November 15, 2018

The Wrong Kind of Jew

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I was kicked out of a Jewish museum in Granada, Spain.

I wish I were being funny or ironic, but this unfortunate event actually happened. It was my first Jewish stop on a trip tracing the roots of Sephardic Jewry throughout southern Spain, when a friend and I visited a small family-run museum that fills the bottom floor of the family’s home.

In accordance with the diminished Jewish presence that is a fact of modern Spain, Granada’s Jewish museum is small and modest. There are a handful of rooms cluttered with Jewish symbols and memorabilia, clearly curated out of love but not, evidently, with much scholarship.

My friend, a rabbi and published author, quickly noticed a significant error in the museum literature: It claimed that Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, one of Granada’s most famous former residents (a monument of him appears in a public square) had translated Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” when in fact it was his son, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who translated the work from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew. My friend asked to speak to the museum owners and offered to help correct the error.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another.

Soon, a middle-aged woman and an older man descended the stairs and introduced themselves. Things went south quickly.

“You no respect museum. You get out of my house!” the woman yelled.

We tried to explain that we were deeply appreciative of the museum, but we simply wanted to help correct the error. But they wouldn’t hear it. None of us could really understand one another — I speak broken Spanish; the museum owners spoke broken English — and I’m sure the language barrier was responsible for the miscommunication that ensued.

But a language barrier does not explain what came out of the woman’s mouth next, which was very clear:

“You’re liberal,” she sneered at my friend, a Conservative rabbi who was wearing a kippah and tried to speak to her in Hebrew. “You’re Reform.”

I was raised in a Reform community, so I had never heard the word Reform uttered with such disdain.

“I’m Orthodox,” the woman said, stomping her foot.

Then she turned toward me, standing stunned and silent in gray jeans and a wool coat.

“Look how she’s dressed,” she sniped. “You’re liberal! You’re Reform!”

That’s when we headed for the exit.

Afterward, I wondered how the museum lady could possess such hostility toward liberal Jews when she devotes an entire wall to Jews like Sigmund Freud and Karl “Max” who I’m pretty sure were not as observant as she is.

A week later, I still can’t get this episode out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been made to feel inferior for my status as a non-halachic liberal Jew, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another. The rabbis tell us that sinat hinam — “baseless hatred” among the Israelites — was the reason the Second Temple was destroyed. And although Maimonides commands tremendous reverence today, there were rabbis so disapproving of his “Guide for the Perplexed” when it was first published that the book was burned in Montpellier and Paris.

What I encountered last week wasn’t unprecedented, but it does reflect the dangerous and growing divide among Jews that is driven by political and ideological difference, and which has intensified during the Donald Trump era. Today, Jews of different persuasions are more likely to meet at the combustible intersection of religion and politics than around the Shabbat table. The idea of “am Yisra’el” seems almost quaint. And I fear we’re reaching an inflection point in the disruptive and demeaning way we relate to one another.

In Israel, the ongoing battle over who has the right to pray at the Kotel has driven a wedge between liberal American Jews and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Also, enduring tensions exist between secular Israelis and the Orthodox power structure.

More than any time in recent memory, our community seems perilously close to the atmosphere of sinat hinam that once wrought destruction and tragedy. On April 25 in Los Angeles, I’m moderating a panel for the Shalom Hartman Institute at a conference titled “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?”

I have a terrible feeling I know the answer.

Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk: A Conversation on the Role of Women in the Jewish Tradition.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left), Associate Rabbi Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg (right), Director of The Shalhevet Institute Judaic Studies Faculty

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Our previous discussions have been peripheral to the most significant reason I am a Reform Jew: my gender. For all of the strengths I admire in Orthodoxy, I could not in good conscience identify with a community that makes the claim that I literally do not count — in a minyan, as a witness or as a rabbi.

It pains me that a halachic Orthodox marriage is a legal acquisition of a woman as the property of a man. The family purity laws, which render a woman impure and untouchable for half of her fertile life, seem demeaning. I know the claims that separation is good for a married couple’s sex life. I know the apologetics that my communal participation is less essential because my spiritual essence as a woman is holier than a man’s. But to me, it’s all a thin veil that justifies male supremacy and perpetuates the exclusion of women from power.

I give credit to Modern Orthodoxy, which has taken on some of the most toxic elements of misogyny, such as the matter of agunot, women whose ex-husbands refuse them a Jewish divorce. I appreciate how your movement is expanding women’s learning, participation and leadership. But that work remains at the margins.

I know that you see women as capable of being your intellectual, professional and human equal. How are you able to tolerate these fundamental inequalities?

“To me, it’s all a thin veil that justifies male supremacy and perpetuates the exclusion of women from power.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

I agree that this is a problem. To women who feel that counting in a minyan is their Jewish right, I can offer no great “Orthodox” response. Gender and halachah is our community’s foremost issue, and discourse on it is potentially reshaping Orthodoxy’s contours. I work for an institution and attend a shul that care deeply about women’s empowerment and leadership, and my female colleagues and peers are incredible scholars and professionals. So, I’m with you.

But we also need to consider this: Judaism has never been a religion of complete clarity. Living Jewishly often requires living with values that are not always harmonious. While it seems anathema to Judaism if (some) women feel like second-class citizens, it’s also unwise to dismiss years of tradition and halachic practice. The power dynamics may be off-kilter, but the Orthodox community is working to rectify this imbalance. It may be too little, too late for some, but I am pleased by the boom in women’s Torah study, and women in leadership roles and as Torah scholars.

Our community also has seen tremendous creativity — within the confines of halachah. Advanced-degree programs for women’s Torah study are on the rise. Yeshivat Maharat in New York is ordaining female rabbis, women in many communities are yoatzot halachah (experts in family purity law) and more halachic egalitarian minyanim are appearing. Many of these “innovations” are still controversial among Orthodox leaders, but their rise shows a willingness to progress within the boundaries of the halachic system.

Admittedly, a latent fear hovers over these discussions: If we adopt new gender policies, are conversations about intermarriage, patrilineal descent and conversion standards far behind? Those structures are definitional to who we are. I wonder whether you feel that religious progress should have checks and balances. Does Judaism have any particular shape or do universal values always trump the norms of the Jewish past?

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

I hear what you’re saying, but my fundamental concern remains that this empowerment of women still occurs within the confines of a second-class status. Men, not women, have the sole power to define these boundaries. The integration of women’s input is at best a courtesy, not a requirement. Sure, a woman can offer advice on purity laws, but she is deemed unfit to be a posek (decisor) on any other issue. To an outsider, the lines seem arbitrary and designed more to address the comfort level of men in adapting to change than the need to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of women.

