theservice had something else in mind also.

I am a veteran of political demonstrations. During the apartheidera in South Africa, I learned how to get the most attention for thestruggle against racism. I simply had to figure out which buttons topush in order to enrage the other side and make it react violently.It was easy to do. It transformed the demonstrators into innocentvictims, and their attackers (usually the police) into vicious thugs.The media was always advised that a good story was in the making.Sympathy for the victims and odium for their powerful attackers wereinstantly seen on television screens around the world. Obviously,these tactics served a holy purpose — the eradication of anauthoritarian, intolerant and evil system.

Which Orthodox buttons did the Conservative and Reform workers atthe Kotel push? What irreconcilable principles were at stake?

Principles in Conflict

The non-Orthodox worshipers asserted two principles by coming tothe Kotel to pray in their way. They wished to demonstrate thatJudaism’s holiest site belongs equally to all Jews, that it is not anopen-air Orthodox synagogue. They also wished to demonstrate thattheir mode of worship is as valid as gender-separated Orthodoxprayer.

Their Orthodox opponents were motivated by equally powerfulprinciples. Worship in the ancient Temple had always beengender-separated. In the 30 years since the liberation of the Kotel,this ancient tradition had been honored. The insistence on mixed,egalitarian worship in the Kotel precincts was regarded as no less anact of chutzpah than would be the forcible intrusion of asimilar group into an Orthodox synagogue for non-Orthodox worship.

These were the buttons. These were the principles. All theingredients for a good television story were present.

Tisha B’Av Tragedy

The violence at the Wall could not have come at a worse time. Thenews of the battle between the Jews in Jerusalem broke while I wasteaching my congregants the Talmudic account of the destruction ofthe Second Temple. The Talmud asserts that the destruction was theresult of causeless hatred between the Jews of that generation. Is itnot tragic that hatred should characterize the contemporaryobservance of Tisha B’Av? Have we learned nothing from our history?

The Talmud also records a dispute between a certain RabbiZechariya and the Sages. Under normal circumstances, both parties inthis dispute would have agreed that the imperatives of the Torah areabsolute and that there is no room for compromise on halachicprinciple. But, on this occasion, the Sages felt that even venerableprinciples should be compromised for the sake of the common good.Rabbi Zechariya refused to allow the Sages to take the initiative inbending the law to save the Jewish people. The Talmud records thathis insistence on placing principle above peace caused the Temple tobe destroyed and the Jewish people to be exiled.

Alternative to Confrontation

We have witnessed the bitter consequences of the refusal tocompromise this Tisha B’Av. Neither side would budge. Like adysfunctional family, each pushed the other’s buttons, and theconflict escalated.

May I suggest a workable compromise. The southern section of theKotel has been newly excavated and is the site of a beautifularchaeological park. There is no tradition of gender-segregatedworship there. It is far from, and out of the line of vision of, thefar more numerous Orthodox worshipers at the other end of the Kotel.Bat mitzvah services are already held there. It could easily bededicated for Conservative and Reform prayer. All Jews could worshipG-d in their own denominational way.

Am I optimistic that this kind of solution will be acceptable?Although it makes sense, I do not believe that it will happen.Demonstrators have more to gain from political conflict than fromspiritual tranquillity. Confrontation alone will keep the strugglefor denominational acceptance alive and in full view of unhappy Jewsaround the world.

Therefore, I predict that there will be more confrontations, morevictims and more violence.

But I am hoping against hope that I am wrong. The Jewish peoplecannot afford to relive the Tisha B’Av experience. The State ofIsrael cannot afford more wrenching conflicts. The Jewish Diasporacannot be made to stand up against the Jewish State. Perhaps saner,gentler counsel will prevail and an intelligent compromise will beoffered and accepted.

Abner Weiss is rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation of BeverlyHills.

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