Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Jewish groups in aftermath of Las Vegas attack call for tougher gun control laws

Jewish groups responded to the mass shooting in Las Vegas by condemning the violence and calling for gun control legislation.

At least 58 people are dead and more than 500 wounded in the attack at a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Strip late Sunday night. It is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement were among the groups that called for tougher gun control laws in the attack’s aftermath.

“While we are still learning details and do not know the impetus for the killings, one thing is clear: the threat of mass violence against innocent civilians in America has not abated. This threat must be taken seriously,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. He called for the enactment of “tough, effective gun violence prevention measures.”

Greenblatt said its Center on Extremism is investigating the background and activity of shooter Stephen Paddock and whether he may have ties to extremists or was motivated by any extremist ideology.

B’nai B’rith International said it is “well past time for meaningful, bipartisan gun violence legislation in this country.” It also said: “Though information about the shooter and his arsenal is still being uncovered, we have long held there is no acceptable, reasonable need for civilians to have access to large rounds of ammunition.”

“B’nai B’rith stands in solidarity with the Las Vegas community and with all those impacted by gun violence around the nation,” the statement also said.

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy Kaufman in a statement called for Congress to act to “stem the tide of this senseless violence before yesterday’s tragedy becomes just another record to be broken.”

“Federal lawmakers must act now to restrict access to automatic weapons, reject the current bill before Congress that would make it easier to buy silencers, and instead focus on how to make our communities and our country safer. NCJW expects nothing less from our elected officials,” the statement also said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the mass shooting cannot be termed a random act of violence.

“Even before all the facts are known we know this: rather than revere gun rights our country must finally revere human life,” he said.

“We mourn those callously slaughtered in Las Vegas and pray for the wounded. But our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to fire arms.”

The Jewish Federations of North America in its statement called on people wherever they are to donate blood.

“These attacks are just the latest instances of senseless violence that terrorizes innocent people everywhere and must come to an end,” the group said.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, also called the attack “senseless.”

“On behalf of world Jewry, I condemn this horrific criminal act,” he said in a statement.

David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while authorities have not determined whether the shooting was an act of terror, “there is no question that it has terrorized and traumatized hundreds of innocent people.”

Cheryl Fishbein, the JCPA’s chair, added: “It is imperative that we come together to address the underlying causes in the days ahead.”

There are over 70,000 Jews and at least 19 synagogues in Las Vegas, according to the website.

New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds

Just as Charedi Jews in the United States are likely to enroll their kids in a yeshiva, attend synagogue every week and vote Republican, so too are Modern Orthodox Jews.

But also, just as non-Orthodox Jews in the United States tend not to marry before the age of 25, earn at least a bachelor’s degree and have a significant number of non-Jewish friends, so, too, do the Modern Orthodox.

And unique among Jewish Americans, the majority of Modern Orthodox households earn at least $150,000 per year, and a large majority believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish (79 percent), and that the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (64 percent).

In a ” target=”_blank”>groundbreaking 2013 study of U.S. Jews. The new data reveal what was already widely, yet anecdotally, known — that while Charedi Jews differ greatly from non-Orthodox Jews in virtually every demographic, political, economic and religious category (and, in fact, align more closely with Evangelical Christians by most religious, social and political measures), Modern Orthodox Jews, by contrast, straddle two worlds.

For example, in their views on Israel, American politics and religious observance, the Modern Orthodox and Charedi communities are closely aligned. But when it comes to levels of household income or education or immersion in the non-Jewish world, the Charedim are on one side, and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities are on the other.

Pew’s 2013 report raised alarm among Jewish professionals in the U.S., particularly non-Orthodox ones, about the high rate of intermarriage among Conservative, Reform and nonaffiliated Jews, and about the percentage of Jews raised in Conservative and Reform households who became unaffiliated later in life. And although this report is simply looking deeper at data collected two years ago, Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research, predicted the Jewish-American community could look very different in the future if the demographic trends among Orthodox Jews of comparably high birthrates and young marriages continue.

“There’s a possibility over time that Orthodox Jews, as they grow as a share of all American Jews, we’ll have an American-Jewish community that may actually be more cohesive [close-knit] than it is today, more observant than it is today, more socially and politically conservative than it is today,” Cooperman said, adding, though, that “one man’s cohesion is another man’s insularity.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at , University, said “Anyone interested in the future of Jewish life has to pay attention to the Orthodox,” a point made in the wake of the Pew report two years ago. Sarna added that this new report highlights “where Modern Orthodox Jews are indeed more similar to American Jews generally, or to Conservative Jews, and where they are not.”

Although the information about the dividing lines between Charedi and Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews is not groundbreaking, this report is revealing in that it shows how split the Modern Orthodox are between following Charedi trends versus non-Orthodox trends — not a surprise, given that Modern Orthodox Judaism emphasizes strict religious observance while remaining actively engaged with the non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world.

For example, while the Modern Orthodox, like the Charedim, overwhelmingly keep kosher, observe Shabbat and believe in God, they, like non-Orthodox Jews, are highly educated and have more liberal views toward homosexuality. Further, while 75 percent of currently married Charedi Jews married before their 25th birthday, only 48 percent of married Modern Orthodox Jews can say the same, putting them closer to non-Orthodox Jews. And while 32 percent of Charedi adults are ages 18 to 29, and only 6 percent are 65 or older, only 9 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are 18 to 29, and 25 percent are 65 are older, making the Modern Orthodox more like the non-Orthodox than Charedim in terms of average age.

But although Modern Orthodox Jews differ in significant ways from non-Orthodox Jews, the real driver behind Orthodox Jewry’s competitive demographic advantage are Charedi Jews, who, Pew says, comprise 62 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population.

“When it comes to demographic things like family sizes and age of marriage, the Charedim really stand out. And, in fact, the Modern Orthodox, in terms of family sizes, don’t look that different from Conservative and Reform Jews,” Cooperman said. “The data suggests it’s really the Charedim, through natural growth, who are growing particularly fast.”

He also pointed out that it’s natural growth — not conversion or movement among denominations — that sets apart the Orthodox. For although 30 percent of Orthodox Jews weren’t raised Orthodox, 43 percent of Conservative Jews, 45 percent of Reform Jews and 69 percent of nondenominational Jews moved into those religious streams later in life.

“This is not the group that has the most converts or Jews by Choice,” Cooperman said of Orthodox Jewry. “This is not the group that’s growing because people are coming from other streams of Judaism. This is the group that has the most organic, the most natural growth through large families.”

Sarna said he wishes Pew would look deeper into the Charedi community and at the impact that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has had on American Jewry. In terms of demographic growth and religious observance, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews are very similar to non-Chabad Charedim, but in terms of outreach to the non-Orthodox world and engagement with the non-Jewish world, the Chabad movement is more similar to the Modern Orthodox. “It would be interesting to get more of a sense of the spectrum,” Sarna said.

Cooperman said he’d love to be able to more deeply analyze the Charedi community, which he would further divide among Chasidic Jews and “yeshivish” Jews, but added that the difficulty of studying such a small group of the U.S. population would be very expensive and difficult. “We’re looking into subdivisions that are two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population,” Cooperman said.

The next major Pew survey of American Jewry likely won’t be for several years, Cooperman said, explaining that the cost and complexity of the survey makes doing it annually impractical. And while this report certainly indicates where American Jewry may be headed, Cooperman cautioned against conflating a glimpse at the present with a forecasted trajectory.

“A snapshot in time cannot predict the future,” he said.

If these trends do hold, though, they could indicate a monumental shift in American Jewry in terms of Modern Orthodoxy’s role within it. “Nobody will be surprised if a generation from now, instead of being 10 percent, they’re 20 percent,” Sarna said.

What ‘Divergent’ can teach us about post-denominational Judaism

Disclaimer: Having only seen the movie, I won’t speak about the other two books of the trilogy. This article contains spoilers.

Picture a society that subdivides its members into factions, each of which has a unique virtue, and then enforces a separation of those groups so strict that it hunts down any person who would dare blur the boundaries. 

This is a brief plot summary of “Divergent,” a new hit film adaptation of a dystopian young adult novel that frequently has been compared to “The Hunger Games.” But with a few — admittedly significant — tweaks, the same story could also describe the landscape of contemporary American Judaism. 

“Divergent” is set in a world that has divided itself into five factions in order to “keep the peace.” Each faction has its own unique virtue. There’s Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Erudite, the intelligent; Dauntless, the brave; and Abnegation, the selfless — the faction our heroine, Tris, is born into.

At age 16, people are given the choice to pick the faction they want to be in for the rest of their lives. This choice is largely based on an aptitude test that indicates which of their personality traits is most dominant. It’s rare that test results show more than one trait; those whose results do just that are labeled “Divergents,” and they are hunted, because society believes that they pose a threat to its very fabric. 

Tris is a Divergent. And even though she chooses to become a Dauntless, she never quite fits in there. She must keep her identity secret, or risk facing death.

The lines are cut differently in Judaism; there’s no perfect analogy between, for instance, Reform and Abnegation or Orthodox and Erudite. And yet, we similarly divide ourselves into “factions.” 