I understand your concern that changing one thing creates a fear that doing so will open a floodgate of unstoppable change. Part of me sympathizes with that slippery-slope logic. But God endowed us with the unique blessing of conscience and discernment. It seems a chilul HaShem (a desecration of God’s name) to keep doing things the way we have always done them even though we know that something is not quite right. We insult God when we fail to use all of the God-given tools at our disposal to be the best version of ourselves.

My fear is that when we conflate the trappings of some religious observances that we have inherited with Judaism’s purpose, we are practicing a form of idolatry. Borrowing a line from my Reconstructionist friends: The past gets a vote, not a veto.

You refer to “universal values” trumping “the norms of the Jewish past.” But human dignity and equality are ethical truths central to our tradition. We may disagree about how to balance them with competing values, but why does continuity get labeled as Jewish when dignity doesn’t?

Writing this, I anticipate a letter to the editor from an Orthodox woman who challenges my analysis and takes pride in her allotted empowerment. To her, I say: You are more patient than I am. I don’t have the patience to wait for someone else to validate me. I believe that my tradition owes me a seat at the decision-making table by virtue of my humanity and education, not in spite of my gender.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

The optimal word here, as you said, may be “patience.” A number of the leading individuals and governing bodies of Orthodoxy recognize that gender and Judaism is an issue that must be on the table. They’re just unsure how it should all play out. How does it work itself through the halachic system? To what extent will it create division in our community? Part of the calculus is whether ritual and halachic shifts are worth driving a wedge between different segments of the Orthodox community. You and others will say that it is, but others — even those who see gender as an existential issue — remain bound to a way of life that holds Torah as paramount. This tension pervades the religious experience of many Orthodox Jews, but they’re willing to live with it.

“Living Jewishly often requires living with values that are not always harmonious.” — Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

As to your comment that Orthodox women don’t have a seat at the table, I don’t think the facts bear that out. I’m not convinced that the Orthodox community has fewer women involved in high-level Torah study, teaching and lay leadership than its denominational counterparts. Are there still impediments to maximizing women’s leadership in Orthodoxy? Yes. Must we join many parts of society to think about power imbalances in our community? Absolutely. There is work to be done. But, are women on the periphery of Orthodoxy? Are they treated in an undignified manner? I think not.

I can’t tell you how to feel. Orthodoxy will never satisfy everyone’s needs. But in my view, the idea that the movement is misogynistic — with women on the fringes and men maintaining power is — is a non-Orthodox canard.

The Tribe That Binds?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I’m sitting at Café Noir in Tel Aviv, a European-style café famous for schnitzel, while Vice President Mike Pence is in Jerusalem speaking to the Knesset.

It couldn’t feel farther away.

Israelis often refer to the “Tel Aviv bubble” because Tel Aviv really does stand apart from most the rest of the country. So little of this dynamic, cosmopolitan city reflects the attitudes, values and politics that dominate in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Those who live in Tel Aviv are proud of their countercultural status: Pass through Habima Square or Kikar Rabin most nights and you’re likely to see young people in protest on their way to the bars.

In recent weeks, thousands have gathered under the banner of an “anti-corruption” movement, not to protest specific policies but to inveigh against the abuse of power in Israeli politics. Some think Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way out, but this is wishful thinking. The ascendance of President Donald Trump, and with it an American endorsement of Israel’s right-wing policies, has actually tightened his grip on power.

The ideological split between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is nothing new. But it is looking more and more like a harbinger for the broader Jewish world, particularly within the American Jewish community, where hyperpartisanship has ripped at the fabric of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel. These days, if you mention Trump in a liberal crowd or former President Barack Obama in a conservative crowd, you better bring boxing gloves.

The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship.

Shalom Hartman Institute scholar Yehuda Kurtzer recently wrote in the Forward that “the central existential threat to Jews in America today is the toxic nature of partisanship in American political culture.”

That premise may be true, but it doesn’t go far enough. The central existential threat to Jews — everywhere — is the toxic nature of internecine Jewish partisanship, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, and increasingly, between them.

I see this wedge everywhere.

Last week, an Israeli friend accompanied me on a visit to Safed, where I was eager to trace the footfalls of Judaism’s great scholars and mystics. But my friend was reluctant. As someone accustomed to the diverse streets of Tel Aviv, Europe and the U.S., he was uncomfortable in a city dominated by Orthodox Jews. He never goes to Jerusalem. And he couldn’t understand why I wanted to visit the graves of ancient rabbis — to him, it seemed comical.

But to me, it was tragic: Here is an Israeli whose lack of Jewish choice outside Orthodoxy has alienated him from Judaism. And it isn’t only personal choice that is responsible for this rift; it is the result of political policies that have driven an ideological wedge between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel, between biblical Judaism and liberal Judaism, between particularism and universalism. For God’s sake, how many statements does Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs have to issue decrying this or that Israeli policy toward liberal Jews?

This is symptomatic of a growing alienation between progressive, liberal Jews — and a generation of young Jews — from Israel itself.

While in Israel, I received a frantic call from a rabbi in Los Angeles who said he was “very exercised” about Israel’s decision to imprison or deport tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. A few brave El Al pilots issued public refusals to abet the deportation — something Jews the world over can be proud of.

But instead of offering those in need a pathway to a better future, Israel’s prime minister further delegitimized vulnerable migrants by denying their status as “refugees.” He employed the same kind of gaslighting tactic he loathes from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As Hanukkah and Tisha b’Av remind us each year, this isn’t the first time in Jewish history there has been disagreement or infighting within our tribe. But once again, a politics of panic and pessimism threatens to upend the bond between the tribes of Israel. Don’t you think it’s a little pathetic to repeat a pattern the Bible warns about?

This time, it isn’t a temple at stake but an entire country.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Are the Kotel Clashes Worth It?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, Nov. 16, in Jerusalem is a day that I will never forget.

The day began with a moving prayer service at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian prayer space, celebrating the ordination that evening of the 100th Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) Jerusalem campus. I was finishing a 10-day trip to Poland and Israel sponsored by HUC-JIR in celebration of the historic event.

As a member of HUC-JIR’s board of governors and as a proud Jewish American and Reform Jew, I had a wide range of experiences on the trip that elicited wonder as well as deep concern.

The Robinson’s Arch service was meaningfully led by two women and included a series of female Torah readers. What happened next has been written about extensively, as well as recorded: the encounter between our group and the police at the Kotel.

Unbeknownst to me, the Reform leaders at the Kotel that day had planned to enter the public plaza at the Western Wall carrying eight Torah scrolls and conduct a brief Torah service. Under the Kotel’s rules — enforced by a government-funded nonprofit headed by the Kotel’s Orthodox chief rabbi — it’s forbidden to bring Torahs into the public plaza from the outside. Additionally, the separation of men and women is strictly enforced in the prayer spaces.

In what some describe as an act of civil disobedience, the people carrying the eight Torahs marched toward the metal detectors at the entrance of the plaza. The confrontation, at times quite violent, occurred as the Torah holders forcibly entered the Kotel plaza despite the resistance of the police and several Charedim. In the past, I have witnessed the Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh services, at which women praying faced similar resistance, but I have never experienced anything like what unfolded that morning at the Wall.

