Anyone looking as Melissa Simon, wearing a denim skirt and sweater, walks by on a Jerusalem street would automatically assume that she is one of the hundreds of young Orthodox women who have come to the Holy City to study Torah.
They would be half right. Simon is in Jerusalem this year to study Torah. But she is doing it under the auspices of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). In four years, after completing her studies at one of the college’s U.S. campuses, she will graduate as an ordained Reform rabbi.
For Simon, who speaks with the passionate self-confidence of a born teacher — tempered by a tendency to blush at her own displays of eloquence — dressing like a yeshiva girl is a “subversive” practice, a double-edged sword aimed at undermining the preconceptions of both Reform and Orthodox Jews.
Simon actively campaigns for homosexual rights and abortion rights, and she is an ardent feminist. Yet, she said, “I decided several years ago, while in college, to reclaim tzeniut, modesty, in dress and attitude, as a practice and value for the Reform movement. I found it made me think about Judaism every time I got dressed. That’s a key part of the whole thing — to enlarge the picture of what being Jewish is about.”
Simon, who observes Shabbat and kashrut and is deeply interested in other areas of halacha (Jewish law) that have been long neglected by Reform, is part of a growing trend that has transformed the movement’s avant garde and is redefining what it means to be a Reform Jew.
Although some of her classmates in Israel for the year in rabbinical school still do not wear skullcaps, even while praying, and lament the hardship of living in a city where it is “difficult to find good shellfish,” others wear skullcaps and even tzitzit even when they are not praying, and “are in heaven” because Jerusalem’s multitude of kosher restaurants means they can finally eat out whenever they feel like it.
The movement as a whole has become welcoming and tolerant of halachic observance, reversing a 150-year history in which Reform defined itself, in part, by its rejection of traditional practices.
“Fifteen years ago,” said Rabbi Rachel Sabath, one of the first HUC-JIR students to raise the flag of Reform’s return to halacha, “I was told that I would have a hard time getting a job in the Reform movement, because I refused to do things like take the youth group to an amusement park on Saturday afternoon.”
“But now I am embraced, hired and asked to speak in Reform congregations about my path as an observant, yet Reform Jew,” she continued. “They’ll go out of their way to accommodate me — I’m told, ‘We’ll do it on Sunday,’ or ‘We’ll come to you.'”
A new openness to “the whole array of mitzvot,” in the words of the 1999 Pittsburgh Statement, drafted by Reform rabbinic leaders as a deliberate repudiation of the movement’s historic — and notorious — 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, has become part of the movement’s official doctrine. Some Reform leaders see this sea change as a form of repentance or teshuva.
Searching for the secret formula
In the past, said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who served as president of HUC-JIR until 2001, Reform saw its task as radically transforming the Torah. The new task, he said, is changing the Jew.
“Our starting point is that the Reform Jew of the beginning of the 21st century needs to be transformed,” Zimmerman writes in an essay called, “Transforming the Reform Jew.” “Transform means to question and challenge the times in which we live…. Transform means to accept Torah (in the broadest sense, in all its aspects) as the starting point of the encounter, to accept teshuva as the primary category for Jews in our time.”
This tilt toward more traditional observance is only one aspect of the changes sweeping through the Reform movement as it renegotiates its relationship to modernity, to tradition and to Jewish peoplehood — all the while relentlessly searching for the secret formula or strategy that might stay the floodwaters of assimilation threatening much of its constituency.
Yet Orthodox ideologues would do well, for the moment, to quell triumphal cries in seeing Reform’s religious ferment. For what is emerging from the Reform movement is something more subtle, complex and paradoxical than some form of Orthodox lite: a more self-confident and religiously alive form of liberal Judaism, closer to tradition, yet as subversive of our stereotypical assumptions about Jewish reality as the figure of future rabbi Simon campaigning for homosexual rights and looking for all the world like a modern Orthodox yeshiva girl.
To understood how far Reform has come, it is important to remember where it began. From its inception in Germany in the early decades of the 19th century, Reform’s embrace of modernity was nearly total. Rituals or beliefs that Reform leaders found irrational — and believed would impede Jewish acceptance in non-Jewish society — were excised wholesale from the Reform repertoire, as a matter of principle.
By 1883, the Reform movement in the United States had flamboyantly rejected the laws of kashrut. A dinner held in honor of the first graduating class of HUC featured flagrantly nonkosher delicacies, and was recorded in the annals of history as the treif banquet.
The Pittsburgh Platform also rejected the notion of Jewish peoplehood; the Jews had once been a nation, it argued, but were now something more exalted — individuals united by a religion whose pure essence could be summed up in two words: ethical monotheism.
Replacing the commandments and Jewish peoplehood was a powerful belief in science and progress, as well as in a God who ruled over a world evolving inexorably toward rationality and goodness. Perhaps most audaciously, the Reform movement believed that modernity contained the seeds of messianic fulfillment — the first flowering of the redemption.
“We recognize, in the modern era,” says the Pittsburgh Platform, “the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men.”
Isaac Meyer Wise, the leader of U.S. Reform Judaism during the last decades of the 19th century, believed that, purified of its primitive elements and distilled into its essence, Judaism would, within decades, become the religion of all humankind. Zionism was despised as a small-minded, nationalistic throwback.
According to Rabbi David Ellenson, current HUC-JIR president and a passionate Zionist, when Rabbi Kaufman Kohler became president of HUC at the beginning of the 20th century, “he fired every Zionist faculty member, and gave speeches to the students saying they could choose between the pure God of universal progress and love or the godless nationalists.”
Movement Is Virtually Unrecognizable.
The movement began to change its attitude toward Zionism in its 1937 Columbus Platform. But in its religious beliefs and practices, Reform remained, for many decades, largely static — Protestant in its aesthetic and style of worship. Services were mostly in English, and a professional cantor accompanied by a choir and organ sang the liturgy, while the worshipers remained seated and passive.
Friday night worship was scheduled for after dinner, not at the traditional sunset hour. Congregants had little knowledge of Jewish sources. Even the rabbis, though eloquent and knowledgeable when it came to U.S. politics and Western culture, were not necessarily Judaic scholars.
“There are two kinds of Reform rabbis,” one prominent mid-20th century Reform leader once quipped. “Those who believe in ethical monotheism, and those who know Hebrew.”
But now, five years into the 21st century, the Reform movement — or at least some of it — has changed to such an extent as to be virtually unrecognizable.
Bill Berk, a soft-spoken, engaging man in his mid-50s, is the rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix, a Reform Temple that many in the movement say they look to as a model. The prayers, which are sung enthusiastically by the entire congregation, rather than by the cantor and choir, are in Hebrew. The services are scheduled for 6:15 p.m., approximating the sunset onset of Shabbat, as is traditional.
Berk said that new worshipers who grew up with classical Reform are often dumbfounded when they walk into his Friday night services.
“They absolutely don’t believe that it’s Reform,” he noted.
What has catalyzed the changes that are redefining Reform, transforming it from the quintessentially modern religion it was into a new, postmodern era?
The answer is multifaceted, with theological notions and sociological conditions fitting into each other like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Ellenson, who was appointed president of HUC-JIR in 2001, is one of the two or three most powerful leaders of Reform today, and is one of the finest minds studying the puzzle. He is also emblematic of the shifting face of the movement today.
Ellenson was born and raised in an Orthodox family, and although he broke away from halachic observance as a teenager, he is “obsessed” with his field of scholarly research: the impact of modernity on Orthodox ideology and halacha.
Ellenson is a student of Jacob Katz, the towering historian of the Jewish encounter with modernity who died in 1998. Until the modern period, Katz taught, Jews were part of a religious community with a separate political status in the societies they inhabited. Within their communities, the rabbis had the authority to impose communal norms.
Emancipation gave individual Jews rights as citizens, dissolving the rabbi’s coercive power. Orthodoxy, Reform and Conservative Jewry all grew out of the vacuum of power that was created, as they vied for individual hearts and minds. Reform embraced modernity and its freedom wholeheartedly, while Orthodoxy attempted to preserve the authority of halacha in the face of political change.
For several generations, Reform continued to benefit from the glue that kept Jews together even in the absence of religious tradition: remnants of tribal loyalties, the ongoing threat of anti-Semitism and lingering discomfort over Jewish identity in a Christian society, all of which made intermarriage rare. However, in recent years, the glue has melted away.
“The issue today,” said Ellenson, a warm, genial man with a trim beard, “is what to do when you have a fifth- and sixth-generation American Jewish community that is totally acculturated, when Jews can be officers in companies like DuPont, or presidents of Ivy League universities?”
As Rabbi Naama Kelman, associate dean of HUC-JIR in Israel put it, speaking of U.S. Jews, “We no longer have to keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses.”
Yet, as Reform Judaism has learned to its surprise, modernity cuts both ways. “What you see,” Ellenson said, “is that modernity destroys tradition, but, at the same time, it makes people seek tradition, so that what you have in America today are trends that move in opposite directions.”
In the often cold and impersonal contemporary society, Judaism has vast reservoirs of meaning to offer. Ellenson said he is open to “the full range of how Jewish spirituality is expressed in our times” — and that definitely includes halacha.
“Halacha is the idiomatic way in which Judaism spoke and continues to speak,” he continued. “If you want to talk about the possibility of creating meaning, you have to look at halachic sources.”
But openness to halacha does not mean a return to Orthodox notions of commitment. A recent, influential study of the post-modern Jewish self called, “The Inner Jew,” written by Israeli sociologist Steven Cohen and Stanford historian Arnold Eisen, paints a portrait of the contemporary U.S. Jew as still connected to Judaism, but on his or her own terms.
“Personal meaning,” the study concludes, has become “the arbiter of their Jewish involvement. Jews are focused on the self and its fulfillment, rather than directed outward to the group. With the valorization of tradition, the absolute commitment to pluralism and the continuing assumption of individual autonomy, [Jews] feel free to borrow selectively, and perhaps only temporarily, from traditional Jewish religious and cultural sources.”
Ellenson sees the significance of halacha and Torah learning in their capacity to produce a web of meaning and memory that can sustain Jewish identity.
“Too many people think in binary categories of forbidden and permitted,” he said. “We would do better to think in categories of meaning.”
Although he is apologetic about it — “I don’t know whether it’s an emotional or an intellectual problem” — Ellenson admitted that he is not personally interested in theology and is agnostic about most ultimate questions.
But for other Reform Jews, like Rabbi Rachel Sabath and Rabbi Leon Morris, head of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York City, observance does emerge from ultimate concerns. With the messianic hope Reform placed in modernity shattered by the Holocaust, Sabath said, “there is a need and a place for the commanding voice of God outside of human capacity and anything that could stem from reason.”
Rate of Intermarriage Has Skyrocketed
Sabath and Morris are both students of Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, the preeminent Reform theologian, who argued for the spiritual necessity of an ongoing inner struggle, in which the transcendent voice of God is filtered through our own autonomous ethical sensibility.
“What I would like to turn on its head,” Morris said, “is that the burden of proof is on the tradition itself — Reform Jews have the right to reject a specific tradition after studying and wrestling with it, and finding it ethically untenable, but the default position is that I have to observe this, it has come down this way, these commandments have a claim on me as a Jew.”