We’ve heard dismissals of members from one faction by those in another: The arrogant Orthodox sneer at anyone less meticulously observant; the Conservative are kidding if they think they can sustain halachic lifestyles balanced with an ever-demanding focus on secularism; today’s Reform Jews are tomorrow’s unaffiliated Jews — and don’t even start on so-called “fringe” movements such as Open Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Renewal, etc.

That line of thinking will only continue to tear us apart, not only because of its inherent baseless hatred, but because strict denominational thinking leaves no room for Divergents. And, unlike in the fictional world set forth in “Divergent,” Divergents are anything but rare in our reality.

I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, but I feel comfortable davening in a minyan without a mechitzah, where men and women sit together. I won’t eat a bite of food that isn’t certified as strictly kosher, but you’ll almost never find me wearing a skirt below my knee.

And it’s not just me. I heard the wife of a Chabad rabbi give a lecture — to a co-ed crowd, with her proud husband present — about the halachic inconsistencies regarding the mechitzah. I’ve known numerous friends to bounce from rabbinical school to rabbinical school. I’ve known Orthodox people who watch TV on Shabbat and Reform friends who wouldn’t dare.

We don’t all fit squarely along denomination lines. Some people are comfortable pretending: Choosing the denomination that fits closest, learning the rules of that space and acting accordingly. But some of us can’t. In one moment, we might be focused on tikkun olam, in another eschew davening, and in another, boil a “dairy” ladle for use in chicken soup. And when someone asks what kind of Jew we are, we don’t know. We pick an answer that’s half-true, and the inevitable follow-up “But you do X …” — is inevitably painful.

But there is a remedy: post-denominational Judaism. Contrary to interdenominational groups that largely serve only “left-wing” populations, I’m referring to a place where whatever stringencies one needs for halacha are found, as are all the loopholes. Maybe it’s not a synagogue — it’s difficult, for instance, to have women lead services and not have women lead services and still all be together. 

It might not be a place at all, but rather an understanding — that the synagogues and schools we do or don’t attend, the rabbis we do or don’t adhere to, don’t define us. It’s an understanding that we can perhaps attend a Conservative rabbinical school and pray in an Orthodox synagogue and send our children to a Reform summer camp without any one of those organizations questioning our loyalty, devotion or commitment. Because at the end of the day, our loyalty, devotion and commitment are not to a denomination, but rather to a religion, a faith, a people.

The search for identity in a sectarian world is tough, as Four, another Divergent that Tris falls in love with, illustrates. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four tells her. “I can’t be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest, and kind. Well, I’m still working on kind.”

There are important values in each Jewish denomination that are missing from the others, values that many of us want to embody — or at least, like Four, try to. But instead of having the freedom to explore, to work together and round ourselves out, American Jews have created a system wherein we succumb to boxes and labels and confine ourselves to simply being one thing. 

In doing so, we’ve created a space where Divergents have to hide. But if life imitates art — spoiler alert — they can’t keep hiding.

Cindy Kaplan is a comedy writer who has written for Disney, Yahoo!, Electus, VEVO, and G-dcast. She studied American Studies, Journalism, and Creative Writing at Brandeis University.

Jews the ever-dying people: A Reform perspective on the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans

The historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with our constant fear of extinction as the “ever-dying” people.  He wrote the essay 27 years ago, does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seem that every few years, a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community–Jewish continuity–in serious danger.

Such was the case this week with the publication of the

Getting ready for baby

Rabbi Julia Weisz found herself in a bit of a conundrum when she became an expectant mother.

On the one hand, the rabbi and director of education at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas was cautious about holding a baby shower. In the earlier stages of her pregnancy — she is due to have her first child in July — she said, “It seemed uncomfortable for me to celebrate something that wasn’t here.”

However, her Reform congregation wanted to honor her pregnancy. Ultimately, she agreed to have one in May. 

“A baby shower is a good way to bring the community together around something positive,” Weisz said. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do something to help.”

When it comes to Jewish laws and customs, there are many different opinions on every lifecycle event — from birth to marriage to death. Baby showers are no exception.

While some Jews and clergy have no problem with throwing baby showers, others won’t even select a name for a baby prior to birth. There are no textual laws banning celebrations before the baby is born, but in some circles, it’s customary not to hold them. 

“It’s a little bit arrogant to assume the baby is going to be born,” said Rabbi Chaim Bryski of Chabad of Thousand Oaks. “Traditionally, we don’t tell anybody about the pregnancy, not even until the third or fourth month. To make a party to honor the baby would be uncomfortable from a traditional perspective, but there is no law that says you can’t.”

Some believe that if a baby’s name is uttered or his or her life is celebrated before birth, the evil eye, or ayin harah, might harm it, according to Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative shul in Encino. 

“In our tradition, there is the theological and religious idea that a new life is very tenuous,” he said. “One of the superstitions is that the evil eye knows who to run after because they know the name of the person. If someone gets really sick, they can change their Hebrew name to escape the angel of death. We don’t do a lot to celebrate the baby in order to protect it from the possibility of its own demise.”

After a baby is born, more traditional Jewish families will celebrate by sponsoring Kiddush meals at their synagogues or hosting a shalom zachar, or a drop-in party for a baby boy, on the Friday night after he is born. 

Bryski suggests registering for gifts, and once the baby is born, they can be delivered. He said that if something happens to a baby, it adds to the pain the parents experience to be surrounded by presents.

Still, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish has no hesitation about having a baby shower, particularly because of modern medical advances.

“In today’s world, where you know a baby is healthy and you have such a high rate of successful pregnancies, a baby shower is totally acceptable,” said the rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills.

One of Hanish’s congregants, Sarah Knopf, a mother of three, had a baby shower for her first son. Although she grew up with a superstitious grandmother, she wasn’t convinced that there was anything negative about it. 

“I needed to have everything done and organized before he came,” she said. “I’m a planner, so that made me feel better. I would have gone crazy.”

Farkas said that at VBS, which has 5,000 members, traditions vary. 

“Most of the congregation does do baby showers of different types. In our community, it’s not homogeneous by any means,” he said. “Some in the community will give babies names, and then there are some who [won’t do anything before a baby is born]. Some are in between. That reflects the larger Jewish community.”

Like Knopf, VBS member Nikki Eigler chose to hold a shower because she wanted to plan before the baby arrived. She said, “I’m a person who needs to be prepared. I did not want to come home from the hospital without having anything in the house.”

Allison Lotterstein, a congregant at Kol Tikvah, had no concerns either. She, like many expectant mothers, just wanted a way to commemorate a new life coming into the world. 

“Every pregnancy should be celebrated,” she said. “In my mind and in the minds of the people who threw me a shower, my baby was a blessing.

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.

Nine months after Israeli court ruling, non-Orthodox rabbis still fighting for equal pay

In a precedent-setting decision, Israel's Supreme Court ruled last May that a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold, should be paid a state salary, just like her Orthodox colleagues.

The Reform and Conservative movements hailed the decision as a step closer to full equality for non-Orthodox religious denominations.

But Gold, who works as a rabbi at Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, still has yet to see her first government paycheck.

The government says Gold has not fulfilled the criteria set by the state for non-Orthodox rabbis. Gold and her allies say the criteria are onerous and unfairly set different conditions for Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis.

In a bid to challenge the rules, Gold, another non-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, and the Conservative and Reform movements filed a new court petition last week.

“I can’t tell you how aggravating it is,” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, told JTA. “We thought this was a victory, and then it started to be a rigmarole. It’s a real insult.”

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling determined that Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities could be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and receive wages equal to those granted by the state to Orthodox rabbis.

Several caveats, however, set special conditions for non-Orthodox clergy. The decision applied only to Israel’s regional councils — large districts of rural communities — but not Israeli cities. The rabbis would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry, which pays Orthodox rabbis. The non-Orthodox rabbis would not have religious legal authority over such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion.

Two months ago, the Ministry of Culture and Sport released its new criteria for non-Orthodox rabbis to collect state salaries. To be eligible, the rabbis must work full-time and be present at their congregation for at least 40 Sabbaths per year. Only rabbis of congregations with at least 250 members can receive full-time pay; those leading congregations of 50-250 members may receive half a salary even though they’d be required to work full-time.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis do not need to work a certain number of hours, and there is no minimum size requirement for their congregations to qualify for salaries.

Aside from the obvious inequalities, the new rules put Gold in something of a Catch-22 in 2012: Unable to raise a full-time salary on her own last year, she worked only half-time. As a result, she won't be paid at all for her work in 2012.

“Part of the reason our rabbis are part-time is that there isn’t enough funding,” Gold told JTA. “The idea is to have more of an even playing field. The more we can be available to people, the richer Jewish life will be in this country.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Or Doron, said non-Orthodox rabbis are paid according to “set criteria” and that the ministry uses the same pay scale as those for Orthodox rabbis. Just two non-Orthodox rabbis currently meet the criteria for state wages: Rabbis Yoav Ende of Kibbutz Hannaton and Shai Zarchi of Nigun Halev, a congregation in the town of Nahalal, near Haifa.