From the stories I have read and the videos I have seen, our group has been hailed as heroes, standing up to the Orthodox to insist that all Jews, not just Orthodox Jews, have the right to pray freely at the Wall. While I fully support a mixed-gender and trans-denominational prayer space at the Kotel, I simply cannot condone an unnecessary provocation, which will have a lasting effect in North America and Israel and in how the progressive Jewish community in North America views Israel. In my conversations with many Israelis, they show little interest in the Wall and don’t understand why it is so important to Diaspora Jews.

I know that I am in a small minority within the Reform Movement in North America on this matter — possibly a minority of one. Many of our HUC-JIR students who are spending the year in Israel were there, and some were subjected to physical and emotional violence. How this will influence their view of Israel will emerge in the coming months and years. My fear is that this will be chalked up to being simply a part of the “Israel experience.”

I have never experienced anything like what unfolded that morning at the Wall.

I am a firm believer that Israel is for Israelis, a country where I am not a citizen. After speaking with many Israelis, I have learned that what is important to them are social issues — income inequality, civil marriage, civil divorce and a host of other matters that Diaspora Jews also support. Not the Wall.

I never believed the Israeli government would honor the agreement for an egalitarian worship space at the Kotel, and I thought that all the rejoicing when it was announced was both premature and self-deceiving. Having now experienced this event firsthand, I am more convinced than ever that pressing for equal worship at the Kotel is not worth risking bodily harm. I think North American progressive Jews are fooling themselves into thinking that this most recent demonstration will further the cause of establishing equality of worship at the Wall. I hope I’m proven wrong.


Jay Geller, a Los Angeles lawyer, is on the board of governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. These opinions are his and do not represent those of HUC-JIR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In call with Jewish groups, Trump does not take questions

President Donald Trump speaking to Jewish leaders in a conference call at the White House as staffers look on on Sept. 15. Photo from White House Press Office

The debate has gone on for weeks among rabbis and Jewish leaders: If President Donald Trump does not formally renounce white supremacists, is it still worth engaging in a conversation with him?

This has been on much of the Jewish community’s mind since Aug. 23, when the leaders of three religious streams — Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative — said they would not organize the annual pre-Rosh Hashanah call with the president, which the rabbinical groups had instituted at the start of President Barack Obama’s administration. That call, principally for clergy, was aimed at helping to shape the High Holy Days.

But last week, the White House said it would hold a call with Jewish leaders — one that would be in line with the calls and meetings that Jewish leaders have had with the sitting president since the Dwight Eisenhower era. It would be initiated by the White House, not the rabbis, and lay and religious leaders would be invited.

On Sept. 15, Trump delivered his holiday greetings in a conference call with Jewish leaders that lasted barely eight minutes. He condemned those who spread anti-Semitism. He expressed his love for Israel. And he hoped for progress in the peace process.

He took no questions. By contrast, calls and meetings with past presidents have included exchanges — sometimes tough — and generally lasted at least 45 minutes.

Some of the participants expressed disappointment after having done public battle with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements over whether one should engage Trump in conversation in the wake of his equivocations over white supremacists.

“Everyone would look less stupid if he had just put it on YouTube,” one said, encapsulating the one-way direction of the conversation.

But others said it was important that they take part, out of respect for the office and as part of their duty to represent a diverse community.

Not invited to join the call were leaders of  the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. The Conservative movement did receive an invitation but Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the CEO of its Rabbinical Assembly, declined to participate.

All the participants who spoke to JTA asked not to be identified because the call was off the record, although the White House released a transcript the same day.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, a Charedi Orthodox group, had argued in a Forward op-ed Sept. 14 that the rabbis who had opted out of the call with the president were missing an opportunity to raise the painful issue of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched last month in Charlottesville, Va., which culminated in an attack by an alleged white supremacist that killed one counterprotester and injured at least 20 others.

“There is a difference between respectfully asking a president to clarify that he does not equate proponents of white supremacism with protesters against the same and, however one might feel about him, publicly and starkly insulting our nation’s duly elected national leader,” he said.

In the end, there were no surprises. Trump covered the standard range of issues in these calls and did not depart from the script.

Anti-Semitism and bias: “We forcefully condemn those who seek to incite anti-Semitism, or to spread any form of slander and hate — and I will ensure we protect Jewish communities, and all communities, that face threats to their safety,” he said.

Israel: “The United States will always support Israel not only because of the vital security partnership between our two nations, but because of the shared values between our two peoples,” he said.

Trump noted that his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was making a priority of keeping international bodies from singling out Israel for criticism.

“I can tell you on a personal basis, and I just left Israel recently, I love Israel,” he said.

Peace: “This next New Year also offers a new opportunity to seek peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, and I am very hopeful that we will see significant progress before the end of the year,” the president said. “Ambassador David Friedman, Jared [Kushner], Jason [Greenblatt] and the rest of my team are working very hard to achieve a peace agreement. I think it’s something that actually could happen.” Friedman is the ambassador to Israel, Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, and Greenblatt is the president’s top international negotiator.

Kushner, an observant Jew, opened the call by introducing the president, saying his father-in-law “takes great pride in having a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandchildren.” Ivanka Trump, Jared’s wife, is also a top adviser to her father. Trump closed the call by saying he and his wife, Melania, are wishing all “a sweet, healthy and peaceful new year.”

The controversy surrounding the call began last month, when the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements cast their decision to cancel the call — an outcome of Trump’s equivocation after the Charlottesville violence, when he said “many sides” were to blame for the violence, and that there were “very fine people” among both the white supremacists and the counterprotesters.

“The president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia,” the joint statement said.

The day before the call, Trump again insisted that there was blame on both sides.

Those who participated in the call said that even absent a question-and-answer period, it still was better to be on the call than not.

“These are rabbis whose foremost cause should be the Jewish people and Israel,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Klein, who was on the call, noted that he participated in similar calls and meetings with Obama, even though he rarely agreed with him.

“Why stupidly insult the president, who we need for those issues?” he asked.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in an email to JTA that because he was not on the call, he had no comment on what was said.

But, he wrote, “We stand by our decision to not host a High Holy Days call with the President this year. We are disappointed that the President continues to draw a false equivalency between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville.”

The moral and intellectual state of the Jewish left

There is at least one thing about which my critics and I can agree: The very many responses — published in the Jewish Journal and elsewhere (The Forward, Huffington Post and various blogs) — to my Dec. 4 column titled “The Torah and the Transgendered” are an excellent measure of the moral and intellectual state of the American-Jewish left.