The place where the future of the Reform movement will really be decided is in its version of the trenches — in the congregations scattered across America that serve the movement’s more than 1 million members. American Jewry, and the Reform movement in particular, were traumatized in 1990 when a population survey showed that the rate of intermarriage had skyrocketed over the last 30 years from about 6 percent to more than 50 percent. In the past, Reform’s desire to keep and expand its constituency of highly assimilated Jews — unofficial estimates say 30 percent of Reform congregants are intermarried — has meant a hesitancy to make demands in terms of knowledge or practice.
But in an era of spiritual search, many Reform rabbis have begun to realize that a call for greater commitment and involvement may have a far wider appeal than they once thought. Berk of Temple Chai, where hundreds of Jews pack Shabbat services and participate in often-intensive ongoing programs, believes that demanding higher levels of commitment has helped create a more vibrant community.
“You have to have a sense of the mitzvah as something coming from the outside, so that you don’t get yanked away by each passing breeze of the modern world,” Berk explained. “Living in modernity there are a lot of wounds — unbridled competition, the impact of media, the whole underside of capitalism. If you can be part of a real community, you can survive the shallow side of America.”
In a sermon delivered a year ago, Rabbi Janet Marder, currently president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform’s rabbinic organization, expressed the critique of Reform’s past, which has caused a return to more traditional forms of ritual and prayer.
“Speaking to God in polite paragraphs of good English prose, or figuring God out of the equation altogether and making worship a purely cerebral act of self-evaluation — these are not activities compelling enough to make many people today opt for Friday night worship rather than a good dinner and a movie,” Marder said.
In her address, she spoke about Eileen, a congregant who had recently lost her husband and then discovered that she was ill with Parkinson’s disease.
“Reducing Judaism to an arid core of reasoned principles or generic moral virtues that we share with good people of all faiths, stripping it of its color and vitality and emotional force — these are not enough for Eileen, whose world is collapsing around her,” Marder said. “If we have nothing of significance to offer a woman like her, who craves an experience of spiritual sustenance and meaning, then we have nothing of real value to offer the world.”
This story is reprinted with permission from Ha’aretz. For the full version of the original article, please visit
Cease-Fire Appears on Verge of Collapse
Pray for the Innocent of Darfur
“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” Shakespeare's comment remains pertinent in our times.
Evil acts enjoy great publicity. Every inch of graffiti on the walls of schools is photographed, and every ethnic or racial outrage resonates in the public media.
Surrounded by the news of such malevolence, we feel isolated, abandoned and despondent. Religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, ethnic denigrations overwhelm us. It seems that nobody cares, and we are alone.
But there is a brighter side. There are in our midst caring people whose acts of goodness must not be shrouded in anonymity. Goodness must be recognized, not only so as to honor the good, but to raise the shoulders of lonely spirits.
St. Bernard is a black, Catholic school in a poor section near Los Angeles International Airport. Recently, one of its teachers explained to the students the work of the Jewish World Watch.
This grass-roots organization has banded together synagogues of all Jewish schools of thought — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — to protest the torture, rape and genocide of the innocent people of Darfur in Sudan. It gathers monies to open water holes in the desert of Sudan and establishes medical clinics in Darfur to heal the wounds and scars of these frightened people — 400,000 of whom have been slaughtered, and casualties rise on an average of 500 each day. This is a traumatized people who are approaching the horizon of 1 million dead.
The students of St. Bernard not only contributed money to Jewish World Watch, but are now in partnership with the New Community Jewish High School for the same cause.
St. Bernard is not alone. Notre Dame, another Catholic high school, has contributed over $5,000 to the Jewish World Watch, all raised by its student body. Crespi, yet another Catholic high school, has enthusiastically adopted the goals of the Jewish World Watch, and continues to make its contribution to its cause.
L.A. Jewish high schools and day schools collect money and signatures for petitions to state, federal and international policymakers. We are not alone. Our goodness reaches out to touch the hem of other goodness.
Jewish World Watch is important because it lives out the mandate that Judaism is to be a “light to the nations.” It is important because it exemplifies what the rabbinic sages called “ha-karat ha-tov,” the recognition of goodness. It is important because it has brought together synagogues of all denominations for a sacred cause that we Jews share and which pragmatically unites us.
The synagogue community of Los Angeles has proclaimed Thursday, May 26, as a day of fasting, praying and learning (see page 17 for full story). The fast will be broken at the end of the day, and will be followed by major discussions of the Jewish role in global affairs. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. in three synagogue locations: B'nai David Judea Congregation, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.
We pray so that we can raise our conscience; we fast so that we can experience the emptiness of our stomachs to remind us of the growling sounds of starvation in the bowels of the poor; we study so as to learn how we can move out of the pulpit and out of the pews, into the marketplaces of life, into the halls of Congress and into the corridors of the United Nations.
Judaism does not mandate us to save souls. We are mandated to save lives. Protecting the lives of the innocent realizes our belief in the goodness and existence of godliness in the world.
For more information, visit www.vbs.org/organizations/worldwatch.
Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Villaraigosa Would Make a Great Mayor
Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews
On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.
What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.
While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.
Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.
Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”
Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.
I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.
He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”
His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.
As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”
While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.
The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.
These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.
The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.
David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill
Israelis Call for Choices in Marriage
When Galit Weidman Sassoon got engaged last year, her thoughts turned to the kind of wedding ceremony she and her fiancé wanted — meaningful, egalitarian and Jewish.
As secular Jews, Weidman Sassoon said the couple felt alienated from Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment and wanted a ceremony in which they both could participate fully — from drafting the ketubah to blessing each other while exchanging rings.
In Israel, however, the only Jewish weddings recognized by the state are Orthodox. There is no civil marriage in Israel, and Jews who choose to marry in Conservative and Reform ceremonies are not considered officially married.
In recent years, however, there has been a groundswell of couples seeking alternatives to Orthodox marriage. About one-fifth of Israeli couples now are marrying outside of the rabbinate, according to Freedom of Choice in Marriage, a Jerusalem-based umbrella organization of civil rights groups.
"I was not prepared to even think of having someone from the rabbinate marry us, because it binds me to a ceremony that discriminates against women," said Weidman Sassoon, 33, a doctoral student in linguistics at Tel Aviv University. "It’s hard to comprehend in a democratic country that one of the most basic rights people have — that of marrying according to their beliefs — is denied."
Israel’s main wedding season begins this week following Lag B’Omer.
The debate over marriage is especially urgent given that an estimated half-million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish according to religious law, cannot marry in Israel.
Also affected are male kohanim, or descendants of the priestly caste, who are forbidden under halacha to marry divorced women. The halacha also places marriage restrictions on the children of adulterous unions.
Largely because of the conundrum posed by the immigrants, pressure is building on politicians and a Knesset committee that may pave the way toward civil marriage.
Many Israeli couples fly to Cyprus and marry in civil ceremonies now so common that they have become a booming business for the Cypriot economy. But such travel often is too expensive for young couples, and new immigrants in particular.
Civil ceremonies performed abroad are recognized in Israel, as are marriages performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis overseas.
Though marriages by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel aren’t legally recognized, courts often give the couples common-law status. Still, many Israelis, like Weidman Sassoon and her husband, choose to have two marriages: One in Israel with a non-Orthodox rabbi that is personally meaningful, and a civil ceremony abroad that is legally binding.
"It’s absurd that a person married by a Reform rabbi has to then be married by a non-Jewish clerk abroad," said Rabbi Meier Azri, the senior rabbi at Beit Daniel, a large Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.
But figures in the country’s Orthodox establishment argue that because Israel is the Jewish state and sets the standard for Jewish observance around the world, only Orthodox Jewish ceremonies can be legally sanctioned here.
If other marriages are recognized by the state the way Orthodox marriages are, the state would be "conveying a distorted message in regard to Jewish law," said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad, an Orthodox media resource organization.
He said Conservative and Reform movements "may be movements made of Jews, but they are not Judaism as traditionally understood because of a lack of allegiance to Jewish law."
Some matters in Jewish law are not up for debate or interpretation, he said, citing marriage and prohibitions on driving on the Sabbath.
Azri, however, said he has seen a "revolution" in the demand for Reform marriages. His synagogue marries some 600 to 700 couples a year, and the numbers keep rising, he said.
The law doesn’t affect only Jews. Only people of the same religion can marry each other in Israel, a legal practice that dates to the time of Turkish rule and then the British Mandate. Under both regimes, religious authorities — whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim — had sole jurisdiction over marriage.
To date it has been impossible to pass legislation endorsing freedom in marriage ceremonies, in part because of the clout of Israel’s religious parties.
In March, another such bill was solidly defeated on the Knesset floor, but one of its initiators said advocates would not be deterred.
"We will keep pushing for our legislation, even if it has a slim chance of passing, because it gets the issue on the public agenda," said Zamira Segev, Freedom of Choice in Marriage’s coordinator.
The issue was prominent on Shinui’s platform last year when the party won a whopping 15 Knesset seats.
Ronny Brison, Shinui’s coordinator for issues of religion and state, now is on the Knesset committee seeking a solution for the marriage issues of some 300,000 to 400,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halacha, or do not have documentation to prove their Jewishness.
"It’s hard to change the Orthodox monopoly because it’s enshrouded in much psychology and mysticism. Those who are against it are those who say it will end the Jewish nation, that it’s breaking up the country," Brison said. "These are not arguments that stand the test of logic or law and a pluralistic democratic outlook, [but they carry weight] in a country that struggles with how to define itself."
As alternatives to Orthodox weddings become more socially acceptable, so, too, do their place in popular culture. The women’s magazine "L’Isha" featured information on ceremony options in its most recent issue, and information booths by civil rights organizations now are a standard feature of wedding fairs where couples shop for caterers and DJs.
Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel, said couples are looking to inject meaning into ceremonies that in some cases have become afterthoughts.
"For most Israelis, the chuppah takes place in a corner where some pay attention but most people are chatting, drinking and smoking," Bandel said. "We are trying to bring the ceremony into the center of the evening and have the couple be active partners in shaping the character of the ceremony."
Shavuot: A Link to God
Conservative Death Prophecy Draws Fire
A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement’s leadership.
The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades, Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.
Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement’s opposition to intermarriage, its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and same-sex marriages and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.
The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains "too restrictive" and Reform "too acculturated," but a more likely outcome will be "the demise of the Conservative movement," Menitoff wrote.
"If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence," he wrote. "If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet."
Conservative leaders called the argument "delusional" and the product of "immature" analysis.
"His description of the future is rather silly," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The essay "is an immature look" at the currents shaping American Jewry, "or maybe it’s wishful thinking."
Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff’s essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges. In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement’s leadership of lacking vision.
Menitoff’s predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, in Palm Springs in January.
Within a few decades, "you’ll basically have Orthodox and Reform," he said. "This is in no way an attack, it’s just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out. I hope I’m wrong. I’m just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective."
Some signs lend weight to Menitoff’s theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation’s 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.
That represented a major decline from the 43 percent that the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 survey. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose from 2 percent to 3 percent.
Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of "extreme assimilation" — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the survey — his Conservative counterparts believed they were being attacked.
"The Talmud says prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to children and fools," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement’s two main seminaries. "No one can predict the future."
Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.
Conservative leaders also maintain that their movement’s communal organizations are thriving.
Of the approximately 120,000 students in Jewish day schools, more than 50,000 are in the Conservative movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Day Schools, while 8,000 youngsters attend the movement’s Camp Ramah system each summer. Another 20,000 youngsters participate in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization, and many adults are "engaged in lifelong Jewish study," Schorsch said.
Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the nondenominational Baltimore Hebrew University and a Conservative scholar, also rejected Menitoff’s argument.