Doron said that in light of complaints submitted by the Reform and Conservative movements, the ministry is considering changing its criteria for 2013 to allow for part-time salaries. Reform and Conservative advocates say the change is coming too slowly; last week’s court petition is an attempt to push things along.

“It’s hard to move these things without the courts,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, the lawyer who submitted the petition. Aside from Gold, the other rabbi named in the petition is Benjie Gruber, a Conservative rabbi from Kibbutz Yahel in southern Israel.

Gold says she sees one potential glimmer of hope: the makeup of the new Knesset.

The Yesh Atid party, which controls 19 seats, includes advocates for religious pluralism such as the liberal Jewish scholar Ruth Calderon. In her inaugural Knesset speech, Calderon called for equal state support for secular and pluralistic institutions on par with Orthodox ones. Gold hopes that means a wider push for the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis.

“Meaningful change can happen in the Knesset,” Gold said. “It would be healthier if some of these decisions were coming out of the government and we wouldn’t have to run to the court.”

Editorial Cartoon: Cutting the cake

Israeli weddings

Amar: Better to pray alone than with Reform

Israel's Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said in a Rosh Hashanah message that it is better for a Jew to pray by himself than with Reform Jews.

Amar made the comment in a pre-holiday interview with the right-wing Orthodox newspaper Makor Rishon that was published Sunday.

Amar called Reform Judaism more of a threat to the religion than secular Jews. He also called Reform marriages invalid.

He called on the Orthodox community to reach out to secular Israelis while they are still in school, saying that if they are not reached, the Reform movement “will find them.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, in a statement responded to Amar' s allegations.

“It is sad that Rabbi Amar chooses the holiest time of the Jewish year, which should celebrate Jewish unity, to pursue his sectarian fundamentalist views,” Regev said in the statement. “Rabbi Amar’s misguided insights generate a schism and worse yet, so long as he occupies the seat of Chief Rabbi, he is driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.

“Rather than seek fault with fellow Jews, he would better delve into his own soul and realize that most Israeli and world Jews want to align Judaism with modernity and democracy. It is pluralism and diversity which Israel and Judaism need today, not religious coercion and sectarianism.”

Diversity is good for Jewish college students

In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

More Reform rabbis performing interfaith weddings

Danny Richter and his fiancée, Lauren Perkins, have never been to a Jewish wedding, yet this fall, the interfaith couple is planning to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event marks other significant firsts: It also will be the first time that Rabbi Jill Perlman, assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., has ever officiated at an interfaith wedding. In fact, it will be the first time that any clergy from the Reform congregation — Richter’s family synagogue for three generations — will have done so.

While the congregation has approved Perlman’s participation, it has yet to decide if intermarriages may take place within the synagogue itself.

The changes under way at Temple Isaiah are part of the new norm in the Reform movement as it continues to explore how best to respond to such unions, shifting its approach on the sensitive issue of its rabbis officiating at intermarriages.

The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It’s part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said.

CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it’s about half.

The organization “believes it is not an appropriate way to judge someone as a rabbi,” Person said of performing the ceremonies.

While Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Howard Jaffe, describes the change since he was ordained in 1983 as seismic, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says the change has been evolutionary. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it has become much more common in the past decade for Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages.

In fact, next month CCAR will publish a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, the first such manual prepared for the organization, according to Person.

Written by Paula Brody, director of the URJ’s Outreach Training Institute, the manual is intended for use with all couples but includes a separate section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples. The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody said.

Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she said. 

The manual also includes suggestions for follow-up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.

Some rabbis set conditions before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage, such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews.

Rabbi Lev Baesh worries such conditions turn off couples. “It matters so much for a rabbi to say ‘yes,’ ” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.

That’s why Isaiah’s Perlman agreed to do Richter’s wedding ceremony.

As a rabbinical student, Perlman said, she was not comfortable with the idea. But she has shifted her views since her 2010 ordination. “It’s a blessing, in my opinion, to be there in that moment,” she said.

Isaiah’s Jaffe remains deeply committed to the view that Jewish marriage can only take place between two Jews, and that the rabbi’s role is to facilitate this marriage. But, after a year of a year of study and discussion of the subject with Perlman and Cantor Lisa Doob, he says he is comfortable under certain circumstances with his associate rabbi officiating at intermarriages.

He also said he is no longer so certain that his personal opposition outweighs the potential loss of a couple from Jewish life.

As more congregants, like Richter, approach him as their family rabbi, he said he recognizes his view of Jewish marriage is seen as a rejection. “I am aware of the impact of my saying, ‘I love you, I want to welcome you into the Jewish community, but I am not able to officiate.’ I know that in most cases, the words, ‘I am not able,’ are heard as, ‘I am rejecting you,’ even though that is not the message I am intending,” Jaffe said. 

Jewish population studies have found that as many as 50 percent of Jewish households include a non-Jewish partner. Observers suggest that the number is even higher when one looks at the dating population.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate at interfaith marriages. The Conservative movement does, however, engage in outreach work with interfaith couples at all stages of their lives, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Reform, Orthodox campers to join for Fourth of July celebration

Orthodox and Reform Jewish campers will hold a joint Fourth of July celebration.

The Americafest celebration next week, which will bring campers from the Orthodox Camp Darom in Grenada, Miss., to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., was made possible by a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

The celebration will mark the first time the two camps have come together for an intercamp program day, and will include a Fourth of July parade featuring campers from both camps, an afternoon carnival, an outdoor concert by Jewish musician Dan Nichols and fireworks.

“While the two camps practice their Judaism differently, their missions are very much the same: to strengthen the Jewish identity of young people from small and isolated Southern Jewish communities by providing them with outstanding programs and powerful Jewish memories,” Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen, the Jacobs camp director, said in a statement. “Jacobs Camp’s motto, ‘A Jewish Place at a Southern Pace,’ will surely ring true during this one-of-a-kind celebration.”

Reform congregations in Hungary turn to court for recognition

The European Union for Progressive Judaism and Hungary’s two Reform congregations took their case against Hungary’s new law on religion to the European Court of Human Rights in The Hague.

The two synagogues, Sim Shalom and Bet Orim, said in a statement that they had submitted an application Tuesday to the court “concerning the violation of their human rights” caused by the “Church Law.” The new law, which became effective Jan. 1, grants official recognition to three streams of Judaism in Hungary: Neolog (Hungarian Conservative), Orthodox and Status-quo (associated with Chabad-Lubavitch) congregations.

“As a consequence of the entry in force of the Act, the ‘church’ status of the Hungarian [Reform] congregations was revoked,” the statement said.

The two Reform communities contend that the new law is “illegal” and “discriminatory,” the statement said, and had already called on the Hungarian Constitutional Court to annul it.

Opinion: Reform Judaism has obligation to change

Today’s Reform movement is built on the shoulders of our 19th-century Reform forbearers who took Jewish tradition in an entirely new direction, re-envisioning our sacred texts and practices in the light of scientific inquiry and the new frontiers of human thought. Today we embrace the best of tradition and modernity, science and spirituality. Ours is the Judaism of autonomy, inclusiveness, creativity, passion, relevance and depth.

Reform Judaism is unafraid to change our tradition when it holds us back from growing and deepening our faith. For us, change is not only permitted but obligatory. And sometimes it isn’t even fast enough.

Ours is an inclusive Judaism. For too long the Jewish community had no place for interfaith families and LGBTQ Jews. But then Rabbi Alexander Schindler, one of my predecessors, taught us the sacred power of inclusion. Our loving embrace of all who had been excluded has added to our numbers and to our strength.

That’s one reason I choose to have my installation service at Congregation Beth Elohim, in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a very different place today than it was in 1861 when CBE was founded.

For the past 150 years CBE has responded to the constant changes in the world beyond its walls. Its magnificent building reflects the grandeur of the early 20th century, and yet the building is not what makes this place so special. This great Reform synagogue refused to allow its evolution to be thwarted by those who venerate only the past. All along the way its leaders renewed their sense of purpose and mission.

At first CBE’s rabbi wasn’t sure that CBE would be right for the installation because the building is undergoing renovation. But we came to agree—CBE today is a fitting metaphor for our movement, which is undergoing a different kind of renovation as together we re-imagine Reform Judaism for the 21st century.

No questions are off limits in our texts. In America, Reform’s early leaders defined our core mission largely in social justice terms: “to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by … the evils of the present organization of society.” That sacred mission still inspires commitment among Jews of all ages.

Indeed, the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community make serious claims on us. Our texts and our history call to us to live lives of courage and conviction.

Reform Judaism teaches that each of us is an autonomous individual, able to make thoughtful, religious choices. And yet there is more.

Consider this: Your daughter has the lead in the school play. The play is scheduled during one of the busiest weeks in your year, but still you mark the date of the performance in your calendar with red ink. Are you obligated to be there?

The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas taught that we come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other, a gaze that demands a response from us. By this, Levinas means that relationships always come with obligations. Is it written somewhere that we have to go to our child’s school play? No. Some of the covenants in our lives are unwritten, others written, but they are all binding.