My critics and I recognize that all these rabbis, including the head of the Reform rabbinate, all these Jewish professors and all the Jewish laypeople who attacked me and my column represent the American-Jewish left, and are therefore a fine indicator of the moral and intellectual state of the American-Jewish left.

Let’s see what that state is.

Before doing so, however, one important caveat. Although many may call themselves liberals, I am discussing the left, not traditional liberals. It is vital to recall that there was a very long period when “liberal” and “left” were not only not synonymous, they were frequently at odds with each other. For example, liberals were fiercely anti-communist, and the left wasn’t (it was anti-anti-communist). Similarly, the left regarded America — as it does today — as essentially a racist, sexist, xenophobic and imperialistic country, while liberals thought America, though not perfect, was and is the greatest country ever created.

[RELATED: A response to Dennis Prager]

Here then are some of the characteristics of the American-Jewish left that stand out from the responses:

First, the low intellectual state.

Jews and the left generally pride themselves in valuing the life of the mind. But the left (with, of course, some individual exceptions) is actually anti-intellectual. The proof is the contemporary university where ideology has replaced intellectual inquiry. As Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens (a secular Jew with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics) succinctly put it recently in his Wall Street Journal column, “American academia is, by and large, idiotic.”

Why? Because leftists, not traditional liberals, have taken over the universities. 

There are few intellectual arguments in the scores of responses to my column. The vast majority of the rhetoric is about how bigoted a person I am.

In fact, nearly all the responses actually betrayed an unwillingness (or perhaps even an inability) to dialogue intellectually. When not condemning me as an individual, they discussed accepting transgender individuals in Jewish life — which I happen to support, believe it or not. But my column had nothing to do with accepting transgender individuals either as people or as Jews. It was about the blurring of male-female distinction in society, and how much the Torah (and later Judaism) values distinctions, including the male-female distinction.

This blurring of the male-female distinction has me very worried about the future because I do not believe that the abolition of “he” and “she,” as more and more universities now recommend, is a healthy thing. I do not believe that it is good that boys are elected high school homecoming queens — because queens are female and kings are male; or that anatomical males should be naked in high school girls’ locker rooms. I do not believe it is healthy for children when parents raise them with no gender, leaving it to the children to determine their gender as they grow up. And I do not believe that the widespread progressive dismissal of the need for both a father and a mother — given how little the sexes differ, who needs a parent of each sex? — is good for society.

This societal denial of the significance of male and female, this blurring of genders, and Judaism’s opposition to such blurring was the subject of my column. Yet that subject was either missed or ignored by virtually every responder, who wrote as if in preprogrammed mode, “bigot,” “non-inclusive,” “intolerant,” “transphobic,” “hateful” and, one after another, described the Torah as saying essentially anything a person (on the left) wants it to say.

Which brings us to characteristic No. 2:

Instead of intellectual discourse, what we have is the dismissal of the decency of the left’s opponents. If you oppose the left, you are rarely debated. Instead you are dismissed as sexist, intolerant, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, racist, bigoted and spewing hatred. And that’s only a partial list. Instead of debating us, the left morally dismisses us as unworthy of debate.

For example, Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote that “Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy.” 

The idea that I deeply and sincerely care about people (including the transgendered), about Jews and Judaism, about children and about their future is one that Rabbi Brous cannot entertain. Because then my ideas would have to be responded to, whereas if I am just “a self-appointed community provocateur,” I don’t merit a reasoned response to a reasonable column.

FYI to Rabbi Brous: I was a leader in the fight to save Soviet Jewry, and I wrote, with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, one of the most widely read English-language introductions to Judaism ever published, before you were born. I have lectured to more Jews than almost any living Jew. I have brought innumerable Jews to Judaism, and innumerable non-Jews to an appreciation of Jews. And you demean these 40 years of service to Jews as those of “a self-appointed community provocateur.”

By dismissing opponents’ decency, those on the left feel no need to confront our arguments. At the end of my second column responding to my critics, I invited any or all of the responders to a public dialogue organized by the Jewish Journal with proceeds divided among the charities of our choice. No one thus far has accepted the invitation. The reason is that the left lives in an intellectual bubble, and therefore isn’t used to being intellectually challenged.

Third, and finally, there is a willingness to make up falsehoods in the service of progressive ideals. Thus, the head of the Reform rabbinate (the Central Conference of American Rabbis) wrote, “Sadly the Jewish Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis.” 

That is, as I wrote in my response column, a lie. There is no such history, let alone long history. My call for her to back up her charge or retract it has thus far been met with silence.

And yet another rabbi wrote:

“The first thing we learn about ourselves in Bereshit/Genesis is that we are created in the image of God and that zachar u’nikeva bara otam (male and female God created it (the human).”

To make her point, this rabbi simply decided to mistranslate one of the two words she cited from the Torah. Bara otam means “created them,” not “created it.” 

I have devoted all this time and effort to this subject for many reasons. One is, as I wrote above, my fears for the next generation. 

Another is that pre-adolescent children are now encouraged to adopt a transgender identity when in most cases, gender dysphoria is only a passing phase. 

As sex researcher Debra W. Soh wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal:

“Research has shown that most gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, and do so by adolescence: Most will grow up to be happy, gay adults, and some, like myself, to be happy, straight adults.

“Waiting until a child has reached cognitive maturity before making these sorts of decisions would make the most sense. But this is an unpopular stance, and scientists and clinicians who support it are vilified, not because science — which should be our guiding beacon — disproves it, but because it has been deemed insensitive and at odds with the current ideology.”

And my other reason for all this writing is to provide Jewish historians of the future a picture of the moral and intellectual state of progressive Judaism in the early 21st century — in the progressives’ own words.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Netanyahu’s office to match Jewish Agency funding to Reform, Conservative movements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office will match funding given by the Jewish Agency for Israel to the country’s Conservative and Reform movements, according to an agency spokesman.

The Jewish Agency provides some $1.09 million each in annual funding to Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements, in addition to $546,000 in funding to Israeli Orthodox congregations. According to Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer, the Prime Minister’s Office plans to match that funding.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said in a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly that the government “is joining with the Jewish Agency to invest in strengthening Reform and Conservative communities within Israel.”

“As prime minister of Israel, I will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews – all Jews,” he said.

Netanyahu also mentioned in the speech a roundtable of representatives from Jewish religious movements and government ministries formed to address the movements’ concerns. The roundtable was first announced in July, though JTA has learned that it has yet to formally convene. There has, however, been regular communication between the government, the Jewish Agency and non-Orthodox streams on their concerns.

Reform and Conservative leaders praised Netanyahu’s remarks as an indication of the government’s commitment to strengthening Jewish pluralism in Israel.

“I hope and am optimistic regarding the commitment of the prime minister, and his ability to fulfill what he promised,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Conservative movement. “If Israel is the state of the Jewish people, all members of the Jewish people need to feel they’re a part of it.”