If "there are clear lines of demarcation" between all of the movements and they maintain theological differences, "I don’t think they will merge," she said. More likely, she added, is that traditionalists in the Conservative movement might merge with the modern Orthodox movement.
However, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agreed with Menitoff. In 2001, Shafran wrote in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement was a "failure."
"It does seem the Jewish community is heading for a crystallization between those who affirm the full truth of the Jewish religious tradition and those who, to one degree or another, don’t accept that," Shafran said.
Married to It
Kim and Rob Cavallo had worked out a lot of the tough issues
that confront an interfaith family. But when she asked him to get rid of the
Christmas tree because it would confuse their two children, Rob, who was raised
in an Italian-Scottish Catholic home, pushed back. And he used a strategy he
knew would work.
“We went to the rabbi, and I said I would agree to do
anything the rabbi says,” Rob explained. “And I knew the rabbi would say I
could have the tree. I knew he would take the position that if I couldn’t be
who I truly am, that would destroy the marriage and the family.”
Rob was right.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, the
Conservative rabbi who had counseled the family in the past and built up a trusting
relationship with them, told the Cavallos to keep the Christmas tree.
“Here I am sitting down with this family, trying to help
them initiate a new Jewish relationship for their family, and you can’t demand
this kind of give-it-all-to-me-now approach, because it’s just not fair,” Vogel
said. “If somebody like Rob is willing to build a Jewish home, you have to give
that time to evolve. So for that family, at that time — and that is a very
important distinction — in the evolution of their journey, I felt it was the
right place to begin.”Â
Now the family actively celebrates Chanukah — they also
sleep in their sukkah and celebrate Shabbat every Friday night — and they share
Christmas with daddy.
Kim and Rob have come a long way since Kim showed up at Temple
Aliyah looking for a preschool six years ago and ended up in Vogel’s office,
moved to tears by a Judaism she was ready to reconnect with. With Vogel’s help,
Kim and Rob made compromises, with Rob agreeing to send the children to day
school, sometimes joining her at synagogue and even getting into the
philanthropic work that Kim took on at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance
and Heschel West Day School.
“Rabbi Vogel was really supportive of us as a couple, not
just of me as the Jewish partner, and that was key in making it so my husband
felt super comfortable, not feeling like every time he turned around we were
taking something away from him,” Kim said. “We’ve been able to take baby steps
and incorporate Judaism into our lives, not have it take over and make it so
Rob doesn’t know where he stands and doesn’t feel comfortable in his own home.”
Not that it hasn’t been difficult.
“Marriage is a series of compromises, but I guess religion
seems so pure, and when you have to dissect it all the time, it loses a
little,” Kim said.
Last year Temple Aliyah honored Kim and Rob — who is a Grammy-winning
producer of such entertainers as Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac and
Phil Collins — for their service to the wider Jewish community.
The fact that an intermarried couple was honored at a
Conservative shul is an indication of a newly surfacing willingness among a
growing number of rabbis — even traditional rabbis — to integrate intermarried
couples into Jewish life.
“Rather than tolerating them, we need to openly embrace
them,” Vogel said. “If we really want to help them create caring, committed
Jewish homes, then we have to actively welcome them.”
Roughly half of all American Jews who marry choose non-Jews,
a number that held relatively steady in both the 1990 and the 2001 National
Jewish Population Surveys. The vast majority of those families — two-thirds,
according to some numbers, a lot more according to others — will write Judaism
out of their lives. The children of intermarriages have only a 25 percent
chance of marrying another Jew.
“If nothing is done, you are dealing with the hemorrhaging
of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who has initiated an
aggressive new outreach program at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom.
However, others fear the open embrace will send a message
that intermarriage is fine and that long-held Jewish norms will be left in
“We have a responsibility to educate and inspire [interfaith
couples] to try to raise a Jewish family,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive
vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If you ignore them
or alienate them, you lose the real potential to impact their lives.
“At the same time,” he said, “I think one has to be careful
not to ignore the fact that the goal is to raise in-marriage, so policy has to
be designed along the lines of not creating the false impression that there is
no difference as to whether you in-marry or intermarry, because it could all be
fixed up anyway.”
Even within the Orthodox community, there are subtle shifts
While intermarriage is still condemned in no uncertain terms
— most Orthodox rabbis advise their congregants not to attend the mixed
marriages of immediate family members — only a small minority of Orthodox Jews
still follow the age-old custom of sitting shiva over children who intermarry.
“In terms of the statement made through intermarriage, it is
not the same act of rebellion it once was because we live in such an open
culture,” said Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, “so all the
accessories that used to go with intermarriage — like sitting shiva — I really
haven’t heard of that being done today.”
There is a recognition today, more than in the past, that
Jews who intermarry — even the growing number of strongly affiliated Jews who
intermarry — still want to keep Judaism as an integral part of their lives, and
if the non-Jewish spouse is willing to go along, the community is more willing
to embrace him or her.
What the Jewish community is facing then is a fluctuating
definition of success in the universe of Jewish marriage. Is the goal to bolster
Jewish identity to lower the rate of intermarriage? Is it to increase the rate
of conversion? And if a spouse doesn’t convert but agrees to raise the children
Jewish, is that too a success?
Even those who hold up prevention as the answer — pointing
to the fact that the more Jewish education a person has had, the less likely he
or she is to intermarry — acknowledge that even hugely successful efforts to
encourage in-marriage will still leave hundreds of thousands of interfaith
families who need to be tended to or lost.
Most in the community strive to uphold the Jewish-Jewish
marriage as the ideal while reaching out to the intermarrieds, but others say
those goals can be mutually exclusive.
Â “When you state affirmatively that intermarriage is not a
good thing and should be prevented, that has negative consequences for people
who are already intermarried or who are going to be intermarried,” said Edmund
Case, founder of Interfaithfamily.com, a Web site with 20,000 readers. “What
they are going to remember is that their relationship is not approved of and
then they won’t want to get involved.”
While to some this smacks of giving up on in-marriage
altogether, demographer Gary Tobin thinks that a radical change in attitude is
what can turn the intermarriage numbers around, bringing in converts to cushion
the deficit from those who leave the fold.
“The Jewish community has an enormous opportunity to grow
itself if it quit being so insular and paranoid,” Tobin said. “There are a lot
of people interested in being part of the Jewish people, and it is our fear and
obstructionism that makes intermarriage a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.
“If you don’t do anything to help those families be Jewish,
then you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of them end up not being Jewish,”
said Tobin, who spoke at Valley Beth Shalom on Dec. 3.
When it comes to creative and proactive outreach to
intermarrieds, Los Angeles is far ahead of the rest of the nation, Tobin said.
Reform synagogues in Southern California consistently win a disproportionate
share of the movement’s annual awards for outreach.
At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis has made outreach a
priority, focusing a Rosh Hashana sermon on it and hosting a lecture series on
the topic through the fall. He established a mentoring program, in which
members are paired with those who are unaffiliated.
An intermarriage discussion group at Shomrei Torah in West
Hills met for six weeks this fall and will be followed by a more intense
program. The group at Shomrei Torah was led by Ken Elfand, who was trained as a
lay consultant through the Keruv program of the Federation of Jewish Men’s
Clubs (FJMC), a group on the cutting edge of pushing the Conservative movement
toward involving intermarrieds in Jewish life.
The program, which also publishes material and holds
conferences, initially met with resistance both at the top levels of the
Conservative movement in New York and among some lay leaders.
“Some institutions are afraid that by reaching out to
intermarrieds, we are conveying the message that we are accepting of
intermarriage,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. But
grass-roots support from synagogue lay leaders and rabbis in the field has made
the program a success.
“We find that couples and members’ children who have
intermarried are for the first time feeling comfortable going to synagogue,
because they realize they are not going to be turned away,” Simon said.
The Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” three-session
icebreaker has reached hundreds of thousands across the country, as have its
programs aimed at preschool and Hebrew school parents.
The success rate of such programs is impressive. A survey
conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group in New York, found that
synagogue affiliation, ritual observance and cultural participation all jumped
considerably for intermarried families who had taken part in programs as
diverse as intense introduction to Judaism classes or one-time events.
There is a growing bank of anecdotal evidence that suggests
that more people convert after marriage, usually attached to a life-cycle
event, according to Tobin.
Schulweis, along with Tobin and a handful of other leaders,
encourage both rabbis and family members to invite potential Jews into the
faith. Jews-by- choice, Schulweis said, are often more committed than the born
Jews they marry, a fact that should help the Jewish community get past its
ingrained prejudice against converts and the misconception that converts “water
However, some non-Jews bristle at the idea of being asked to
“Just the idea that someone would want you to convert is so
upsetting,” said Judy Arad (not her real name), who has sent kids to day school
and kept a kosher home for 20 years, despite never having converted.
“It’s such a personal decision — it doesn’t get any more
personal than that,” she continued. “I don’t think anyone should ever convert
because they are getting married. If you convert, it should be because you are
really embracing Judaism.”
Schulweis said it is all in the approach, in not offering an
ultimatum but an opportunity.
“I am asking for them to feel the ambiance of Jewish wisdom,
and I am convinced they can be persuaded to eventually become Jews-by-choice,”
Schulweis said. “It must be a process as opposed to ‘do it now for marriage or
it’s all off,'” he said.
That was the case of Charity Brockman. Raised in a strict
Christian home, where her father preached his own brand of Christianity,
Charity felt no affinity toward her faith. When she and her husband, Adam, were
married by a Reform rabbi, she had no desire to convert but agreed to raise the
The Brockmans celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family
at Valley Beth Shalom and had a Christmas tree at home.
“As time drew nearer for us to think about having kids, I
wanted to take a class or get some more knowledge about what does ‘raising my
children Jewish’ mean,” she said.
She enrolled in the University of Judaism’s introduction to
Judaism class, which has a high rate of conversion among its graduates.
“I think if they had been pressuring me, it would have
pushed me away from the idea, but they were so open and accepting, saying this
is what it is, this is our community and this is our lifestyle,” Brockman
continued. “The fact that I felt so enveloped in the community gave me a real
inside view of what it meant to be Jewish.”
Brockman converted last October and renewed her vows with
her husband. Their daughter, Rachel, was born a few weeks later.
To get to the point where an intermarried couple feels
comfortable being part of the community, rabbis are figuring out both halachic
technicalities and the choreography of including non-Jews in synagogue life.
Can a non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah address the
child from the bima? Can the parent stand on the bima for an aliyah or even say
the blessings? And rabbis face a whole series of questions around brises, baby
namings and even funerals when a non-Jewish spouse dies.
In Reform synagogues, non-Jews are welcomed as members.
Official policy in the Conservative movement does not allow non-Jewish members,
although most shuls now offer a family membership to intermarrieds.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah, who has been officiating
at interfaith weddings for 35 years, complains that too many of his Reform
colleagues are being pulled by Reform’s return to tradition and won’t officiate
at intermarriages, effectively closing the door on any relationship between the
couple and the rabbi.
Rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages are more
sensitive today than they were 20 years ago, working to soften the rejection of
“I can’t marry you” and to leave the door open for future affiliation.
That is an approach that may have sat better with Arad,
rather than the outright pressure to convert she received from family, friends
and the rabbi before she married.
Â “I remember how horrible I felt after we spoke,” Arad said
of the Westside Conservative rabbi who she and her husband met with before they
married. “I remember the rabbi saying that our kids would be rejected from the
community, that we were going to have problems, that life would be difficult
and that we were doomed if I didn’t convert. It was all negative, with no
sensitivity or compassion.”