Reform Judaism, when practiced with commitment, is no less demanding than other expressions of Judaism—and some would argue even more demanding because we do not practice our religion by rote but by informed choice.

And informed choice invariably leads to change. To those who claim “Reform Judaism ain’t what it used to be,” I say, “Reform Judaism ain’t supposed to be what it used to be; it’s supposed to be in a constant state of change, adaptation and growth.”

From the shoulders of our ancestors, we can—and must—see both the past and the promise of the future.

Before the establishment of the Jewish state, David Ben-Gurion sought the wise counsel of his trusted colleague Yitzhak Tabenkin in making a crucial decision. Tabenkin gave Ben-Gurion his counsel, and Israel’s first prime minister said, “I accept what you say, but from whom did you seek advice?” “From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died 10 years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born.”

Just as our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian slavery, we Reform Jews were liberated from the yoke of traditional Jewish life that had stifled those who founded our movement. Our observance and our rituals are always evolving. This is the essence of our Reform Judaism, as each individual finds their path to their covenant with God.

(Rabbi Rick Jacobs was installed as the new president the Union for Reform Judaism on June 9. This article is adapted from his installation sermon. The full text is available at .)

Letters to the Editor: Reform Judaism, job searches, high-speed rail

The Real Reform Judaism

In a recent broadside, David Mamet accuses Reform Judaism of surrendering “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual, the Eastern European Jews and currently [toying] with condemnation of its co-religionaries in Israel” (“Conflict, Choice and Surrender,” Nov. 18). Unfortunately, he ignores the facts.

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which educates clergy and leaders for Reform Judaism and beyond, sends all of our rabbinical, cantorial and education students for a full academic year to our Jerusalem campus. Meanwhile, our Israeli rabbinical students split the horns of the false dilemma between religious and secular life, modeling a viable form of Hebraic and Zionist Judaism at the heart of Israeli culture. Reform Judaism also sustains the Israel Religious Action Center and the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Hebrew is a staple in Reform services, as is our millennial tradition of mutual aid. Shabbat services, Torah study and religious schools in Reform synagogues are bustling affairs, binding Jews to our sources, our past and each other.

In short, Reform Judaism dedicates the human and financial resources to, and stakes its political and social capital on, these efforts. Admittedly, we are not fundamentalist in our commitment to “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual,” but we most certainly have done the hard work of bringing “Eastern European Jews, [our] co-religionaries in Israel” and the plurality of affiliated North American Jews closer to those things. Far from surrendering them, as Mamet suggests, Reform Judaism is advancing the cause.

Joshua Holo
Dean, Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, Los Angeles Campus

Wanted: Help Wanted Ads

I read your recent cover story on unemployment (“Still Unemployed: Out of Luck but Not Out of Hope,” Nov. 25) with much interest as my family has been impacted dramatically since I was laid off (with eight others) two years ago by a large Jewish nonprofit. The point I would most like to share is that there is an amazing lack of employment advertising in your otherwise excellent newspaper. Perhaps offering “help wanted” and “seeking employment” ads for free or at a steeply discounted rate would encourage our community to step up and help each other at this very difficult time. I suggest a partnership with JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) to add a regular column that features its clients.

Israel Scott Kotzen
via e-mail

Offering Bridges to Employers

Diane Goodman clearly articulates the terrible frustration experienced by job seekers relying solely on the online submission process to secure employment (Letters, Dec. 2). There is no doubt that the dynamics of today’s job search process are radically different from even a few years ago with the advent of and other services. 

She references JVS in her letter and states that all of the job postings secured by JVS for our clients are online. Though we do offer an online job bank (free to both job seekers and employers), what distinguishes our system is the role of the JVS case managers and job developers, who act as a bridge between the client and prospective employer — a key factor that sets our services apart. In addition, JVS offers job seekers comprehensive resources, vocational training opportunities and the chance to refresh and increase their basic skills (resume and interview workshops and free computer training, for example) to make them more competitive as candidates.

Most important, clients of our WorkSource Centers have the benefit of an experienced and integrated team dedicated solely to assisting them in their job search so they don’t have to navigate through this daunting process alone.

Katherine Moore
JVS Los Angeles 

It Is the Best of Times

Bravo and thank you for your so truthful Thanksgiving editorial (“Proud Bastards,” Nov. 25). I cannot possibly agree with you more that we are living in the best of times. Unfortunately, some of our paranoid fellow Jews seem to benefit from creating fear and take any chance, real or unreal, to gain and promote their self-fulfilling prophecies, or businesses.

The biggest threat to our survival can only come from within us.

Jacqueline Levian
via e-mail

Give Rail a Chance

As a professor of environmental law, I find that Greenberg’s cartoon (“Bull-It Train,” Nov. 25) leaves out crucial facts about the California High-Speed Rail project. Greenberg claims that the bullet train will have low ridership, cost too much and fail to make a profit. But the cartoonist is contradicted by similar rail projects’ popularity in other parts of the world, costs saved by reducing pollution damage to natural resources from airline and auto trips eliminated, and the long-term health benefits of a cleaner environment. In a parallel example of ecological improvement, clean air regulations and enforcement since the 1970s have made the Los Angeles basin less smoggy than it has been in decades, despite exaggerated fears about cost and diminished profits. Let’s not let fear get in the way of successful planning. 

Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law, Whittier Law School

Dear David Mamet: Reform Judaism doesn’t surrender

Read David Mamet’s opinion piece here: Conflict, choice and surrender

David Mamet’s recent, meandering tirade demands a response, even if cogency permits only a partial rejoinder. So, I will limit myself to where he begins and I where I “live,” with the Reform Movement.

He accuses Reform Judaism of categorically surrendering “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual, the Eastern European Jews, and currently toys with condemnation of its co-religionaries in Israel.” Thence, Mr. Mamet connects the Reform Movement to anti-Israel sentiment located on a spectrum that spans naïveté and, implicitly, self-hatred.

In the end, his condemnation avoids facts and invokes, in their stead, inapposite truisms. If “Napoleon taught us the logical end of purely defensive warfare is surrender,” Mamet has yet to demonstrate that Reform Judaism does indeed surrender. He omits the evidence, because it contradicts his argument.

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which educates and trains clergy and leadership for the Reform Movement and beyond, maintains a campus in Jerusalem. There, we send all of our non-Israeli rabbinical, cantorial and education students for a full academic year, as we have since 1970. Despite market pressures to ease up on this requirement, HUC-JIR has held firm, because in part in defines us.

In Jerusalem, we also run a program for Israeli Reform rabbis, who invigorate Israeli Judaism with the progressive values (Hebraic and Zionist values) to which most Israelis subscribe. These committed leaders split the horns of the false Israeli dilemma between religious and secular life. And in so doing, they put Jewish religion at the heart—rather than at the margins— of the project of the Jewish State.

Reform Judaism also created the Israel Religious Action Center and the Association of Reform Zionists of America (find their link under the “Israel” tab at, both dedicated not only to the core Zionist goal of a thriving Jewish State but also to its Jewish soul.

In ritual and halakhic terms, Mr. Mamet offers nothing more than an anachronistic caricature, and in so doing, debases the Jewish communal conversation. Hebrew is a staple in Reform services, as is the millennial tradition of mutual aid. In theory, we are more flexible on matters of halakha than other non-Orthodox movements, but it’s not clear to me that our practice differs all that much. Shabbat services in Reform synagogues are lively affairs. Torah study for adults and religious schools for children flourish, and Reform Jews’ connectedness to Judaism—traditional and progressive—thickens day by day.

As for our condemnation of fellow Jews in Israel: It is true that we will condemn someone for gratuitous violence, as we did in response to the recent arson attack on an Israeli mosque. And it is true that we will argue with fellow Jews for much less. But Mr. Mamet chooses to overlook the crucial fact that we argue with our coreligionists and, I trust, they requite le-shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. We struggle with God Himself for the same purpose, namely, to work out the relationship between the sanctity of our Covenant, on the one hand, and the messy frailty of our worldly experience, on the other. Reform Judaism will not apologize for willingly, zealously engaging in that struggle, including both its traditional and modern aspects.

For the sake of that argument, allow me to concede that it is true that in the nineteenth century, the Reform Movement did begin to take major steps in distancing itself from traditional forms of Judaism. It is also true that a large part of the American Reform Movement was non- or anti-Zionist leading up to 1948. For that very reason, Stephen S. Wise created a Reform alternative, known as the Jewish Institute of Religion, an avowedly Zionist academy. Following Israeli independence, the Hebrew Union College merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion, embracing its Zionism.

The same Stephen S. Wise founded the American Jewish Congress, a more aggressive advocacy group than the older American Jewish Committee, which preferred a more staid form of stadlanut. In both guises, however, the Reform Movement—together with American Jews of all stripes—pursued the interests of immigrants from Eastern Europe both prior to and during the Holocaust. Likewise widespread solidarity characterized all American Jews’ aid for our brethren held captive in the Soviet Union.