On Wednesday, haredi Orthodox politicians from the United Torah Judaism in Israel party criticized Netanyahu’s remarks and lambasted the Reform movement. Knesset member Moshe Gafni accused Reform Judaism of “stabbing the holy Torah in the back,” while Knesset member Yisrael Eichler accused Reform groups of funding anti-Israel activity and said they “incite against everything that is Jewish.”

New Pew report highlights Modern Orthodox Jewry straddling two worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama nominates Saperstein to religious freedom post

President Obama nominated Reform movement leader Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department.

Saperstein, a veteran civil rights activist, is director and counsel of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, a position he has held since 1974.

The rabbi lobbies on Capitol Hill and speaks throughout the country on social issues. He delivered the invocation at the Democratic national convention in 2008 at which Obama was nominated for president, and was selected in 2009 by Newsweek magazine as the most influential rabbi in America.

“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” said President Obama.

The ambassador travels the world making the case for minorities facing persecution or discrimination; in recent years, ambassadors have taken up the causes of Muslims in Burma and Christians in China and Sudan, among other cases.

The office produces the annual report on religious freedom. That report has in recent years made note of the special privileges enjoyed by the Orthodox in Israel, often at the expense of the Reform and Conservative streams.

Leaders of other Jewish streams were quick to congratulate Saperstein.

“Over the years David has worked with the Rabbinical Assembly to advance a number of key projects related to American Jewish life, Israeli politics, global religious freedom, and more,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice-president of the Conservative movement’s political wing, said in a statement.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, called Saperstein a “good friend and colleague” and said he would “be a great religious freedom advocate.”

Saperstein, 66, is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches First Amendment Church-State Law and Jewish Law. He serves on many boards, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

This is not his first position within the Obama Administration. He was a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. Rabbi Saperstein also was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001.

If approved, Saperstein is expected to begin his new duties in the fall.

He received a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.H.L. from Hebrew Union College, and a J.D. from American University.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Israeli cabinet secretary plans to block Robinson’s Arch transfer

Israeli Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit intends to block a draft agreement that would transfer control of parts of the Western Wall to a right-wing Israeli nonprofit.

Mandelblit’s decision to oppose the tentative deal comes shortly after a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis sent him a letter strongly protesting the transfer of control.

Under the deal, the government would have transferred control of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center to the City of David Foundation, according to Haaretz.

The foundation currently runs the City of David tourist site outside Jerusalem’s Old City and works to settle Jews in the surrounding Arab neighborhood.

The Israeli Reform and Conservative movements have been negotiating with the government for months to expand a non-Orthodox prayer space at Robinson’s Arch, a section of the Western Wall that the deal would have included.

On Wednesday, the CEO of Israel’s Masorti Movement, Yizhar Hess, told JTA that the Reform and Conservative leaderships were not notified of the deal with the City of David Foundation before it was drafted.

Hess said that if implemented, the draft agreement would depart from a compromise on the Western Wall outlined  last year by the Jewish Agency for Israel’s chairman, Natan Sharansky. Sharansky’s outline proposed creating a pluralist council to manage the site.

“One of the primary issues of our negotiation, from the earliest stages of the Sharansky plan, was that religious governance and authority over the site would be granted to duly appointed religious leaders of the Reform and Masorti/Conservative movements, to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister or his designates,” the rabbis’ letter stated. “Surely you will understand that we would like to know why the Government of the State of Israel does not accept our legitimacy to form a governance body, but find the [City of David Foundation] suitable to do this and much more.”

Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that meets monthly at the Western Wall and that is also negotiating the Robinson’s Arch expansion, also protested the draft agreement.

A response to Gerald Steinberg on the Prawer-Begin plan

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

This characterization is insulting, dangerous, and wrong.

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

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

[Related: Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin]

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.

White House, amid heating tensions with Israel, to brief Jewish leaders on Iran

Amid an escalation of signals that the Obama and Netanyahu governments are parting ways on Iran strategy, the White House called in American Jewish leaders for a briefing on short notice.

A small coterie of Jewish organizational leaders will meet Tuesday afternoon with top staff at the National Security Council to discuss Iran, according to the White House and officials of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The emphasis appears to be on groups that deal closely with Israel and its security concerns. A number of groups normally high on the list for White House briefings were not invited, including representatives of the Reform and Orthodox movements.

The invitation follows a tense, albeit coded, public exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the last two days over Iran, as well as persistent backing by pro-Israel groups for a congressional bid to enhance Iran sanctions despite White House pleas to put new sanctions on hold.

On Sunday, addressing his Cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided in unusually sharp terms the attempts to talk Iran down from 20 percent to 3.5 percent uranium enrichment.

“The Iranians are intentionally focusing the discussion on this issue. It is without importance,” said Netanyahu, who has insisted that Iran must dismantle all enrichment capabilities as part of a deal to end sanctions aimed at ending its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu did not specify Kerry as advancing the proposal, but made it clear his remarks were made in the context of talks he had with Kerry last week in Rome.

“This was the focus of the long and detailed talks I had with John Kerry,” he said.

Kerry appeared to return the jab in an address Monday evening to the Ploughshares Fund, a group that advocates nuclear disarmament.

“The president has charged me to be and has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world,” Kerry said.

“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” he said. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America is a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”

In recent days a number of leading Jewish groups, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America, have reiterated support for advancing through Congress new and enhanced Iran sanctions, although the Obama administration has made clear publicly that it would prefer Congress put off dealing with the legislation until after the next round of talks in mid-November.

Knesset approves marriage registration reform law

The Knesset approved the so-called Tzohar Law, which would allow couples to choose the city in which to register their marriage.

The law passed its second and third readings Monday evening, over the objections of the country’s two chief rabbis, by a vote of 57 to 14, with one abstention. All of the no votes were from haredi Orthodox lawmakers.

Couples previously had to register their marriage in one of the communities in which they live. The new law allows them to choose a marriage registrar with whom they are more comfortable or who may be more lenient in cases that involve converts or immigrants.

There are 60 offices for the registration of marriages and conversions throughout the country.

The new law will also create a computerized database for the registrations, making the records accessible to all of the registrars.

“The revolution in religious services is underway,” Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on his Facebook page following the vote.

The bill is named for the Tzohar organization, a group of rabbis that works to make rabbinic services more user friendly for all Israelis.

Intermarriage Math

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

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

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

Such was the case this week with the publication of the

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Rob Eshman: The Shutdown

What the $%#@ is happening?

I’m writing this 17 minutes after the Federal government shut down — for the first time in 17 years.  I remember clearly the last time this happened.  It was stupid and superfluous and self-destructive then.  It’s stupid, superfluous and self-destructive now.

The Tea Partier Republicans set this in motion — they actually planned its implementation months ago.   You can go online and hear them at rallies back in the Spring promising to close down Washington, D.C.  “Shut it down!” their  audiences chanted back.