Today, compassion has entered into the framework of
intermarriage, even in Orthodox circles, where intermarriage retains nearly all
of its historic stigma. Still, outreach-oriented groups are more likely than in
the past to accept non-Jewish partners who want to learn about Judaism.
Blanket rules have given way to a more nuanced approach, in
which rabbis take into account each individual situation and then may decide,
for instance, that it is not appropriate to follow the standard dictum of
turning a potential convert away three times.
“In some cases, because of concern for the family, you do
what you can to unify the couple and unify the family, to get them to express
Judaism more and get them to a relationship that is more peaceful,” said Rabbi
Yaacov Deyo, who runs programs and meets individually with young couples
through Aish HaTorah. “We have our beliefs, and we have to love people, and we
need to do both.”
Tobin argues, though, that passive tolerance won’t do the
trick. What is needed, he said, is serious investment. And that, he noted, is
nowhere to be found across the spectrum of the Jewish community.
“If you look at the total budget being spent on helping
interfaith families become part of the Jewish community, it is as statistically
close to zero as it could possibly be,” Tobin said.
While the Conservative movement publishes some material, the
only program they have right now is through the FJMC. In its major budget
crisis a year ago, the Reform movement cut all its regional outreach directors,
though enough money was raised locally to keep the Pacific Southwest regional
director going for two more years.
“It is the biggest mistake the Jewish community makes, not
spending more time and effort and dollars on these folks,” he said.
Tobin is convinced, as is Schulweis, that bringing people in
does not have to mean lowering standards or watering down Judaism. In a
best-case scenario, the spouse converts and the community grows. In a
second-best case, the spouse doesn’t convert, but the family is Jewish.
For now, Kim and Rob Cavallo are happy to be in that second
“My own Italian Catholic heritage is too strong to allow me
to turn my back on it,” Rob said, “so we live in a mixed household, and it
With the children in day school and the home unmistakably
Jewish, Rob and Kim are both happy with the choices they’ve made.
“We wanted to give our kids something that Kim did have and
I didn’t, which was a religious moral background and a feeling of belonging to
a community,” Rob said, “which I think is great gift.” Â
Lev Eisha Women Pray Their Own Way
Bias Hits Rabbis on Mommy Track
When Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform rabbinical seminary, ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972, the event was more inevitable than revolutionary. It had been 50 years since HUC-JIR had come within a whisker of ordaining faculty daughter Martha Newmark, and other women had attended liberal rabbinical schools since then.
Meanwhile, in 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) opened, with women admitted from the first day. Priesand’s ordination — and that of the first female Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Sasso, in 1974 — were newsworthy, but they quietly found pulpits and began to build careers, the first of an accelerating number of women to join the rabbinate in American Jewry’s most liberal denominations.
Today, the 377 women in Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) constitute about 20 percent of Reform rabbis — closer to 25 percent when retired and inactive rabbis aren’t counted — up from about 10 percent in 1991. Currently, there are 246 Reconstructionist rabbis, 45 percent of whom are women.
Female rabbis serve synagogues, schools, hospitals and Jewish communal organizations in every metropolitan area; more than 20 women work in Los Angeles congregations, with possibly a similar number of women holding down other rabbinic jobs. Their ubiquity has had an effect on Judaism — but motherhood, a factor for most women in the rabbinate, may be keeping them from real power.
Transforming the Synagogue
Women in the rabbinate are widely credited with making rabbis seem friendlier and more approachable: the common buzzword is "accessible."
"We used to say that women’s presence has shifted the rabbinate out of the priestly, hierarchical model into a more egalitarian model," said Karen Bender, associate rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1994, though she added that younger male rabbis strive for accessibility, too.
"Congregants want a closer, personal relationship with their spiritual leaders, and for many women this intimacy comes easily," according to Judith HaLevy, rabbi at Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Reconstructionist temple.
"Women are historically seen as good listeners," said Zoë Klein, associate rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. "I think all of those negative stereotypes from the past actually fit well with what people want from a rabbi: a gracious hostess, care, gentleness and strength."
Another rabbi said she thinks women are more comfortable talking to female rabbis about issues such as menopause and domestic violence.
"It’s important that girls are growing up with women rabbis," Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a Conservative rabbi, told The Journal, adding that women bring "a keener eye and a fresh perspective [to Jewish texts]."
For many female congregants, there’s a comfort level in connecting with a woman rabbi when one is searching spiritually.
"Walking that path with another woman can be powerful," said Sheryl Nosan-Blank, a 1993 HUC-JIR graduate and rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills.
Some see women rabbis as an engine for Reform Judaism’s recent attention to traditional ritual. Male rabbis during Reform’s first 150 years were interested in shedding ritual, said Temple Judea’s Bender, but women, having been excluded from ritual for so long, don’t feel the same way. "For women, there isn’t meaning in shedding; women embrace ritual," Bender told The Journal. "They’re more, ‘Let’s make more ritual, let’s make new ritual.’"
And women have most definitely made new ritual. Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, who became the third female Reform rabbi in 1976, said at last November’s Reform Community Shabbat that women in the rabbinate have made it possible for women to mark the milestones in their lives in Jewish ways. They’ve created rituals for menarche, menopause, weaning, miscarriage and abortion, she said, and they are responsible for making the ceremony for bringing a new daughter into the covenant as prominent in rabbis’ manuals as brit milah.
She added, though, that this contribution goes beyond women’s ceremonies to "new rituals for men as well as women: rituals for retirement; new rituals for divorce; gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies; rituals for becoming a grandparent."
"The presence of women in the rabbinate opens up the perspective," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said. "It changes what we see and what we hear and therefore what we listen for and what we look for."
The Mommy Track
Bender, who works full time and is rearing two children with a female spouse, is active in the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a group of female Reform rabbis. Five years ago, she said, women attending the group’s convention would state guiltily that they were leaving congregational work; today, she said, they brag, "I’m pulpit-free."
"Most people are finding that the pulpit rabbinate is incompatible with being a mom," Bender said. When significant numbers of newly or recently ordained rabbis leave congregations or won’t go into congregations at a time of shortage, she said, "that’s a crisis."
"I don’t think I could have done this when my children were small," said Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, whose children were 12 and 14 when she entered RRC and who was ordained in 1994. "I would not be a pulpit rabbi with children at home."
There’s wide acknowledgment of a "mommy track" in the rabbinate. "Certain [jobs] lend themselves to ‘mommyness’: those with clear hours, evenings and weekends off," Lewart said. Such jobs include teaching, Hillel work and administrative positions in Jewish communal organizations, though plenty of male rabbis do that work, too.
Women comprise the bulk of rabbis holding down part-time positions in Reform congregations and affiliated organizations, said Rabbi Arnold Sher, director of rabbinic placement for the CCAR. Even a "part-time" job, particularly in a congregation, often means working 40 hours a week for 20 hours’ pay, several women said. Some rabbinical mothers limit their careers to part-time teaching or officiating at weddings and funerals.
When Rabbi Karen Fox’s two sons were small, she worked a two-thirds-time schedule at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for five years except during the summer, when she ran the temple’s camps in Malibu. She brought her sons and a housekeeper to camp with her, but when one of the boys complained, "You’re not their mom, you’re my mom," Fox left Wilshire Boulevard and switched to education, teaching and then directing the middle school at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson.
"That allowed me to have structure as a mom and as a rabbi, and I was home for Shabbat," said Fox, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1978 and is back at Wilshire Boulevard as associate rabbi. "There were times when I thought I might be trading something away, [but] I don’t think I gave anything up; I allowed myself to have a soul."
Several rabbis mentioned the arrival of a second child as the breaking point at which full-time congregational work (which in a typical rabbi’s contract involves working six days a week, including Saturday and Sunday) becomes too much for many mothers. Temple Isaiah’s Klein, however, has had a son and a daughter since her 1998 ordination, and she embraces the rigors of the job.
"Being a rabbi is hard work, but I chose it because I feel called to it and I love it with all my heart," Klein said. "Sometimes, when my weekends are eaten away in service of families, I wonder if it is worth it, but … when my son runs through the halls of Temple Isaiah and then stops suddenly in his tracks, points up to my picture and says proudly, ‘That’s my mommy,’ I know it is worth it."
"The hardest thing about being a mother, a wife and a rabbi is that when most people have family time — Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday — that’s when I am the busiest," said Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Her decision to remain in full-time congregational life with two children under age 4, though, is a lonely one. Of the women in her 1996 ordination class at HUC-JIR, Missaghieh said, "they’ve either left congregational life, left rabbinical life and become mothers full time, they’re working part time or they’re lesbians and have a partner at home."
But she has no plans to leave full-time work.
"That’s the struggle, that I am so fulfilled in my work," Missaghieh told The Journal. "I would not be as effective as a full-time mother as I am as a full-time rabbi; I could not be the best Michelle I could be if I were a full-time mother."
Parenthood deepens experience and makes men and women better rabbis, several women noted. Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi, said that as a young, single woman, she wasn’t taken seriously when she first came to Sinai Temple in Westwood, but during those five years, she met and married her husband, bore her first child and helped nurse her father through a terminal illness.
"People say, ‘I really didn’t support you when you first came here, but now I honor you as my rabbi,’" Hirsch said.
"I think that I am greatly aided by my role as a mother, especially in dealing with families," said Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue’s HaLevy, who entered the rabbinate after her children were grown. "My son refused to wear anything but his favorite tennis shoes with holes in them to his own bar mitzvah, so I can relate to all those parents of 13-year-olds who wonder where the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has gone."
The setting of limits on one’s time is crucial to keeping one’s sanity, several rabbis commented. "I have very strong boundaries: If I’m working at night, I make sure I’m home in the middle of the day; if I have to work all day Sunday, I’m home all day Monday," Hirsch said.
Bender is more skeptical that rabbis have the ability to say no.
"How much power do you have to craft a rabbinate that lets you have a family life?" said the Temple Judea rabbi. "Do I ask to miss that meeting, or do I just say I’m going to miss that meeting? I think rabbis are afraid: ‘If I keep missing meetings, they’ll fire me.’"
"My joke is, ‘And I have a wife,’" said Bender, whose partner works part time. "Just because I have a wife doesn’t solve the problem."
However, the presence of mothers in the rabbinate is credited with raising congregations’ consciousness that all rabbis need to set limits on the time they give their synagogues, though that may contain a generational element as well, as younger men assert a need to spend time with their spouses and children.
Janet Marder, who recently became the first female president of the CCAR, suggested that when women rabbis set the example of making time for family life, they put in motion a new way of looking at the rabbinate.
The rabbi who sets time boundaries and doesn’t burn out "is better able to serve because you have more to give," she said. And the need for rabbis to pull away from synagogue demands, Marder added, has led to the empowerment of laypeople, who develop ritual and administrative skills to pick up the slack.
The perceived need for boundaries for both men and women, however, has fed a shortage of rabbis willing to take pulpits, especially the senior rabbi positions at large congregations, which historically have been seen as the most prestigious jobs but are also the most demanding.
The CCAR’s Sher said that the aspirations of male and female rabbis are becoming "pretty equal," with fewer men going into congregational work than ever before.
While Missaghieh loves her present job, she isn’t looking to move up. "I’m not interested in being a senior rabbi…. I really want to spend time being a mom, being a wife, and exploring my own strengths and weaknesses." Marder, who became senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, a 1,200-household temple in Northern California, in 1999, said she probably would not have applied for the position when her daughters, now 17 and 20, were younger.