Reform Judaism dedicates the human and financial resources to, and stakes its political and social capital on, those efforts. If you are affiliated with a Reform synagogue, you are directly supporting them.

Let us, therefore, examine the notion of “surrender,” attributed to us by Mr. Mamet. Reform Judaism is the plurality of affiliated North-American Jewry, actively furthering the interests “Hebrew, the Talmud, kashrut, ritual, the Eastern European Jews, and [our] co-religionaries in Israel.” Far from surrendering these things, the Reform Movement does the hard work of bring North-American Jewry closer to them.

Mr. Mamet may not like our style. Fortunately for him, Reform Judaism will not accede to a monopolization of the Jewish conversation.

Reform defends Richard Jacobs as critics attack his Israel positions

An angry exchange over the Zionist credentials of the incoming president of the Reform movement has intensified and exploded onto the public stage.

The conflict pits the movement’s leadership against a group of dissidents who say they represent a growing number of Reform Jews upset by the movement’s “leftward shift.”

Last week the dissident group, which calls itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership and is led by Washington-area Zionist activist Carol Greenwald, placed an ad in a number of Jewish newspapers criticizing the recent appointment of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Greenwald, who is on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, also has an Op-Ed in JTA slamming Jacobs.

The ad, signed by some three dozen members of U.S. Reform congregations, suggested that Jacobs is not sufficiently pro-Israel to head their religious denomination. It notes that he is on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and the board of the New Israel Fund, two organizations that promote left-wing causes related to Israel.

The ad calls upon the Union for Reform Judaism to reconsider Jacobs’ appointment or risk driving “mainstream Zionists” out of the Reform movement.

Stuart Weil, a citrus grower in Fresno, Calif., and a lifelong member of the Reform movement who signed the ad, said he is outraged by “the leftist agenda of the Reform movement,” which he says has intensified in recent years.

“Yoffie and Saperstein have turned the Reform movement into an affiliate of the Democratic Party,” he told JTA, referring to current URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Reform leaders in North America and Israel quickly mobilized a response to the attack on Jacobs, circulating a letter signed by a variety of Jewish leaders affirming Jacobs’ support for Israel, as well as authoring opinion columns praising Jacobs and condemning divisiveness in the community.

Jacobs himself used an appearance Monday in Washington at the Religious Action Center to stress his Zionist credentials and advocate for “big tent” Zionism.

“In times of crisis, it is not uncommon for lovers of Israel to close in tight around only a narrow slice of the community. But Israel is not served by such a narrow tent,” Jacobs said. “I believe that Israel’s security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society.”

The rabbi, whose nomination must be confirmed by the URJ board in June, noted his lifelong activism in support of Israel along with his deep commitment to what he described as the state’s democratic foundation.

Jacobs, 55, is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was tapped in March as the president-designate of the URJ, which claims 1.5 million members and nearly 900 synagogues.

“I have known Rabbi Jacobs intimately and personally for more than 15 years, and if he is not a friend and lover of Israel, then these categories have no meaning,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote in an Op-Ed in JTA this week.

Hartman said that while Jacobs’ critics “undoubtedly mean well,” their “nervousness” about Israel’s security is coloring their approach to Jacobs.

Leaders of the Reform movement’s seminaries in North America and Israel took a harsher tone against the dissidents in an Op-Ed that appeared on the Jewish Journal website.

The authors—Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Michael Marmur, the college’s vice president for academic affairs; and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of its Jerusalem campus—blasted the dissident group’s “distorted caricature” of Jacobs and said the “handful” of signatories on the ad they published were out of touch with current Zionist norms.

“The fact that those who have assaulted Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity have wrapped themselves in the flag of Zionist purity is particularly galling,” the Op-Ed said. Decrying the “the tactics of witch-hunting and demagoguery,” the Op-Ed called Jacobs “a model of constructive engagement.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said attacks on Jacobs’ character and reputation, whether coming from within or outside the Reform movement, “are harmful to the spirit of unity and common cause that unites the Jewish people.”

That sentiment was echoed in a letter of support for Jacobs signed by two former chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a pair of Conservative leaders.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, told JTA that he could not remember a similar public outcry against the appointment of a movement leader focusing on the individual’s position on Israel.

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.”

Reform launches special-needs summer programs

The Union for Reform Judaism has launched two new summer programs for children with special needs.

Camp Chazak in Massachusetts, opening this summer, is for middle-school children with communication and social delays. It has recreational and therapeutic programming.

Like the Reform movement’s existing programs for autistic teens—the Mitzvah Corps program at Camp Kutz in Warwick, N.Y., and the Camp Nefesh program at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif.—the new camp aims to provide a Jewish experience to youngsters often left out of mainstream opportunities.

The second new program, Israel in a Special Way, is a travel program to Israel for older teenagers with learning disabilities and emotional/social difficulties. It is the first Reform program in Israel for those with special needs.

More information on the programs is available at

Charedis’ Political Clout a Threat to Israel, Regev Says

The most serious internal problem facing Israel is the political clout exerted by the Charedim  (ultra-Orthodox), which threatens the future unity, economic development and military readiness of the state.

This is the firm conviction of Rabbi Uri Regev, who recently spent a week in Los Angeles to garner support for Hiddush, a year-old organization whose motto calls for “religious freedom and equality in Israel.”

Regev, a native-born Israeli, Reform leader and president/CEO of Hiddush (Hebrew for innovation or renewal), co-founded the movement with Los Angeles business executive Stanley Gold, who serves as chairman.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Regev, 59, argued with characteristic intensity and passion that “the Israeli public will no longer tolerate selling Israel’s future to the Charedi parties … and a Charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate which controls its life from birth to death and almost everything in between.”

As backup, he cited a poll taken last summer asking which internal confrontation most threatened Israel’s social cohesion.

Some 73 percent considered Charedi versus secular as the most serious split, trailed by the political left versus right, rich versus poor, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and new immigrants versus settled residents, Regev said.

Conventional wisdom has it that while most non-Charedim Israelis chafe under religious controls, they feel powerless or are too wrapped up in more immediate problems to exert much effort to change the situation.

Regev maintained that such alleged passivity no longer holds true, as shown by two mass demonstrations last year.

One protested a government attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that would have eliminated 135 million shekels (about $38 million) in public funds to subsidize 11,000 married yeshiva students.

The second protest was aimed at Charedi government officials who ruled that an emergency medical station could not be built adjoining the Barzilai Medical Center in rocket-rattled Ashkelon because the building site contained ancient Jewish bones, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary, Regev said.

But what riles Hiddush and most of the non-Charedi population the most is the exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service, mandatory for all other Israeli men and women.

The exemption goes back to the founding of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service. 

The number now has grown to 65,000, after almost doubling during the past decade, and, given the high birthrate in Charedi families, will dangerously cut into the country’s future military manpower, Regev argued.

A parallel danger, he said, is to the state’s economic future, since many Charedim do not enter the work force or are not prepared to do so because they lack the necessary education and skills.

Underlying much of the problem is the disproportionate power held by Charedi political parties, which represent a minority of the population but frequently hold the balance of power in Israel’s multiparty coalition governments.

The solution, however, does not lie in the efforts of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded in Los Angeles, and of other advocates to reform the Israeli electoral system to resemble those of the United States or Britain.

“We need not wait for a fundamental government reform,” Regev said. “Israel will always have at least three parties, so the religious will always be the swing vote.”

However, Hiddush’s platfom does not impress Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair for Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola University Law School and a frequent Orthodox spokesman.

He disputed that the Israeli population is primarily secular. Rather, he said, “Most Israelis are neither Orthodox nor Reform nor secular, but traditional. They make kiddush on Friday night, keep kosher, attend synagogue and in general maintain a level of observance far exceeding that of the American Jewish community.”

Adlerstein said that among American Jews, the strongest support for aliyah and financial contributions to Israel comes from the Orthodox sector.

If support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, it is because “they are not into their Jewishness,” not because they fear Orthodox domination, Adlerstein said.

If the Chief Rabbinate seems at times out of touch with present realities, he added, the answer is not to hit them over the head with a mallet.

During its current start-up year, Hiddush has been operating on a $500,000 budget and skeleton staff, both incentives for Regev’s recent fundraising trip, his first, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Hiddush obtained its nonprofit tax status from the IRS quite recently, and, without the support network of more established Israeli organizations, Regev relied mainly on contributions from Gold’s L.A. friends.

However, Hiddush’s brochure outlines a series of long-range projects, including use of social media in Israel and the Diaspora, alliances with like-minded groups, legal challenges, investigative media reports, special outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel and “report cards” on the votes of Knesset members.

For additional information, visit

Reform looking at ways to reinvent the movement

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team, called the Reform Think Tank, want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions—the synagogue movement, rabbinical association and seminary—nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion—we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’

Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at

Briefs: Interfaith call to action from Reform organization, Conservatives reflect on future

Interfaith Call to Action

The prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” Why the word “justice” and not “charity?” Because justice addresses the root of a problem, Rabbi Suzanne Singer said, paraphrasing Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism and the man who started the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, the Religious Action Center.