More mainstream Republican leaders went along with the demands of the far right.   House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner knew it wouldn’t work, knew it was dumb, knew Cruz and his ilk will likely hurt Republicans in the next election cycle — but went along. 

If only they were the only victims. 

Prior to zero hour, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a letter on Capital Hill calling on lawmakers to support a federal budget agreement and avoid a government shutdown

“Spending cuts should not unfairly target the most vulnerable among us,” Jared Feldman, JCPA’s vice president and Washington director, wrote. “We urge you to strengthen anti-poverty efforts and restore opportunities for all Americans. It is critical that Congress come together cooperatively and civilly in this effort. Regardless of the outcome, a cantankerous and divisive process is unacceptable.”

The shutdown will hurt thousands of furloughed Federal workers.  It will disrupt numerous services, including research at the National Institute of Health, and it will likely suspend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provides food, health care referrals and nutrition education for pregnant women, new mothers and their children.

Because, you know, those heart disease researchers and low-income children are sucking this country dry.

[David Suissa: We should shut down the hysterics]

The shut down, which Tea Partiers and their enablers are promoting as a fiscally responsible way to thwart the implementation of Obamacare, will actually end up costing a couple billion dollars, not to mention a few points on the Dow.  If it continues for too long, the nation’s entire economy could backslide.

And if that’s not bad enough, the whole debacle may actually pay off for the people who cooked it up.

In recent polls, Sen. Ted Cruz shot ahead of his potential 2016 Presidential contenders.  Because of his Seussian 23-hour speech denouncing a funding bill the President could sign, Cruz “now has more credibility with the GOP base than the folks who have been leading the party for years,” according to outsidethebeltway.com.

This would all make sense if, at the end of this nightmare, Cruz would stare into our eyes, and say, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad” did to Skyler: “I did it for me!” At least that would be honest.  But like Walt’s alter ego, Heisenberg, Cruz has convinced himself he’s leading this charge for the greater good. Seriously, even in “Breaking Bad” the meth dealers respected the Feds.

It may sound petty, given the enormity of this debacle, to point out here that a Republican Party taken over by anti-government nihilists can kiss winning the Jewish vote goodbye.  Granted, it’s a small vote, but it comes with the added benefits of activism, donations and a couple of swing states.

Why do I say that? Because Jews, it turns out, like good government.  Stable government in democratic nations have enabled them to prosper and practice their faith freely.  Effective, accountable  government protects minority rights and property and creates the conditions for prosperity, including investment in and support of those less fortunate—which turns out to be good for all.

I’m assuming Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, knows this, which is why at press conferences he looks like a kid being dragged in front of the principal.

It’s why — little known fact — the Republican President who garnered the largest percentage of the Jewish vote in the modern era was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Yes, he was a bit dull and unconscionably complacent on civil rights, but consider his achievements, as Stephen Ambrose enumerates them in his biography:  Instead of dismantling the New Deal, as more strident Republicans wanted, the number of people receiving Social Security benefits doubled under Eisenhower’s administration. He balanced the budget, froze military spending and refused to lower taxes. He kept New Deal regulatory commissions in place. Public works expenditures exceeded those of Truman or FDR—projects that included the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He refused to sell off public lands or open wilderness areas to mineral development. He stopped nuclear testing in the atmosphere.  He avoided all military entanglements.

“The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration,” Eisenhower said. “We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.”

All that investment, all that government — and Eisenhower presided over the greatest decade of American prosperity in the twentieth century.

In 1956, Eisenhower received 40 percent of the Jewish vote—a number that hasn’t been topped since.  Even more telling, he campaigned and got that vote while delivering to Israel a series of punishing measures and blistering statements in response to its collusion with Britain and France in the Suez Campaign.

Call it ancient history.  Call it a distant fantasy.   But if Republicans want to come close to that accomplishment, it’s not the government they need to shut down, but Ted Cruz.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Abbas to U.S. Jews: Culture for peace better now than in 2000s

In a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was more hopeful now for peace than he was in the mid-2000s.

“If you ask me this question during the intifada, I didn’t have an answer,” Abbas said Monday, referring to the 2000-2005 second intifada and having posed a rhetorical question about whether the culture of violence between Israelis and Palestinians could change.

“Hatred, guns, killing, it destroyed everything. Now I can say we have something to talk about. When we talk about living side by side, many people listen.”

Abbas was attending a meeting convened in New York by the Center for Middle East Peace, a group founded by diet mogul Daniel Abraham and headed by Robert Wexler, a former U.S. congressman from Florida.

The meeting was private, but the center distributed notes to reporters afterward.

At the meeting were leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements; Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women; and leaders of Jewish pro-peace groups. Also on hand were former top U.S. officials, including Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, respectively a Clinton administration secretary of state and national security adviser.

Abbas said he remained committed to the two-state solution and urged the meeting participants to press the Israeli government to end settlement expansion in the West Bank.

“We need your support to ensure the successful conclusion of the peace negotiations so that the state of Palestine can live side by side with the State of Israel in peace and security on the ’67 borders,” he said. “I urge the Israeli government to focus on building peace and not building settlements.”

Abbas was in New York to attend the opening of this year’s U.N. General Assembly and is slated to meet Tuesday with President Obama.

The P.A. leader said achieving a final status peace deal within nine months — as envisioned by Obama — was “not impossible.”

Hewing to strictures set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas would not describe the status of the talks renewed in June under U.S. auspices, but said the United States had a critical role to play in advancing the talks.

Abbas confirmed that he met a key Israeli precondition for the talks, suspending Palestinian attempts to achieve statehood recognition while negotiations are underway, in exchange for Israel’s agreement to release 104 prisoners who have been held since before the 1993 Oslo accords.

Abbas condemned the killing over the last week of two Israeli soldiers by Palestinians, but also called for condemnation of the killings of Palestinians.

“Two weeks ago, four young people were killed by the Israeli army near Jerusalem,” he said. “No one said anything.”

It was not clear to what Abbas was referring, but on Sept. 17, Israeli forces killed one man and wounded at least one during a raid on a refugee camp near Jerusalem to arrest a fugitive.

Abbas noted to the group that six of his eight grandchildren had attended Seeds of Peace, a U.S. program that establishes relationships between youths from Israel, the Palestinian areas, other Arab nations and the United States.

“‘I will go again and again and again’,” he quoted one of his grandchildren as saying.

A deaf rabbi who listens

Imagine taking a graduate school class — a small one, with maybe a dozen students — and for the entire year, not being able to understand a single word the professor said. For your final examination, you have to rely on notes compiled from your classmates and pray they understood the material enough to effectively teach you. 

For Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, who was ordained 20 years ago as the world’s first Reform deaf rabbi, that’s how she got through one of her first-year rabbinical school classes in Israel.