On the other hand, Temple Emmanuel’s Geller, who became the first woman to lead a large congregation when she took her current job in 1994, says that once the temple hired an associate rabbi six years ago, they were able to divide up Friday nights and otherwise share responsibilities.
"Generally, you have some control over your time," Geller told The Journal. "The reason many women choose not to pursue senior rabbi positions has less to do with the job than with the ability to see it in a different way."
From Influence to Power?
Power at work is generally associated with presence at the top of a hierarchy and the ability to dictate standards, and by that definition, women have a distance to travel toward power in the Reform rabbinate.
HUC-JIR ordained equal numbers of men and women this year, but Sher says the rabbinical program does not strive for gender parity, and he doesn’t expect women to comprise 50 percent of Reform rabbis in his lifetime.
The CCAR is currently conducting a salary survey; Marder said that there’s no pay gap between newly ordained men and women, but salaries may diverge in later years. Locally, the Board of Rabbis’ Diamond sees a significant pay gap and knows of synagogues that have offered women lower salaries than to men for the same position.
Not every congregation offers maternity leave, Marder said, adding that many temples are reluctant to hire women of childbearing age because they don’t want to deal with the issue, a situation driven more by tight finances, she said, than by sexism.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said that over 25 years, she expected women to have more effect on pocketbook issues.
"The time for change has already come," she said. "I never thought you would have to keep asserting those questions."
Women do not hold top executive positions at HUC-JIR or the national headquarters of Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Reform movement’s synagogue arm. However, women have become a much stronger presence among HUC-JIR faculty of late, filling 10 of the 17 tenure-track positions open during the past seven years, and six of the UAHC’s 14 regional offices have female rabbis as directors.
Women Reform rabbis also are beginning lead large congregations. Although it took 22 years for a large Reform temple to hire a woman as senior rabbi, Sher estimates that 10 women currently lead congregations of 1,000 families or more.
"It’ll be interesting to see what happens when a lot of women rabbis are empty nesters," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said.
And it may be that the real revolution brought about by women in the rabbinate is not about top-down leadership but about liberal Judaism in each synagogue sanctuary, where women have already begun to bring about change — and to represent normative Judaism.
"I’ve made a huge impact on the congregation as a role model for mothers and daughters," Missaghieh said. "A lot of congregants see me up there with my daughter on my hip, and she’s sucking her thumb as I’m telling a story, and that tells them, OK, this is what Judaism is about."
"I look forward to women rabbis being old and gray and creased and being emeritas," Klein said, "because I believe that once there are enough of us who are elderly, with white hair and thick glasses, we will start to complete the landscape of clergy."
Humanistic Service Entices the Secular
Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families
Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.
Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.
"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.
"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."
Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.
She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."
As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.
"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."
Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."
Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.
"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.
"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."
Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."
Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."
Mizrachi Options to Liven the New Year
Non-Orthodox Form Conversion Court
When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
George Caplan, a veteran community leader, kept his word and the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, believed to be the first of its kind anywhere, will be formally established in June.
Composed of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, the Bet Din, a court applying the rules of Jewish law, will officiate at conversions accepted by the three streams of Judaism.
With intermarriage running at about 50 percent and the Jewish population level in the United States on hold or declining, encouraging non-Jewish spouses to convert and form full Jewish families is among the most important challenges facing the Jewish community, Caplan believes. Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, views the new Bet Din as a substantial move in the right direction.
To Rabbi Richard N. Levy, the unified Bet Din "is a wonderful step forward for California and klal Yisroel and broadens opportunities for those who wish to become Jews."
It was Levy, a national Reform leader and director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), who took the initiative in laying a religious foundation for the new Bet Din five years ago.
His Conservative dialogue partner and fellow initiator was Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ) and distinguished professor of philosophy.
Dorff and Levy soon expanded their circle to include two dozen other rabbis, including Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist Kehillat Israel and current president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
The discussions and negotiations carried on for some four years were amicable, but there were differences.
"The Reform rabbis were afraid that the conversions would be too halachic [conforming to traditional Jewish law], and the Conservatives were afraid that the Reform would not respect their ritual standards," recalled Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein of the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).
A main sticking point was whether converts would have to undergo circumcision (real or symbolic, depending on whether the male candidate was previously circumcised) and immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath). These requirements are mandatory in the Conservative movement, but left to the individual discretion of the more autonomous Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.
It was finally agreed to hew to the stricter Conservative standards for the unified Bet Din.
At this point, about two years ago, Dorff temporarily moved to New York and Levy had to focus on his new HUC-JIR position, so the project became more or less dormant.
There was also the matter of finances. All agreed that the potential ger (convert) should not pay for the conversion process, which Goldstein termed a community responsibility, akin to naturalization for U.S. citizenship.
The three dayanim (judges) sitting on the rabbinical court are also not paid for their services, but still, the Bet Din has set a budget of $30,000 for the first year of operations.
About a year ago, following his wife’s death, Caplan stepped into the picture, offered financial support, and got the process started again.
Establishment of the Bet Din will be formally announced on Shavuot (June 6), the holiday linked to the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who threw in her lot with her mother-in-law Naomi and became a Jew.
Actual operations will start July 1, according to Conservative Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo, who has been named by the governing board as av (chair) of the Bet Din. He will draw from a "bullpen" of about 20 rabbis from the three denominations for service on the court.
Reform Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley will serve as sgan (vice chair).
While Jews-by-choice are playing increasingly prominent roles in synagogues and Jewish organizations, local figures for the actual number of converts are hard to come by.
Across the United States, the most recent available statistics from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey list 185,000 converts, or 3 percent of American Jewry.
For Los Angeles and adjoining counties, the best authority is Penelope Oppenheimer, who is in charge of the mikvah at the UJ, the only one in Southern California under non-Orthodox auspices.
During the past year, she supervised the ritual immersion of some 600 converts, 450 of whom about came through the Conservative movement, and the remainder through the Reform and Reconstructionist streams.
The number of additional Reform and Reconstructionist converts, who chose not to use the mikvah, could not be ascertained. The uncertainly is likely to remain in the future, as Jews-by-choice can choose to convert, as in the past, through one of the three denominations, rather than at the unified Bet Din.
Increasingly noticeable among Oppenheimer’s clients are small children from China, Vietnam and Romania, who are brought in for conversion by the Jewish parents who have adopted them.
The topic of conversion has more or less come out of the closet only during the last three decades.
"When I was in rabbinical school more than 40 years ago, we were taught nothing about conversion," Goldstein recalled. "It was a secret, almost like abortion."
By contrast, Goldstein nowadays receives fancy printed invitation to attend a conversion service or mikvah immersion.
Although the founders of the Bet Din say they would welcome the participation of Orthodox rabbis, the chances of this happening are almost nil.
"The basic issue," said Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, "is that a potential convert must accept the mitzvot [commandments] and Torah as being divine and must accept the written and oral law as the absolute truth."
In the absence of such a complete commitment by non-Orthodox rabbis and converts, "we would not accept a conversion as valid," he said.
Furthermore, the Talmud is quite negative about conversions, observed May.
"We are told that if you get an inferior convert, he dilutes Judaism, but if you get a superior convert, he’ll show up those Jews who are not committed," May said.
The only known attempt in the United States to form a beit din including all streams of Judaism, including Orthodox, occurred in Denver some 20 years ago, but the project fell apart in a short time.
Currently, the first step for almost all potential converts in Southern California is to enroll in an intensive Introduction to Judaism course, taught by Rabbi Neal R. Weinberg at the UJ, and one coordinated by Goldstein at the UAHC.
Weinberg’s course consists of 18 sessions, each three-and-a-half hours long, and attracts some 600 students a year. Of them, about 200 are planning to convert, while the others are mainly Jews and gentiles interested in learning more about Judaism, including, he recalled, some Protestant ministers.
Many would-be converts bring along their Jewish partners, and in the process the latter "become more Jewish," Weinberg said.
One such person was Caplan, who attended the classes while his wife was preparing for her conversion.
"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "You explore in-depth what kind of a person you are and it brought us much closer together."
Getting Genealogy Help Off the Net
Our Torah portion begins after a tragedy — the tragedy of
the golden calf. Moses assembles the entire Israelite community in order to
renew the covenant between God and Israel. Vayakel — “and he
brought them together” — he made them one community.
It is not so easy to be one community, particularly at a
time of tragedy.
I thought about this a great deal over the past few weeks
when I was in Israel with Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Rabbi
Bill Berk of Temple Chai in Phoenix and 22 members of our congregations. We
were there to study Torah at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Our
learning focused on the “Ethical Challenges to Israeli Society at a Time of
Crisis.” The study was extraordinarily powerful — with master teachers like
Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Rabbi Rachel Sabath, not to mention our unforgettable
session with the founder of the Institute, the brilliant philosopher Rabbi
David Hartman. They led us through the study of Torah and sacred texts that
raised thought-provoking questions about what the ethical obligations ought to
be of a state that calls itself Jewish.
Our Torah study was enriched by a day in Tel Aviv where we
visited some of the projects supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los
Angeles’ Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, including the Shevach Mofet School,
a high school in which the majority of the students are immigrants from the
former Soviet Union. This was the school that lost many of its students in the
Dolphinarium bombing. Instead of being defeated by the tragedy, the students
have recommitted themselves to excellence. We heard from several of the
students who have joined with their counterparts at the Milken Community High
School in different kinds of partnerships, connected by the Internet and summer
Then we met with Rabbi Meir Azari and learned about the
groundbreaking work of the Reform Movement’s Beit Daniel, which is reaching out
to teach Israelis about religious pluralism and offers alternatives to the traditional
Israeli notion that to be religious means to be Orthodox. We also visited the
wonderful program for elderly Holocaust survivors called Café Europa.
Finally, we met with social workers from the municipality of
Tel Aviv to learn about the problems faced by foreign workers in Israel and the
challenges to a city in dealing with victims of terror.
It was both inspiring and deeply troubling — inspiring because
it seemed as though everyone we met was a hero, but troubling in that there
were hardly any other American Jews in Israel. Wherever we went, after Israelis
thanked us for coming, they asked us: “Where are all the American Jews? Aren’t
we all in this together?”
Vayakel: “And Moses brought us all together” to make us one
The Torah portion goes on to describe what God commanded:
“Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall
bring them. So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence and
everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came
bringing to the Lord his offering for the Tent of Meeting … men and women, all
whose hearts moved them … came bringing objects of all kinds…. Thus, the
Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring everything
for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it
as a freewill offering to the Lord.”
Building the tabernacle, the sacred place that symbolized
our connection with God, was a communal effort that required the whole
community to work together. Different people had different tasks — the Torah
describes the artistry of Bezalel and Ohaliab and the special skills of the
women who spun with their own hands. But the work belonged to everyone — so
much so that there was even an overflow of effort and gifts.
The work of building Israel belongs to all of us. Whatever
our politics, whatever our view of what ought to be done in the West Bank and
Gaza, Israel is central to the Jewish story. It is our story.
We heard two different versions of that story from the
Israelis we met. Each has implications for us as American Jews. One version is
that our mishpacha is in trouble — and when your family needs you, you drop
everything and you go. You don’t just send money. You don’t just pay the
medical bills. You go, you sit, you visit.
The other version is different. It is not just the story of
members of our family in trouble. It is the story of our Torah portion, of
members of our family, our people, who are builders, willing to live through
difficult times because they are engaged in the very important work of building
a more just world. Their work is to make certain that Israel can survive the
challenges of power and live up to its promise to truly be a Jewish State, a
country animated by the highest ethical values of Jewish tradition.