“Congregations tend to be good at doing a mitzvah day — feed the hungry, clothing the poor — and that’s very important, but we also need to spend time addressing the root of the problem, so there are fewer hungry people, fewer poor people,” said Rabbi Singer, the chair of Interfaith Call to Justice: LA 2007. The Nov. 11-12 conference will be a two-day interfaith social justice training and community strategy planning conference.

Singer organized her first advocacy conference in 2005 at Temple Sinai of Oakland, and the upcoming southern conference follows the same model. An interfaith effort with some 60 sponsors, “the point of the conference is to help congregants get involved in [local] legislative and public policy advocacy,” she said. While her first conference focused on the problems — housing costs, hunger, poverty, etc. — this one will focus on how to solve those problems, by teaching participants effective advocacy, community organizing, and working with existing organizations in those fields.

But why interfaith?

“Each one of our faiths mandates that we must take care of strangers, widows, orphans,” Singer said. “We really need to join forces and come together. We can set our differences aside and work for common goals.”

Organizers request that participants sign up online by Friday, at

On The Future of Judaism

Being Jewish in the next generation is largely a matter of choice, Rabbi Arnold M. Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) said last Friday night at Temple Sinai. The seventh JTS chancellor was the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Scholar-in-Residence, and in the course of the weekend delivered three lectures on the future of American Judaism, including “Modernity, Mitzvah and the Future of American Judaism,” “The Meanings of Mitzvah” and “Rethinking Conservative Judaism.”

“Moses Mendelssohn already recognized that volunteerism, choice, autonomy, individual responsibility — while wonderful, wonderful things — complicate the job of [building] Jewish community,” Eisen said. Unlike Rashi and Rambam, Mendelssohn was the first Jewish thinker “who had to worry that the Jews who read his book might decide not to be Jewish because they didn’t like what he said in his book,” he said.

In other words, Jews today must confront the fact that — unlike in the past — being Jewish is largely voluntary. “Therefore, since we must persuade every Jew to step into a Jewish time and space … you can’t anymore presume that they should be here, or you have the right to demand they be here, because they’ll just run the other way if you do that — and you have to fill these spaces with contents that are so full of joy and excitement that they need to be here,” Eisen said. “This is not an easy thing.”

The way to do it is by building community — particularly Jewish camps and day schools that imbue the values of the community. “We are in the business of building communities. If we do not do this, nothing else will be successful in 2007 in the United States of America.”

Eisen spoke about denominationalism and the future of Conservative Judaism in greater depth on Sunday, but on Friday night he said the current trend toward post-denominationalism, or groups who may be Conservative in practice but don’t identify as such, are not a problem for the movement. “Conservative Jews don’t see it as a loss if they participate in a group that’s not labeled Conservative, but just Jewish,” Eisen said. He himself is a product of this trend, since years ago he belonged to the non-denominational Minyan Ma’at in New York, which later produced many of the faculty at JTS.

“What is best for the Jewish [community] is best. We’re not here to build up a particular movement; we’re here to build up the Jewish people,” Eisen said.

Nevertheless, he did say that where denominations fit in is that one can’t be a Jew in general, but eventually must make decisions such as where to send kids to school, what type of prayers one wants, what is one’s outlook on the world. “You’ll have to answer questions like this,” he said. “You’ll very likely band together with people who see things like you do.”

“I think that we have to get our minds around a different notion of what denominations are. They’re not ends in themselves. They’re not ultimate. They’re adjectives. There are things that are far more important,” he said. “It is not truly important whether there are Conservative Jews 100 years from now; it is important whether Torah exists, that God is talked about and believed in and acted upon. That is ultimately important….”

Reading ‘Jewish’

I heard recently that some people have complained that this column is too “Orthodox” — that there’s too much focus on the frum and kosher side of Judaism. Since thiscolumn is about an Orthodox neighborhood, that’s like complaining that a hockey writer spends too much time writing about hockey, but nevertheless it got me thinking about how Jews read about other Jews.

This was on my mind when I walked into Delice bakery the other day and saw a copy of Jewish Life magazine. Jewish Life is a monthly published by The Jewish Journal to appeal to religiously observant Jews. I’m not here to critique it or promote it, but it struck me that the magazine is like a microscopic view of the world that I write about every week.

If you think this column is too religious, wait until you see Jewish Life. If I snorkel into observant Judaism, then it goes deep-sea diving. If this column is “the hood,” then Jewish Life is the hood on steroids.

Take the latest issue. At first glance, it looks like another general-interest magazine with a self-help cover story: “Why Aren’t We Happier?” But open it up and you’ll see the kind of things that matter most to observant Jews.

On Page 4 of the first column (Ask Dr. T, a parenting advice column), a reader worries about the “chronic” problem of what her children should do with their Chanukah gelt. (Dr. Sara Teichman gives a six-paragraph answer to this “complex” problem).

In the next column, Marriage Matters, a “lovely single girl in her 20s” laments her single status:”The wait is killing me. It feels never ending and hopeless. Isn’t there something I can do? I mean, I know I have to daven hard, network with people and hope for the best, but isn’t there any more?”

Below the article is a little section on a new book titled, “Shidduch Secrets,” which includes practical advice on using one’s time productively while waiting for one’s beshert.

On the next page is a column called Shirmas Halashon with the headline, “Beware: Words Can Hurt” and this announcement right below: “With this column, Jewish Life begins our regular column on Hilchos Lashon Hara.” Below the announcement are these untranslated words: “Lilui Nichmas Masha Ruchama bas Shmuel.” The author of the column — across from an ad for that has a picture of a happy-looking newlywed couple (“Idith and Eli, match No. 93”) — is the dean of Valley Torah High School.

As you continue flipping through Jewish Life, you see these kinds of headlines: “What Exactly Is Mussar?” (Hint: it’s a system of ethics, not a new kosher hair gel), “The Advent of Chasidism” under the column History L.A. and in the society gossip column is the headline “A Tzadik Pays a Visit,” about Rav Yitzchak Grossman’s visit to Los Angeles.

In the food section, there’s a “Grateful Letter From a Duncan Hines Fan,” thanking my former employer (Procter and Gamble) for bringing back Duncan Hines pareve cake mixes (“They are a great resource for us here in the Orthodox Jewish community”), and a recipe called “Nat’s Brownies/My Frosting.”

In the Kashrus Concerns column, you’ll find a series of announcements from the Kosher Information Bureau, such as: “Salad Mate Salad Dressing is no longer under CRC certification,” “Flora Foods Italian Breadcrumbs bears an unauthorized OU,” and “Sandy Candy Co. now produces cotton candy sugars certified by the Star-K.”

The last section, Kosher Road Trip, is on travel, and here you’ll see a column by a homemaker and mom named Cinnamon Shenker on winter trips, with the headline: “Grab Your Sled and Head for the Hills.” She even quotes Tehillim to help make her point that it’s “a glorious thing that we can experience snow and ice first hand, rather than just look at pictures.”

So you can see I’m not kidding when I tell you that Jewish Life is the Jacques Cousteau of Orthodox Jewish reporting in Los Angeles. But there’s another side to this story.

If you read Jewish Life without any preconceptions about Orthodox Judaism — out of simple curiosity, for example, or even a desire to learn something helpful and interesting — it will probably surprise you.

For example, once you get past the annoying absence of translation in the beginning of “Beware: Words can Hurt,” you can’t help but be moved by the life-changing possibilities of the message, whether you are ultra-Orthodox, Reform or even a Zen Buddhist.

The same can be said for several articles in Jewish Life, like the idea of “living in the moment without acting on impulse” in the cover story on happiness, or the universal system of ethics developed by our very Orthodox sages, called Mussar.

Even the reader’s question on the “chronic” problem of what kids should do with Chanukah gelt — which I poked fun at — actually led to an incisive take on the complicated relationship between people and money.

That’s why I’m ambivalent about this whole notion of having different publications for different Jews. There is so much we can learn from each other, why can’t we all read the same paper?

The marketing side of me — the one that learned at places like Procter and Gamble the importance of “market niches” — understands why having different publications makes good business sense. People like to read about themselves.

But the “Jewish unity” part of me would love to see Jews of all denominations show more curiosity towards one another, whether it’s nonobservant Jews reading about Orthodox ideas, or Orthodox Jews reading things that have nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but that are still very much part of the Jewish experience. It’s like the interest you would show toward a beloved family member who has a completely different lifestyle from your own.

And of course, the self-absorbed part of me would love to see every Jew read this column, even if it’s a little too, you know, Orthodox.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

U.K. Jews in danger; Olmert in Jordan; Israel in British Commonwealth?

Olmert visits Jordan

The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem announced Tuesday that Ehud Olmert had made an unpublicized visit to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II, a key regional power-broker. The two leaders discussed bilateral issues and developments in the Palestinian Authority as well as the wider regional situation, the office said in a statement.

Abdullah backs Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals, even allowing a militia loyal to Abbas’ more moderate Fatah faction to be garrisoned in Jordan. Israel has agreed in principle to the militia’s transfer to Gaza.