“There was one professor in particular who had a beard that completely covered his mouth, and there was absolutely no way I could see what he was saying,” said Dubowe, a spiritual leader at Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation of more than 600 families in Thousand Oaks. 

Dubowe was born with moderately severe/profound hearing loss. She communicates mainly through spoken English, although she can read lips and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Others may think this made her different — especially as a member of the clergy — but she never saw it that way.

“My intention was not to be different from anyone else,” Dubowe said. “I don’t feel different from others because there are certain things that I don’t hear. That was not the way I was raised. My parents never said, ‘Because you’re deaf you should or shouldn’t do this.’ They said, ‘You’re Rebecca, and you’re interested in that, so do it.’ ”

The Los Angeles native didn’t initially know that she wanted to become a rabbi, but during a summer-long stay with family in Israel, she began to feel a much deeper bond with her heritage.

“I became very connected with my cousin’s mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and she knew I was very interested in learning and speaking Hebrew,” Dubowe said. “She only spoke in Hebrew with me, and she was very patient. She told me lots of stories about her life and being a pioneer of the kibbutz.”

After being in college for two years, Dubowe went back to Israel, spending five months on her cousin’s moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement. When she returned, she knew she wanted to be a Jewish professional. 

“My options were to be a cantor, which I probably shouldn’t be — can’t be; be an educator, which I really thought about but wasn’t really interested in the idea of being in the classroom all day; and maybe social work, which I love to do,” Dubowe said. “The rabbinate included all of that — social work, being a counselor, being a part of people’s lives, and being a teacher in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies from the then-University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), she went on to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

“After interviewing at a Conservative school and HUC, I felt like HUC was ready for me. I didn’t think the Conservative movement was keen on having someone with a disability,” Dubowe said.

The journey was not without complications. As an undergraduate, she had always had an interpreter in class. However, her first year at HUC-JIR was in Israel, and finding a local interpreter who was fluent in ASL was nearly impossible. She had to do her best with a combination of lip reading, hearing aids and notes from multiple classmates. 

Rabbi David Ellenson, one of Dubowe’s former professors and HUC-JIR’s current president, knew she was an especially gifted student. 

“From the very outset, she was effervescent, empathic, intelligent, and committed to Jewish life and learning,” he said. “Her career has been a model of success, and she has brought deep Jewish sensitivity to issues of identity and inclusion.”

Dubowe faced another hurdle once she was ordained. Would anyone hire her? Of the 17 open positions she applied for, she was offered two jobs. Ultimately, she accepted a position as an assistant rabbi in a synagogue in New Jersey. Four years later, she was back in the Los Angeles area at Temple Adat Elohim.

Dubowe said her hearing loss hardly gets in the way of her job as a rabbi.

“There is a rare moment that I may not understand the person speaking. However, if necessary, I would ask them to write it down or repeat what they said, but it has not really been a problem,” she said. 

Aliza Goland, the synagogue’s executive director, said Dubowe’s greatest strength is sort of an ironic one. 

“She is a good listener,” she said. “She anticipates congregants’ needs and is ready and able to consistently exceed their expectations. She listens with kindness and empathy and is genuinely interested in people’s stories.”

And she’s made her congregation a more inclusive place in the process.

“She has brought a heightened awareness and sensitivity about all kinds of disabilities to our community,” Goland said.

Dubowe improved her hearing three years ago when she received a cochlear implant — a year after her husband, Michael, who also has profound hearing loss, had the same procedure performed. (Still, she needs to face a person to understand what they are saying.) Her two daughters also are hard of hearing, though the family mostly communicates with each other via spoken English, with occasional signing. 

While she leads a hearing congregation, Dubowe is involved with the Jewish deaf community. As an undergraduate, Dubowe taught Sunday school at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, the San Fernando Valley shul that calls itself the world’s first congregation for the deaf.

She works with the Washington Society of Jewish Deaf as well, and while attending an American Jewish Congress conference on its behalf, she led Shabbat morning services.

“At my service, we had a PowerPoint so we didn’t have to hold on to a book. Rather, we could use our hands and sign prayers,” she said. 

Dubowe also led an ASL Birthright trip and is actively involved with Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specializes in educating students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

But Dubowe’s favorite part of her job would be the same even if she could hear.

“The best part about being a rabbi is being part of people’s lives,” she said. “Being there for moments of sadness and moments of joy — watching a child grow. I feel like it’s a privilege and honor to be a part of the life cycle, of the journey — being face to face with people and creating relationships.”

As she’s known all along, you don’t need to hear to do that. You just need to listen.

Hebrew Union College names Rabbi Aaron Panken as new president

Rabbi Aaron Panken was elected president of The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.

HUC announced the decision of its board of governors on Wednesday.

Panken, 49, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature at HUC-JIR in New York since 1995. He has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students.

As president, Panken will serve as the chief executive officer of HUC’s four campuses — in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC’s 138-year history, succeeds Rabbi David Ellenson, who served from 2001 to 2013 and is becoming chancellor.

“I am greatly honored to be called to serve as the president of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” Panken said. “Our mission is to help our students grow into authentic Jewish thought leaders, able to articulate and advance their own visions of a rich Jewish life for a new and rapidly changing religious landscape.”

Panken was ordained by HUC in New York in 1991. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, where his research focused on legal change in rabbinic literature.

He currently serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, and has served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the birthright Education Committee, the CCAR Ethics Committee, and in other leadership roles within the Reform movement.

“We are proud that Dr. Panken will be leading our institution,” Irwin Engelman, board chairman, and Martin Cohen, chair of the Presidential Search Committee, said in a joint statement.  “He is a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and committed leader of the Reform Movement for more than three decades.”

Opposition continues despite new Boy Scout policy

In 2001, Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) overwhelmingly decided to end its sponsorship of Cub Scout Pack 1300 to protest the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) policy banning openly gay scouts and leaders. It ended a nearly 50-year tradition of scouting at the Reform congregation.

Now, in the wake of BSA’s decision last month to end that policy for children — but not openly gay scoutmasters — the question remained: Will TIOH and other synagogues that acted similarly re-establish ties?

“Until they change their policy, all around, we would never even consider it,” TIOH Rabbi John Rosove said. 

Rosove was one of 500 rabbis and cantors — 24 of whom were from the Los Angeles area — who signed a letter that was delivered by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America on May 21 urging leaders to change its membership policy for children and adults. BSA made its partial change two days later.

For A.J. Kreimer, former chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS), that change was a victory — one that he, like Rosove, hopes soon extends to adults as well. 

The NJCOS has, since 1926, been an officially chartered BSA committee. Among other things, it helps grow Jewish membership in the Scouts, develops programming for Jewish troops and packs around the country, and works with the national BSA to schedule major events so that they don’t conflict with Shabbat and holidays.