That task is a sacred task and, like the building of the
tabernacle, it requires the entire Jewish community to work together. May we
each bring our skills, talent, resources, energy and, most important, our
presence, to nurture the holy place that is so central to the covenant between
God and the Jewish people.
Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
The Need for Campus Activism
Don’t Judge aBook by Its Cover
The media has been busy for months with “One People, Two
Worlds” (Schocken Books, 2002), the book I co-authored with Ammie
Hirsch, and the promotional tour from which I withdrew after
two appearances in deference to the Council of Torah Sages. Now that the dust
has settled somewhat, I would like to add a few remarks and observations of my
A few weeks ago, upon his return from his now-solo
appearances on the tour, Ammi wrote an article (“Two Authors, One Book Tour,”
Jan. 3) in which he lamented the missed opportunity for the Orthodox. He had
met “thousands of Jews. Precisely the people Rabbi Reinman wanted to reach —
mostly non-Orthodox Jews eager to learn more about Torah and the Orthodox world.”
It was indeed a missed opportunity. My message resonated
well with the people during the first two appearances — in the “State of World
Jewry” forum at the 92nd Street Y and at a book fair in Indianapolis —
despite my long caftan, beard and peyot. After the presentations, many people
approached me with comments, questions and an overwhelming curiosity. We also
connected on a personal level, and I loved it and them. By withdrawing from the
tour, I had to forego meeting hundreds of people under similar circumstances. A
So why did I withdraw? And even more important, why was this
opportunity for an Orthodox rabbi to meet non-Orthodox people such a rare
Ammi offers the answer. “The Jewish world needs you,” he
calls out to the Orthodox, “to bring your love of Torah, discipline,
commitment, knowledge and passion to the Jewish world…. The enemy is not
Reform Judaism. The enemy is apathy, assimilation and ignorance. We should see
ourselves as allies in our common struggle to sustain and ensure Jewish
You see? There are strings attached to these wonderful
opportunities. So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis?
Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It
is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the
Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he
can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.
But Reform rabbis are not our colleagues in the work of
perpetuating Jewish continuity. Reform ideology embraces moral relativism,
denies the divine authorship of the Torah, denies the divine covenant, denies
the binding nature of halacha and, by doing so, rejects the Judaism of our
ancestors. Reform laypeople know this full well, and that is why they are so
eager to learn about Orthodoxy, the religion of their ancestors. They don’t
display the same interest in Conservatism and Reconstructionism, which are just
different flavors of the liberal stream.
During these last few months, I have met and heard from
numerous non-Orthodox people yearning for a stronger Jewish identity, and I
wondered what motivated them to set themselves apart from American society.
Then it struck me that the laypeople have never let go of the religion of their
ancestors, that the national memory of Sinai is still etched into their
chromosomes, that deep down they know the divine covenant between the Creator
and His people is real.
Fifty years ago, a group of leading Orthodox sages erected a
firewall between the Orthodox rabbinate and the Reform rabbinate, forbidding
any official contact whatsoever between the two. The sages felt that sharing
common platforms with movements so antithetical to the religion of our
ancestors would give them an aura of legitimacy they did not deserve. They
placed no restrictions, however, on contact with Reform Jews as individuals.
Since then, Orthodoxy has flourished, but the lines of
communication with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters have been shut down.
Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider
them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and they have stood guard over the people
to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended.
So why did I co-write the book when I knew that our revered
sages disapproved of sharing platforms with Reform rabbis? Was I breaking away
and setting out in a new direction? Heaven forbid.
There is a deep sense of desperation in the Orthodox
community at the disintegration of the non-Orthodox world. There is a feeling
that time is running out and something must be done. The rabbis who authorized
and supported this project decided, based on several fine distinctions, that it
was an exception to the rule. To mention just one of these distinctions, since
I am an independent scholar and writer rather than a member of the rabbinate,
my participation was considered “individual” rather than “official” contact; I
mention this distinction in the book several times. We felt we could thus
circumvent the rabbinate and speak directly to the people.
We were wrong. The media completely ignored my explicit
distinctions and depicted the exchange as a breakthrough, a breach in the
Orthodox wall of rejection, which it was never meant to be. Most did not even
bother to read the book. They just looked at the cover and, to my horror,
painted me as the Rosa Parks of interdenominational dialogue. I have yet to see
one serious, in-depth review of the book.
The declaration of the Council of Sages simply reaffirmed
what we already knew — that the distinctions had failed to register with all
those people eager to portray the book in a light that suited them better.
Under these circumstances, the tour would just compound the error.
What could I say? They were right. And so, I withdrew.
Unfortunately, the media ridiculed the Council of Sages as beady-eyed
ayatollahs issuing fatwas against me and my family and bans of excommunication
against anyone who dared pick up the book. This was all nonsense.
The members of the council are wise, intelligent, highly
principled people, most of whom I have known for years. Two of them paid their
respects when I was sitting shiva for my father recently. The sages just set
policy; they never tell individuals what to do, and they certainly never threatened
me in any way whatsoever. Their declaration treated me with kindness and
respect, and when I issued my brief statement of acceptance and withdrew from
the tour, they were surprised and responded with a nice complimentary
statement. I have only good things to say about them.
In retrospect, the premise of the book was a mistake, but
what is done is done. The book has taken on a life of its own, and I hope and
pray that it does only good and no harm. Ultimately, the book will stand as
convincing evidence that Orthodoxy is intellectually sophisticated and
compelling, that our rejection of dialogue does not stem from fear and that our
expressions of love for all Jews are genuine and sincere.
In the meantime, I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not
to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage. If they do not allow you to meet
Orthodox rabbis, read the books I mention in the afterword. If you need more
guidance, write to me at the e-mail address that appears there.
As Ammi mentioned, when we were at the 92nd Street Y, the
moderator asked me, “If someone has a choice between watching ‘The Sopranos’
and learning Talmud with a Reform rabbi, what would you advise him to do?”
Things had been going so well, and now this bomb. I tried to
wiggle out, but the moderator pinned me down. What could I do?
So I took a deep breath and said, “He should watch ‘The
There was an audible gasp from the audience.
I was mortified.
Afterward, Richard Curtis, my wise friend and agent, told
me, “Don’t worry. People will respect your intellectual honesty. And besides,
many people will go home wondering, ‘What is so bad about learning Talmud with
a Reform rabbi? Why would he say something like that?'”
Article reprinted courtesy The New York Jewish Week.Â Â
Yosef Reinman is an Orthodox writer, historian and scholar living in Lakewood, N.J.
Sharon’s Election Brings Full Agenda
Worth Waiting For
With pomp, ritual and the added joy that comes when a long wait precedes a happy event, the Los Angeles school of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) ordained its first rabbis May 5 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
“The kvell factor is huge,” said Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school. Carrying Torah scrolls and wearing white robes, the eight new rabbis marched into the ornate sanctuary of the oldest Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, following a procession of more than 100 local rabbis, academics, HUC-JIR alumni and lay leaders.
A sponsoring rabbi presented each of the new rabbis. Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR’s president, blessed each one beneath a canopy created for the ceremony by local artist and longtime Reform benefactor Peachy Levy. The canopy bore sets of tablets, with phrases summarizing the values the new rabbis assimilated during their training and will bring to their work.
An emotional Ellenson, who taught at the Los Angeles school for more than 20 years before he was named president last June, told the gathering of more than 1000 well-wishers that the ceremony gave him special joy, because he had been a classroom teacher to each new rabbi.
“To have taught you and to ordain you as rabbis today constitutes a privilege beyond anything I can imagine,” he told them.
The five women and three men receiving smicha are the first Reform rabbis to be ordained on the West Coast.
The Los Angeles College of Jewish Studies, established by the Reform movement in 1947, formally became part of the HUC-JIR system in 1954. For more than 40 years, it offered only the second and third years of rabbinical training. Since 1973, all rabbinical students take their first year of classes at the HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem.
In 1998, the college’s national board of governors approved expansion of the Los Angeles school’s program to the fourth and fifth years, bringing the school to parity with the other three HUC-JIR sites as an ordaining campus.
Ellenson called the May 5 ordination “a sign of the maturation of West Coast Jewry,” given extra impetus by the decision of the University of Judaism (UJ), a Conservative institution, to expand its rabbinical seminary in the early 1990s. UJ held its first ordination three years ago.
“These steps by the Reform and Conservative movements reflect the recognition … of the real presence and concentration of Jews in the Western United States,” Ellenson told The Journal.
The Jewish population in the Western states has tripled since 1970, Barth added, with a parallel growth in Reform synagogues and schools and a desire for Western-trained professionals to staff them.
Ellenson acknowledged that “there’s been a lag time” in expanding HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program in Los Angeles, in part because the power centers of American Jewry historically have been in the East. But now, he said, “Jewry on the West Coast has real muscle to flex,” as seen not only in the seminaries but in popular institutions, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center.
Only two of the eight new rabbis are going straight into pulpits.
Kennard Lipman will serve as rabbi for Congregation Brit Shalom in State College, Pa., and Robert Haas will become assistant rabbi at Temple Shalom in Dallas.
New rabbis Miriam Cotzin and John Fishman are deferring long-term plans until their respective spouses finish rabbinical school. Tali Hyman will matriculate in the doctorate program in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University, and Melissa Fogel, who plans a career in Jewish education, has been hired as ninth-grade dean and rabbi at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple.
Although the number of the new Los Angeles rabbis headed immediately for congregational work is low — at the New York and Cincinnati campuses, about 60 percent of the new rabbis in each class take pulpits — and will do little to assuage a persistent shortage of rabbis in Reform congregations, HUC-JIR Los Angeles’ administrators appear unconcerned.
Both Barth and Rabbi Richard Levy, director of HUC-JIR Los Angeles’ rabbinical school, told The Journal that they thought a majority of the class members will be working in congregations within a few years. They also pointed out that there are needs for rabbis in other areas of Jewish institutional life.
“The college needs very badly to train its own scholars — there’s a value to having faculty who are themselves rabbis,” Levy said. He added that “there should be more Reform rabbis in Hillel chapters, more Reform rabbis in chaplaincy roles.” By training rabbis for diverse jobs, he continued, “we’re helping the Reform movement wherever students go.”
HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school, housed in an almost windowless brick-and-concrete building just north of USC, is historically the least celebrated of the college’s campuses, although its education and communal services schools, both founded in the late 1960s, have trained a significant number of leading U.S. Jewish educators and institutional professionals and its rabbinical program has been the launching pad for hundreds of careers.
“There was always a spirit here, a love, a concern for students that was really quite remarkable,” Levy said. Several of the new rabbis, in interviews with The Journal, effusively praised the professors they studied with on the Los Angeles campus.
The ordination had special resonance for Barth, a lifelong Los Angeles resident, who has spent almost his entire career at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school.
“Personally, it’s the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had for over three decades,” he said. “While it is my view that this should have happened 25 years ago, there is a right time for everything, and this is the perfect moment.”
Plenty of Jews during the past 35 years or so have embraced Eastern religion, but relatively few have come out the other side to become rabbis.
Ken Lipman, 52, ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on May 5, left New York for college at the University of Chicago at age 16, but he dropped out in 1968 to search for inner truth, offering that all-purpose explanation: "It was the ’60s."
He discovered Tibetan Buddhism during a sojourn in India the following year, and until the late ’80s, he was immersed in Buddhist learning.