Israeli Court: End Ban on Palestinian Students

Israel’s highest court ruled that a sweeping ban against allowing Palestinians to study in Israel is unreasonable. The High Court of Justice on Monday ordered the military to set criteria within 60 days for admitting at least some Palestinian students into Israel. The interim ruling on Dec. 18 came after the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies asked to join a court petition arguing against a total ban. Due to the ban, the institute, which is near Eilat, has not been able to enroll Palestinian students.

“Today’s ruling prevents the military from automatically vetoing the ability of Palestinian students to study in Israel,” said Noam Peleg, an attorney for Gisha, the civil rights group that argued the petition before the court.

For security reasons it has been increasingly difficult for Palestinians to study in Israel since the Palestinians launched their violent intifada in September 2000.

Israel to join British Commonwealth?

As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, “This issue is not on our agenda right now.”

The Commonwealth expects some interested countries to hold off on submitting formal applications until its next summit, scheduled for November 2007. The Commonwealth offers trade and other benefits for member countries.

Hamas inspired by China-Taiwan relationship

Hamas’ supreme leader proposed that a future Palestinian state could exist alongside Israel like China next to Taiwan.”There are many countries in the world that exist next to each other without recognizing one another, such as China and Taiwan,” Khaled Meshaal said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera published this week. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction but has said it could enter a long-term truce in exchange for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has rejected the proposal as a ruse for Hamas to consolidate power ahead of an all-out confrontation.

U.S. Delays Israel embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

President Bush again delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move has been postponed every six months since the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandates that the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, passed in 1995. Bush wrote in a statement Monday that his “administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.” U.S. presidents have postponed the move to avoid angering the Muslim world, which does not accept Israeli control of Jerusalem.

U.K. Jews in more danger than Muslims

Jews in Britain are four times more likely to suffer hate crimes than are Muslims, according to police figures. The Sunday Telegraph reported this week on data collected from July to September. Crimes recorded ranged from assault and verbal abuse to vandalism and other criminal damage at places of worship. The Association of Chief Police Officers requested the statistics for the first time in 2006 following reports of Muslims being attacked after the Sept. 11 and July 2005 terrorist attacks in the United States and London, respectively. However, the results show that only one in 1,700 Muslims, as compared to one in 400 Jews, is likely to be the victim of a hate crime.

Bush talks values with Jewish educators

President Bush met with Jewish college students and higher education leaders to discuss the importance of a moral component in university life. Bush met Monday with four activist students associated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, as well as with leaders from seminaries belonging to all four Jewish streams and the heads of Jewish universities. Bush chooses a different theme for his Chanukah meeting each year, and this year appeared eager to link his war on terrorism with what he said was the battle against moral relativism on campus, participants said.

“He reiterated that the battle we’re involved in is not religious because terrorists can’t be God-believing people,” said Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University.

In related news, Bush joined Jewish members of his Cabinet in welcoming the fourth night of Chanukah.

“Today, by lighting the menorah, Jews around the world celebrate the victory of light over darkness and give thanks for the presence of a just and loving God,” Bush said at a White House ceremony attended by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

The traditional White House Chanukah party followed the lighting and the White House kitchen was made kosher for the event.

Conservatives might label food

The Conservative movement is considering labeling kosher food according to the ethical standards by which it is produced. A commission appointed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly is debating the creation of a social responsibility certification. The commission was created in response to recent reports of unsafe working conditions and labor violations at AgriProcessors of Postville, Iowa, one of the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plants.

The new label would be concerned primarily with protecting workers’ rights, in accordance with Jewish law. It would be an additional label placed onto food already carrying traditional kosher certification.

Music lovers get presents for composer Reich’s birthday

Sometime in the 1970s, composer Steve Reich found himself looking for spiritual sustenance.
“Like many people in the ’60s,” he says, “I got involved in Hatha Yoga and Northern Buddhist meditation and Southern Buddhist meditation. It did a lot of good for a high-metabolism New Yorker like me. But after about 10 years, I felt ‘something is missing.'”
Reich, who turned 70 this week with elaborate celebrations in New York and London, grew up in Reform Judaism, at a time “when Big Bad Reform was really Big Bad Reform,” he jokes. “Religiously speaking,” he says, he was “a blank slate.”
At a certain point, however, he felt that the spirituality he sought might, in fact, be “in my own backyard.”
An ardent admirer of oral transmission of cultural traditions, Reich suddenly realized he was “a member of the oldest tradition on earth,” and didn’t know anything about it.
So he set out to fill that gap.
Today Reich is an observant Jew. He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and studies Torah weekly. And his growth as a Jew has filtered into his music in works like “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” “You Are (Variations)” and his collaborations with Beryl Korot, a video artist who is also his wife. But he is adamant that he is not a Jewish composer.
“I am Jewish, and I am a composer,” he says. “I don’t write Jewish music. The only true Jewish music is hazanut [cantorial music].”
“Setting a Hebrew text is very important to me,” Reich says. “But that’s concert music using a religious text. Stravinsky wrote a mass, and that’s religious music because it’s used in the Catholic Church, but to me Jewish music is one man chanting Torah. The rest is folklore.”
Still, Reich won’t downplay the significance of his Jewishness in his life.
“This has made a tremendous improvement in my life,” he says emphatically.
Is there a New York component to his music to match the Jewish component? Reich acknowledges, “Everyone is shaped by when they’re born and where they live,” yet he doesn’t have an easy answer to the question. “Fish swim in the water but they don’t know much about the water. But if you take it away, they’re dead. I think the energy, the rhythmic energy in the music is me — Hashem’s plan for me included that — but New York certainly fueled it. It’s a city of enormous energy.”
And true to its form, in October, Reich’s hometown will be resplendent with birthday tributes, including programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a retrospective of his video work with Korot at the Whitney.
In addition, Reich’s new opus, “Daniel Variations,” written in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists, will have its world premiere Oct. 8 at the Barbican Centre in London.
Reich admits that he is dazzled, amused and delighted by the fuss.
“If you’re going to turn 70, that’s the way to do it! I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits. “So many wonderful things have happened.”
But Reich is hardly resting on his birthday laurels. Where is he headed next musically?
The answer to that question is, he says, a bit complicated.
“‘You Are (Variations)’ was written after ‘Cello Counterpoint,’ which is a highly tooled, precision piece,” he says. “When I started ‘You Are,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do what I know how to do and follow it wherever it leads. I’m going to see what happens.’ I had never consciously had that attitude composing. In the past I always felt I had to set a problem for solving. Lo and behold, the harmonies begin to get very dissonant, and you end up doing something you didn’t know you knew how to do. That is only possible after years and years of work. And it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.”
As an example of the way that his working methods continue to evolve, he offers both, “Daniel Variations,” the vocal piece he wrote for the Daniel Pearl Commissioning Project of Meet the Composers, and “Sinfonietta,” a recent instrumental piece.
“Daniel Variations” uses four texts, two from the Book of Daniel, one from Daniel Pearl himself and a fourth that is Pearl’s paraphrase of a jazz song title from the ’20s.
Reich explains, “Whenever you choose a text, the text forces you to do things you might not otherwise do. The whole idea of a four-movement piece came out of choosing those texts, and the fact that it’s about a person who was murdered affects the way I wrote. With a text, you find yourself asking, ‘Bach did this, Stravinsky did this, what have you got in mind?’ And you are forced by the text to make [musical] decisions that if you were writing instrumental music, you might not do.”
By contrast, he continues, “The Sinfonietta piece is completely instrumental, a bit closer to my earlier pieces. It’s more repetitive, does things I haven’t done in years. But it fills out the harmonies in ways I wouldn’t have done when I was younger.”
In December, Reich will begin working on a piece for Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet based at University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.
“They are a flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion,” he says. “That is an instrumentation I would never write for, ordinarily. I’m going to have them do a recording of themselves, then play against it. I’ve been working in these interlocking pairs for [decades], and I’m still married to it, but I’ll be working with strict contrapuntal ideas that I haven’t thought about for a long time.”
Reich’s formula for keeping the music and him fresh after all these years is simple.

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe

I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
It’s that time of year.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning

Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Tisha B’Av Dilemma: Day of Solemnity or Celebration?

Traditional Jews mark Tisha B’Av by fasting, reading from the Book of Lamentations and observing rituals of mourning.

Not all congregations observe the solemn day, however. Tisha B’Av at The Valley Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, took on a less somber demeanor last year. Temple Sisterhood members spent the holiday busily hosting their annual rummage sale, sorting through piles of household goods, toys and clothing and hawking them to prospective buyers.

In all fairness, the scheduling of the rummage sale on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls this year at sundown on Aug. 2, was not deliberate. But the fact that Sisterhood members were not aware of the holiday, according to one spokesperson who asked not to be identified, reveals that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar for Jews, is also a nonevent in some, usually Reform, congregations.

It also reveals how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in both 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and which Tisha B’Av commemorates, resonates differently among various denominations.