He worked as director of the East-West Psychology Program of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
"I was a leader of a Buddhist community, and I saw that there were problems in the community, problems with interpersonal relationships," Lipman said. "So I talked to psychologists in the community, and being psychologists, they were all Jews, and I realized that what we were talking about was being Jewish, and that I had Jewish notions about community. I just followed my nose back to Judaism."
Mysticism and meditation still form a large part of Lipman’s study and practice, facets of Judaism he explains on his Web site, www.innerjew.com. "Mysticism is an integral part of our Jewish heritage," he said in his ordination statement. "Unfortunately … liberal Judaism has repressed it in the name of progress and rationality."
This summer, Lipman will bring his vision to the Jews of State College, Pa., home of Penn State University, where he will begin his career as a rabbi.
"I hope to do my part to make this knowledge [of Jewish mysticism] available to liberal Jews again," he said, "by showing how it is compatible with modern thinking and pluralistic values." — Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Contributing Writer
Reform Leader Angers Orthodox
U.S. Orthodox Jewish leaders are outraged by an Israeli Reform leader’s comments drawing comparisons between fervently Orthodox Jews and the Islamic fundamentalists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
But Rabbi Uri Regev, the outspoken director of the Israel Religious Action Center — an organization that promotes religious pluralism in Israel — is standing by a speech he gave recently at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in suburban Cleveland.
In the speech, which was reported in the local Jewish newspaper, Regev spoke about the dangers of Islamic terrorism.
“In Israel we have our own religious extremists who feel they have the right to rule other people’s lives, spreading the venom of religious fundamentalism,” Regev said.
Regev asserted that some fervently Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel have used hate-filled and violent language to describe liberal and secular Jews and their institutions.
He also said fervently Orthodox Jewish individuals are believed to be behind recent acts of vandalism and arson against liberal Jewish institutions.
“We need to band together to fight religious zealots on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides,” Regev was reported as saying. “If we don’t learn from the Sept. 11 loss of human lives, we haven’t learned anything.”
Orthodox leaders, who quickly circulated the article by e-mail, bristled at the comparison with Muslim terrorists.
“How can you even think about comparing a Jew of any sort to the Arabs who flew into the World Trade Center and killed 5,000 innocent people?” asked Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.
Lerner, who is calling for Regev’s resignation, said no fervently Orthodox Jews have been proven guilty of vandalism against liberal Jewish institutions.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, described accusations that fervently Orthodox Jews had vandalized institutions as “apocryphal.”
Regev is “comparing murderers, hateful murderers, with people who simply want to maintain the standards of the Jewish religion with regard to things like conversion and Shabbat,” Shafran said.
Regev is “co-opting the horror the whole world is feeling against Islamic terrorists in his fight against religious Jews,” Shafran said.
Comparing fervently Orthodox Jews to “these evil people who murdered thousands is beyond the realm of comprehension,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi in Yorba Linda.
“Regev has crossed all boundaries in modern Jewish life,” Eliezrie said. “He is sowing the seeds of hatred and division when we need unity and understanding. Instead of participating in a meaningful theological debate about real issues, he lowers himself to the playground, using name- calling.”
Reached by telephone in Jerusalem, Regev clarified that he was not criticizing all of Orthodoxy or even all the fervently Orthodox, as the Cleveland article implied. Still, he said, he stands by his speech.
“The point that I made is that we are waking up too late when we express our concern and outrage when the actual assault takes place,” he said. “What we need to understand is that it’s the religious fundamentalist hate speech that precedes those outbursts that we should be more conscious of, concerned about addressing.”
Regev said he was particularly concerned about a Sept. 7 article in the Israeli edition of the fervently Orthodox newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, which described Reform and Conservative Jews as “destroyers of religion,” “criminals” and “enemies of God.”
He also pointed to a sermon one of Israel’s chief rabbis, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, gave in 1996, in which he defended the violence of the biblical zealot Pinchas, and suggested that bloodshed in defense of Judaism is “like a doctor who spreads blood with his scalpel, but saves the patient.”
Rabbi Daniel Allen, president of the Conservative movement’s Masorti Foundation, another advocate for Jewish pluralism in Israel, said he is “not into Orthodox-bashing,” but shared Regev’s concerns about the language and tactics used by some fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel.
“Jews killing other Jews or using terror is an aberration,” Allen said. “They’re smart enough to use the terror of the Knesset Finance Committee,” he said, referring to fervently Orthodox political leaders who recently blocked public financing for a joint conversion institute that would have been operated under the auspices of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.
PFLP Kills Ze’evi
Bringing Back Traditions
The new Reform guidelines for converts to Judaism will have little effect on the many Reform rabbis who already employ many of the traditional practices suggested.
The guidelines, adopted last week by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm of some 1,800 rabbis, are deemed only suggestions and not requirements, and overturn a 19th-century platform which did away with such conversion rituals.
The new guidelines are the latest step in the Reform movement’s gradual return to tradition in recent years. They call for converts to go before a beit din (Jewish court), visit a mikvah (ritual bath) and for men, if already circumcised, to undergo a symbolic circumcision in which a drop of blood is drawn.
“I’ve always required everyone to go to the mikvah,” said Rabbi Steven Kaplan of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, Calif., adding that the new guidelines won’t change anything.
“With regard to circumcision, I’ve left it open. Sometimes they do the tipat dam [drop of blood], but I’ve also had where they went through a full circumcision.”
Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Calif., agreed. He said the new guidelines suggest “what we do already.”
For the past 20 years, Raiskin said he has required his converts to immerse themselves in the mikvah, and for male converts to undergo a symbolic circumcision. The only exception, he said, was made for adopted children who underwent conversion, and had already been circumcised.
Over the years, he said, “It’s gone from suggestion to requirement, and no one has even raised the issue.”
But Rabbi Richard Shapiro of Santa Barbara, Calif., who chairs the CCAR’s committee on conversion, said that in fact, the new guidelines place the emphasis on the process of conversion rather than the rituals themselves.
This includes the potential convert actively participating in a Jewish community for one year prior to the conversion, keeping a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.
“We’re trying to improve the quality of the attention we give to people who are considering conversion,” he said. While many of his colleagues are already requiring certain rituals of converts, he said he hopes the document will influence those who are newly ordained.
“It sets a tone for where we are as a movement, so as new rabbis are ordained, those who aren’t using the practice will be influenced as they see consensus building,” Shapiro said.
As to whether the increased usage of mikvot among Reform Jews would require the building of new Reform-run ritual baths, Shapiro said, “It’s already started.
“Generally what we’ve tried to do is cooperate with all the other movements in building community mikvot, but in those cases where necessary, we’ll find other options.”
Some 450 Reform rabbis gave their input into the new document, which was five years in the making and was revised nine or 10 times.
There were only three voices of dissent among some 570 rabbis attending the conference.
One of those was Rabbi Philip Posner of Mitzpah Congregation in Chattanooga, Tenn. In the debate that preceded the vote, he argued that the Reform movement had always prided itself on allowing the individual to decide which rituals to embrace and which to reject.
But he was in the tiny minority.
“Men and women who are seeking conversion to Judaism deserve the best we can give them,” Shapiro said before the vote.
“These people are choosing not just to enter a Reform Jewish community, but klal Yisrael [oneness of Israel]. We want to provide the maximum entree to gerim [strangers].”
The guidelines stop short of asking converts to keep kosher. That was also brought up for discussion before the vote.
“We wrestled with it and went back and forth on it four times,” Shapiro said. “Because the use of that term is sensitive to some elements of our community, we decided to leave it out as a consensus-building tool.”
The guidelines also suggest making Judaism more welcoming to the potential convert, rather than turning those seeking conversion away several times, as tradition dictates.
“These guidelines underscore Reform Judaism’s willingness to make Judaism accessible to those seeking a spiritual home without attempting to proselytize members of other faith communities,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the CCAR. “The guidelines signal an openness to welcoming converts while insisting that they complete a rigorous educational process prior to conversion.”
Remembering Babi Yar
For those who look up to the American Jewish clergy, it has not been a good year.
Last week, one of the Reform movement’s most prominent rabbis was suspended from the movement’s rabbinical association for past sexual misconduct.
Shortly after his suspension from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, widely respected as a Jewish thinker and teacher, resigned as president of the movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The news about Zimmerman came on the heels of several other widely publicized incidents involving Jewish clergy:
A Reform rabbi in Cherry Hill, N.J., faces a possible death sentence for allegedly hiring people to murder his wife in 1994.
A Conservative cantor in the Chicago area was arrested over Thanksgiving weekend for alleged involvement in a prostitution ring.
The Orthodox Union has just received a report investigating its handling of allegations that a New Jersey rabbi working for the movement’s national youth group sexually harassed and molested teens. The report’s findings and recommendations will not be made public until late this month.
The wave of incidents is refocusing attention on an issue that has come into public view only in recent years.
In the past, rabbinic misconduct — particularly sexual misconduct — was rarely discussed publicly. Many advocates for victims complained that rabbinical associations were more interested in protecting their members than the people they hurt.
Today there are stirrings of change. Leaders of the rabbinic organizations say misconduct remains rare, but during the past five years, three of the four denominations have developed new guidelines or modified old ones for addressing misconduct.
In addition, some rabbinic seminaries are raising the issues for rabbis-in-training, both before and after ordination.
It is unclear what overall impact such changes are having, since no one appears to be tracking the issue or monitoring how the new guidelines are affecting the number of complaints or the actions taken against rabbis.
While some believe that recent high-profile cases may encourage victims to come forward, others worry that the pendulum may swing too far.
They worry that fear of false accusations or misunderstandings are leading rabbis to become nervous about even innocently hugging congregants in need of comfort or counseling people behind closed doors.
One result from all the publicity is a growing awareness of the issue, which many expect will lead to less tolerance for misconduct.
“The wall of silence around clergy misconduct is being taken down,” said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith, a feminist Jewish magazine.
In 1998, the magazine published an article about women who said they were sexually harassed by the late charismatic Orthodox leader, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a fellow at the Wilstein Institute in Encino, Calif., who has been an advocate on this issue in the past, said, “People are less skittish and afraid of saying this happens with rabbis and are therefore more willing to deal with it.”
Rabbinic sexual misconduct is an extraordinarily complex issue.
It ranges from more obvious transgressions, such as sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, to more ambiguous cases in which a rabbi has a seemingly consensual relationship with a congregant or staff person, but which is questionable because of the power dynamics involved.
It is difficult to know how prevalent misconduct cases are or what percentage are reported.
As Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA), put it, “I can never guarantee there are not things that happen that don’t get taken care of.
“Obviously someone has to lodge a complaint,” he said. “My office is not a police force, and we’re not on witch hunts.”
It is also difficult to assess how fairly cases are handled, since rabbinic ethics committees — in order to protect both the accuser and the accused — operate in secrecy.
That secrecy “by its very nature makes it difficult to evaluate the process at all,” said Rabbi Shira Stern, chairwoman of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network.
The Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbinical associations have created or modified policies concerning sexual misconduct within the past five years.
The Conservative movement’s guidelines, in the works for several years, have not yet been printed and distributed to rabbis but are expected to be completed in June 2001.
The Orthodox rabbinical association has not modified its procedures in more than 50 years, according to Rabbi Steven Dworken, the group’s executive vice president.
But the group’s president, Rabbi Kenneth Hain, said the process may be re-examined if that is recommended in the Orthodox Union’s new report on the handling of the youth abuse case.