“There’s a challenge for Reform Jews around the observance of Tisha B’Av, and communities make all kinds of choices,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship, music and religious living.

The Valley Temple was not the only Reform synagogue last year to host a rummage sale or new member brunch on Tisha B’Av. This is not surprising considering that references to the Temple’s rebuilding have been moved from the Reform movement’s liturgy. Granted, Reform Judaism does not deny the existence of the Temple or its historical role.

“But the difference theologically is that we’re not looking for restoration of the Temple and Temple sacrifices,” Wasserman said.

Some Reform Jews, as did 19th century Rabbi David Einhorn, actually see the holiday as celebratory, crediting the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews with enabling the Jewish people to survive and become “a light unto the nations,” as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6).

Tisha B’Av is observed in most Conservative synagogues, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

“The question for Jews like us is what does it mean to celebrate Tisha B’Av at a time when Israel is ours and Jerusalem is ours,” he said.

His congregation, in fact, tackled this question at a Tisha B’Av discussion several years ago, where, drawing on the Shavuot model of study, they spent two hours learning and debating. Afterward, they read the Book of Eicha, as Lamentations is called in Hebrew, and prayed.

Valley Beth Shalom traditionally partners with Adat Ari El in neighboring Valley Village for Tisha B’Av services. While both Conservative and only 10 minutes apart, the synagogues embody very different cultures, reflected in opposite approaches to the fast’s observance. Valley Beth Shalom engages in discussions; Adat Ari El, which is hosting this year’s service, favors a more emotional approach. This year, the service, in addition to reading the Book of Lamentations, will consist of some modern dramatic readings and the lighting of six candles, to commemorate the Holocaust and other tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, according to Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.

There doesn’t seem to be a basic theology or ideology concerning the role of the ancient Temple in Conservative Judaism, according to Feinstein. He believes that the age of animal sacrifices, appropriate at one time, has been superseded by an age of prayer, relegating the Temple to a symbol.

“When I read the prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple, I interpret that to mean the unification and redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.
At Reconstructionist Temple Beth Or in Miami, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian observes the eve of Tisha B’Av with her 125-family congregation. Usually the program includes a reading of excerpts from Eicha, followed by a contemporary take on Tisha B’Av, such as a discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a novel that unfolds during the time of the Temple’s destruction.

This year, Lillian is taking a slightly different approach. Tisha B’Av eve will include readings from Eicha, as usual. The following evening, congregants will focus on Darfur and modern genocides, a project of the temple’s social action committee.

“The destruction of the Temple was in many ways a genocide, killing Jews and kicking them out,” she said.

References to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem have been removed from Reconstructionist liturgy. But because the movement is decentralized, individual synagogues have ample leeway in terms of how they celebrate various holidays, Lillian said.

There’s no ambivalence in the Orthodox world, however, concerning the role of the Temple.

“We pray [for its rebuilding] three times a day,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.

Orthodox congregations across the spectrum continue to commemorate Tisha B’Av in traditional ways, such as observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to the next night, not wearing leather shoes, sitting on low stools or on the floor during the evening service and reciting Eicha and other elegies.

It is a day of absolute mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s two Temples. For many Orthodox Jews, and increasingly across the denominational spectrum, the day also encompasses other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth of Av, including the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in 135 C.E., the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Jews’ deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

Additionally, many in the ultra-Orthodox community memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av rather than on Yom HaShoah, the traditional day of commemoration for most Modern Orthodox and other denominational congregations. This is due, in part, to a reluctance to add new holidays or days of mourning to the calendar. More importantly, according to Shafran, “The illustrious rabbinical leaders of a quarter-century ago felt that nothing short of Tisha B’Av could suffice for a tragedy as great as the Holocaust.”

But in the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Modern Orthodox, communities over the past few years, on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, a revolution of sorts has been taking place in many of the nation’s largest cities. Instead of what Shafran describes as “sleeping or sitting around and suffering,” groups of Jews are gathering by the thousands in large halls to hear dynamic speakers expound on relevant topics such as senseless hatred or hurtful speech.

“It’s become a mass movement of Jews from one hall to another, and it’s become a very dynamic day,” Shafran said.

Reform Rabbis Split Over Performing Mixed Marriages

Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., went through plenty of placement interviews after her 1998 ordination as a Reform rabbi. Everywhere, she got the same question: not about her attitude toward homosexuality, not whether she wore a kippah and tallit, but whether she would officiate at an intermarriage.

“It has become the litmus test for placement,” Bravo said in San Diego at last month’s annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinical association.

Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, N.Y., a member of the conference’s ad-hoc committee on intermarriage, hoped to introduce a resolution at the convention calling on the organization to condone rabbis performing intermarriages, as long as the non-Jewish partner doesn’t practice another faith and the couple is open to leading a Jewish life. That’s the standard required by most Reform rabbis that perform mixed marriages.

Knowing it was still too controversial to pass easily, however, Davidson and his colleagues put off a resolution until the conference’s next convention in March 2007.

Even then, it will be a tough sell. Still, the issue undeniably is heating up.
Unlike their Orthodox and Conservative colleagues, who are not permitted to perform intermarriages, Reform rabbis are discouraged but not forbidden from doing so. A 1973 conference resolution declares the group’s opposition to members participating in any ceremony that solemnizes a mixed marriage, but the resolution doesn’t bind rabbis to that policy.

Consequently, Reform rabbis — as well as Reconstructionist, Humanist and unaffiliated rabbis — must decide on an individual basis whether they will perform intermarriages. Many say it’s one of their most difficult decisions.
“The question of officiation is a very tricky one,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “It’s the only time where we say no.”

“No” is not a popular answer in today’s Reform congregations, Reform rabbis say. Though there aren’t hard numbers, it’s estimated that about half say yes.
Their ranks are growing every year, forced more by pressure from their congregants — many of them intermarried themselves — than by any theological revision.

Rabbis at the conference convention said the tipping point may finally have been reached: At a time when half of all new Jewish marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, Reform rabbis who refuse to perform intermarriages feel they’re on the defensive.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Westwood said that he won’t officiate at an interfaith wedding, but that the Reform movement should continue with efforts to include non-Jewish spouses in the synagogue.

“The key thing is not the actual performance of the ceremony,” he said. “The key is what are we doing beyond the ceremony to integrate the family into Jewish life.”

On the other hand, rabbis who do officiate believe that they can finally be open about their stance.

“We need to be realistic,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Turning mixed couples away at the altar is “enormously hurtful.”
Some Reform rabbis believe it’s time for the conference to adopt a nuanced acceptance of the practice.

“We’re living in a new era of American Jewish life,” Davidson said.
The 1973 resolution discouraging rabbis from officiating at intermarriages was predicated on the assumption that those unions “invariably led to assimilation,” but growing numbers of mixed couples joining Reform congregations and raising Jewish children have disproved that thesis, Davidson said.

“We should be ready to be there when the couple begins its Jewish journey, assuming we feel that’s the journey they’re going to take,” he said.

Others, like Rabbi Steven Fox, the conference’s newly installed executive vice president, think the time isn’t right. The conference should unite Reform rabbis rather than set potentially divisive policy, Fox said, adding that rabbis who don’t perform intermarriages need the support of the conference for their increasingly unpopular decisions.

Even many rabbis who do perform interfaith weddings say it should be an individual decision, not movement policy.

After two decades of not officiating at intermarriages, Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif., said she changed her position in 2003 out of “admiration for the non-Jews in our community whose selflessness, dedication and commitment to creating a Jewish life have strengthened the life of the synagogue.”

It became clear to her, she said, “that if these people are making themselves part of us, then I want to be there for them at every important life-cycle event.”

But she came to her decision on her own, in consultation with other rabbis she respects.

“I don’t think the CCAR needs to establish a position,” Shanks said.
What emerged from discussions at the convention was how carefully Reform rabbis are making these decisions, and how similar their reasoning is, no matter what they decide.

“Those of us who do mixed marriages feel we’re strengthening Judaism. Those of us who don’t do them feel we’re strengthening Judaism,” said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple in Atlanta.

Some say their refusal to perform mixed marriages has led the non-Jewish partner to convert later, out of respect for the rabbi’s position. Others say that performing the wedding and embracing the mixed couple from the beginning eventually leads many non-Jewish spouses to convert.

Those interviewed agreed that the officiation debate focuses too much on just one step, and perhaps not the most important step, in what should be an ongoing journey of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., won’t give couples an answer over the phone. He brings every couple in for a personal talk, to open a dialogue that he continues even after the marriage.

Citing a recent study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Institute, Jaffe said there’s no evidence that a rabbi’s position on performing mixed marriages plays a role in whether or not couples feel welcome in the Jewish community.

“More important than having a rabbi at the wedding is the kind of welcome the couple gets down the road,” he said.

To help rabbis share their decision-making processes, as well as information on how they conduct interfaith wedding ceremonies, Ed Case of announced at the convention that he’ll create a relevant resource center on his group’s web site.

“Whether a rabbi should officiate or not is not the issue,” Fox said. “How we help the mixed marrieds engage in Jewish life is more important.”