The movements vary in how explicit their guidelines are about procedures for inquiry and punitive measures. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which is Orthodox, and the Reform movement’s CCAR made their guidelines available, while the Conservative and Reconstructionist associations gave overviews but would not distribute actual policies.
All the ethics committees request complaints in writing and give an opportunity for the accused rabbi to respond in writing. They then interview both parties and other sources, where appropriate, in order to ascertain what happened and how to respond.
When rabbis are found guilty, the responses range from a reprimand to suspension to expulsion from the association, depending on the misconduct and the assessment of the ethics committee.
Some of the movements require therapy and a process of teshuvah (repentance) in order for the charged to pursue their rabbinic careers.
In addition, the Reform movement informs any future employers of that rabbi about that rabbi’s past transgressions and rehabilitation process.
None of the rabbinic associations could provide data prior to 1995, but since then, three Reform rabbis have been suspended for sexual misconduct and two Conservative rabbis have been found guilty but not suspended.
Both Conservative rabbis were required to undergo therapy and be monitored by the ethics committee, and one was forbidden from taking any rabbinic post other than teaching adult education courses.
Meyers said the RA’s ethics committee is currently wrestling with a case in which a now 86-year-old rabbi is being accused of something he did 30 years ago, raising the question of whether rabbis should be disciplined for transgressions that occurred long ago.
Officials of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association would not disclose how many cases it has reviewed or what disciplinary action it took, and the Orthodox’s RCA said it did not know of any cases of rabbinic sexual misconduct.
Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the Orthodox rabbi accused of sexually harassing and molesting scores of youth in the Orthodox Union’s youth group, was not a member of the RCA, which is composed primarily of congregational rabbis.
Some do worry that the movements’ guidelines may be so stringent that rabbis and other Jewish professionals may not be able to do their jobs.
“At my son’s camp, the counselors weren’t allowed to check them for ticks after they come back from hikes,” said Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school.
“Where’s the line? We’re in a world where touching is so dangerous that people are lonely,” Dickstein said.
Another difficulty in preventing misconduct is identifying the type of personality prone to overstepping the boundaries.
“Confidence, willingness to reach out to people — all the things that make people good rabbis also make them susceptible to inappropriate behavior,” Dickstein said.
“When you realize how much power you have with vulnerable people, sometimes you might be tempted to take advantage.”
The added scrutiny on the rabbinate, and the fear that one misstep can ruin one’s career and reputation, may add more pressures to an already demanding career.
“You have to be so many things to so many people — what I call the multifarious P’s: pastor, preacher, pedagogue, politician, public relations expert, pronouncer, priest, prophet and pal,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, spiritual leader of the Community Synagogue of Port Washington on Long Island, N.Y., and author of a recent book on Jewish masculinity.
Salkin, who is Reform, urges his colleagues to seek regular therapy and speak more openly with each other about the issues they face.
“I think rabbis stray because they need intimacy, they need affirmation and more than that, it’s what Judaism calls the ‘yetzer hara,’ the not-so-good inclination that’s within us.”
Rabbi Jacob Staub, vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said most rabbis and prospective rabbis think that “this is someone else’s problem — you have to be bad. But you can be operating from the noblest of motives and from what you think are the best of values, and you still could be tripped up.”
What most rabbis fall into is not “what we’d call pathological or criminal” — sexual harassment, sexual molestation or nonconsensual sex — “but human foible,” said Staub, who coordinates RRC seminars that deal with these issues.
Like the RRC, other rabbinical schools also now offer some seminars in which sexual misconduct and other related issues are addressed.
Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, a law professor and spiritual leader of two Los Angeles-area congregations who has written extensively on issues of rabbinic misconduct, would like to see more.
“We need programs at seminaries and out in the field to remind them that sex and power and excitement are very real. And if you do any counseling at all, emotions are going to be there and, like therapists, we need to be aware of what’s happening and ensure that synagogues remain safe places.”
Yeshiva University is enmeshed in its own battle over gay and lesbian couples less than a month after the Reform movement affirmed the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-gender commitment ceremonies.
Two lesbian students and a gay-lesbian-bisexual student group are suing Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York for barring same-sex couples from living in its subsidized, on-campus married-student housing.
Gay and lesbian students at the university, like other students, are eligible for university housing, but their nonstudent partners are not.
While Yeshiva University is officially a nonsectarian institution except for its Orthodox rabbinical school, it is the oldest and largest American university under Jewish auspices.
According to Orthodox interpretation, Jewish law strongly prohibits homosexual relationships, and Orthodox leaders have been outspoken in condemning the Reform rabbis’ recent resolution on same-sex unions.
Although the case was dismissed in New York’s Supreme Court on March 15, 1999, the students — backed by the American Civil Liberties Union — are appealing.
They had their first court hearing April 19 before a panel of judges in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division.
The students’ attorney, James Esseks, argued that by requiring students to present a marriage certificate in order to receive couples housing, the university’s policy has a disparate impact on homosexual couples who are unable to marry. Thus, he argued, it violates city and state human rights laws.
Yeshiva’s attorney, Mark Jacoby, said that the university has a limited amount of student housing available, and while it can provide housing to the children and spouses of students it cannot “open that up to all people who want to live with a partner.”
He also noted that the university does not permit unmarried heterosexual partners to live together in university housing.
Asked by one of the judges if the university would recognize a same-sex marriage certificate from a government that recognizes same-sex marriages, Jacoby said it would, but Esseks stated that no state or nation recognizes gay marriages. The Vermont Senate last week approved “civil unions” giving same-gender couples all the benefits of marriage under state law, but the vote recognized these unions only in Vermont.
The plaintiffs do not have legal domestic partnership agreements, and the university would not recognize them if they did.
It is not clear when the judges will issue a ruling.
In dismissing the original case, the judge wrote, “Einstein is not responsible for the fact that gay and lesbian students are unable to provide the college with a marriage certificate that validates their relationship with their partner. The plaintiffs’ real complaint lies not with the defendants but, rather, with the refusal of the New York state legislature to sanction same-sex marriages.”
During last week’s hearing, the plaintiffs and about 15 friends sat quietly in the seats reserved for observers. One of the plaintiffs, fourth-year medical student Sara Levin, 26, held the hand of her partner, Carla Richmond.
The other plaintiffs are third-year medical student Maggie Jones, who has broken up with her domestic partner since the case was dismissed last year, and Gila Wildfire, acting in her capacity as secretary of the Einstein Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals.
With Levin approaching graduation and Jones no longer with her partner, the case’s outcome will not affect them personally. Both said they are appealing nonetheless to help future students affected by the school’s housing policy.
“Cases like this will determine how any institution designs its policies, and I’ll be involved in lots of institutions as a doctor,” said Levin after the hearing, shortly before leaving to prepare for a Passover seder.
Although when she enrolled she knew university housing was restricted to students and their spouses, Levin said she had “assumed they would accept a domestic partnership.”
Richmond, a social worker who has been Levin’s partner for eight years, said the two have been living in Brooklyn — a lengthy commute — because they were unable to find safe, affordable housing close to the medical school’s Bronx campus.
“It’s been an additional stress on her in what’s already a stressful process,” Richmond said. “She’s had to make choices between being in an environment in which she has ready access and losing sleep because of having to commute, but having the support of a partner.”
The two met as undergraduates at Columbia University. Asked if they were united in a commitment ceremony, they said, “Not yet.”
Interviewed after the hearing, their lawyer said that other New York universities with married-student housing, such as Columbia, make those facilities available to gay couples.
Yeshiva officials declined to comment on the case, but noted in a statement that the 1999 decision ruled that “our student housing policies are in full compliance with all anti-discrimination laws.”
Because the appeal is pending, “no further comment would be appropriate at that time,” adds the statement.
Although commonly thought of as an Orthodox institution, Yeshiva University has been chartered since 1969 as nonsectarian, enabling it to receive state and federal funding.
That nonsectarian status means it must abide by various anti-discrimination laws, forcing it at times to adopt policies offensive to the religious sensibilities of some of its alumni and donors.
In the mid-1990s, it refused to ban gay student groups at Einstein and its law school, despite demands from some Orthodox students and alumni. — Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Schlock & Schtick
Condemning the Vote
It’s bad for Jewish unity, but not as bad as the decision to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.
That’s how Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are viewing the Reform movement’s recent decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.
But even though the leaders of Judaism’s more traditional movements say the Reform rabbis’ decision is less divisive than the 1984 move on patrilineal descent, Orthodox leaders are harshly condemning the vote.
The criticism of Conservative leaders is more subdued.
Also, those active in promoting Reform Judaism in Israel insist that because the resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” it will not pose a serious obstacle to attracting Israelis to the movement. The Israeli Reform movement has generally taken a more cautious approach to controversial issues because it does not want to give the Orthodox establishment ammunition.
Not surprisingly, leaders in the Reconstructionist movement — which recognizes patrilineal descent and in 1993 supported same-sex commitment ceremonies — backed the Reform decision.
Other movements, though, predict it will undermine Jewish unity.
While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate ketubot — or Jewish marriage contracts — and liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions. Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the 200-member Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speculated that the resolution’s passage will encourage Reform rabbis who do not yet officiate at same-sex unions to consider doing so. He said his movement’s 1993 resolution “started what became a significant shift in Reconstructionist rabbis.”
Public discussion of the issue “made it less possible for individual rabbis to avoid the issue,” said Hirsh, who began officiating at gay and lesbian ceremonies after 1993.
“Having support of the rabbinic group makes it easier for you to make a stand in your own congregation,” he said.
The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.
Rabbi Joel Meyers acknowledged that despite this position, some Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies and — unlike Conservative rabbis who officiate at intermarriages — they are allowed to remain in the Rabbinical Assembly.
Meyers does not expect Reform’s move to strain Conservative-Reform relations, and he predicted it would have less of an impact than the patrilineal descent issue, which he said “goes to the heart of defining who’s Jewish and who’s not and that’s a more serious question.”
The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that said, “Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”
“It’s another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA’s executive vice president. “First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying it should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership.
“Even the prohibition against incest could go,” he said.
But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not “split the Jewish people in two.”
Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders say they will continue to work together, despite their differences on the same-sex issue.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly happy about its compromise language.
“I imagine there’ll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us,” he said.
However, he noted that he “could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us,” and is far more concerned about Reform’s image among its “target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing.”
The leader of Israel’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said he does not agree with the resolution, which he thinks will undermine both movements’ efforts in Israel, but said it will not affect his willingness to work with the Reform movement in efforts to gain recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
“It will make our position hard — we’re always associated with Reform, and Israelis don’t always differentiate between Masorti and Reform. But I think it will create more understanding to the fact that these are distinct movements.”
Yolanda Potasinski, left, and her partner under the chuppah. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated at the 1997 commitment ceremony.
A Step Forward
Gay Jews say Reform vote is
a step toward acceptance.
By Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.
So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”
The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
In Los Angeles, the only city in the world with two synagogues serving primarily gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) lauded the Reform movement for “taking a leading role” in the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. Some date Reform’s historic path toward the recent vote to 1972, when it formally accepted BCC as a member in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood credited the Women’s Reform Network, the national organization of Reform women rabbis, with pushing the issue of gay marriage before the plenum. “We feel the vote of the Reform rabbis is in keeping with the views of the liberal Jews of California,” she said.
Back at Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — the bimah features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.
“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.
The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked. Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night. “I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”
Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”
udent, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”
“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.
“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.
Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.
“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.
Right at the Start