[Related: Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’]

Kreimer, speaking by telephone from his home in New Jersey, recounted how he has opposed the Scouts’ membership policy since the Supreme Court, in 2000, ruled 5-4 in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the Scouts, as a private organization, has a First Amendment right to set its own membership standards, including its exclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders.

Until BSA’s leadership completely amends the policy, Kreimer said, he will use his influence and position as president of BSA’s Northeast Region board to “continue to advocate for full inclusion.” But he and the NJCOS insist that efforts to reform the Scouts are more effective from within rather than from the outside. 

The Reform movement has taken a different position. As Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School and a TIOH member who was the congregation’s president when it voted to end its sponsorship of Pack 1300, told the Journal, “We were convinced by everything we knew that there was no way we could fight from within.”

Since the Reform movement called for its synagogues to break with BSA in 2001, scouting in Reform congregations has dropped to the point where “now the number is infinitesimally small,” according to Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.

“There were plenty of congregations that had those relationships,” Weinstein said. “Now there are very, very few that do.”

One of the few Reform synagogues to sponsor the Scouts is Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) in Valley Village. It never ended its sponsorship of Troop 36 and Pack 311, but it also effectively wrote into its charter that the congregation could disregard BSA’s policy restricting membership to openly gay scouts and leaders.

Although BSA has the power to revoke the charter of a sponsoring organization that de facto rejects its membership policy, Rabbi Sarah Hronsky said that it has never taken any action against the synagogue. Like NJCOS, Hronsky thinks pressure from the inside is more likely to change BSA than external pressure. 

“They tried to change it from without. They went through the court system,” she said, referring to the Dale case. “You can’t change something from without.” 

Hronsky said that to the best of her knowledge, the RAC has never pressured TBH to break from BSA and did not ask her to sign on to its recent letter.

The decline in Jewish scouting in general has not quite matched the pace of that in Reform synagogues, but in the last few decades it has declined significantly, according to Kreimer and Rabbi Peter Hyman, the national Jewish chaplain for BSA. Kreimer estimates that there were around 75,000 to 100,000 Jewish scouts in the 1950s. Now, he thinks there are closer to 40,000.

Hyman, who lives in Maryland and is the spiritual leader of a Reform synagogue, said, “There were times when there were troops in almost every synagogue, coast to coast, irrespective of theological leanings.” 

Both Kreimer and Hyman are lifelong Scouts and have reached the highest attainable rank — Eagle Scout. The latter spoke about the intersection of Jewish and scouting values. 

 “Don’t we want our kids, as Jews, to be trustworthy, loyal, to acknowledge God and to embrace tradition?” 

Trust and loyalty are two elements of the “Scout Law,” which is composed of 12 virtues that every scout is expected to uphold.

According to Kreimer, Hyman, and current NJCOS Chairman Bruce Chudacoff, several congregations that had been boycotting the Scouts have expressed interest in re-establishing a connection following the May vote on membership.

[From our archives: Rob Eshman — Scout’s honor]

Chudacoff, who lives in Wisconsin, said that one possible explanation for the decline in Jewish scouting is opposition to BSA’s policy. The recent change, he thinks, “is a good foundation for us to build and increase membership.” 

In Los Angeles, TBH and at least two other synagogues — Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, both Orthodox — sponsor Scout troops and packs. 

Jeff Feuer is the Cubmaster for Pack 360 at Beth Jacob and the chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the West Los Angeles County Council. He has been Cubmaster for 13 years, and one of his main tasks in his role as chairman is to organize events among the Jewish units that also include Jews from the non-Jewish units. In Los Angeles, as nationally, most Jewish scouts are not in Jewish units. For the handful of observant Jews in scouting, though, a Jewish unit is a must.

“It’s very difficult for an observant Jew to participate in scouting unless it’s in a Jewish unit,” Feuer said. “Non-Jewish units meet on Shabbat, they meet on chagim [holidays], they serve non-kosher food.”

From describing a 200-scout Memorial Day weekend campout in the Santa Monica Mountains to a pinewood derby (a race involving handmade wooden model cars), to any number of activities designed to build character, leadership and survival skills, Feuer’s position is that synagogues that are holding out until BSA further reconsiders its sexual orientation policies should reconsider.

“I understand the objection,” he said. “But the loss to the community is a great one.” 

Scouting, Feuer thinks, does for boys what few other institutions can do in terms of building character, and though he understands some synagogues’ objection to scouting’s historical position on gays, he hopes they “weigh in their own minds what they think the trade-off is” and become more accepting of the Scouts. 

In 2000, the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — the Orthodox equivalent of the RAC, representing nearly 1,000 Orthodox synagogues in America — issued a press release supporting the Dale decision that protected BSA’s membership policy as a First Amendment right. Unlike the RAC, the OU Advocacy Center has not been particularly vocal about BSA’s policy. It did not release a comment following BSA’s recent vote and has not publicly issued any memoranda to its member synagogues advising any position vis-à-vis the Scouts.

In the fall, Feuer and the local branch of the NJCOS will, as they do every year, try to bring local synagogues into the scouting fold. He is hopeful that some that have recently given BSA the cold shoulder may warm up. 

For now, he acknowledges that what could be a strong relationship between the Scouts and many congregations is “tarnished by this big political problem,” one that, if it disappears, could reopen the doors to a renaissance of Jewish scouting.

“It’s so much in keeping with Jewish values generally, you’d think every synagogue would want one.”

Thousand Oaks rabbi leaves post

Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim (TAE) in Thousand Oaks officially ended his tenure at the Reform synagogue on May 1, and in a subsequent Facebook post announced that he no longer intends to continue in a similar post. 

“It is with bittersweet emotions that I write this letter to you, my Adat Elohim family,” Riter wrote May 3 on his Facebook page, in a post that has since been removed. “After 16 years of experiencing countless blessings in the synagogue world, I have decided that it is time for me to pursue a new career path outside of the traditional rabbinate.”

The post did not indicate what new career path he intends to take. Riter declined immediate further comment via e-mail. He did not respond to subsequent questions from the Journal sent by e-mail or telephone.

TAE President Richard Jackman said that he did not foresee Riter’s departure.

“Some people may have anticipated it; I didn’t,” Jackman said. “For some people it was abrupt, for some people it wasn’t.”

A communication was sent to the congregation indicating that Riter had resigned as senior rabbi and that a committee would be formed to search for an interim rabbi, followed by a permanent one. 

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, a Los Angeles native who has been with TAE since 1997, has filled in following Riter’s departure. Jackman said that the board aims to have someone to replace Riter before the High Holy Days in September.

“We are 630 families, so we need two rabbis,” Jackman said. “We hope to have somebody in place in July. At the very latest, August.”

Riter joined TAE as senior rabbi in 2005 following eight years as Temple Solel’s rabbi in Encinitas. He received his rabbinical training from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. A Texas native, Riter received his undergraduate degree in political economics from Tulane University in New Orleans.

According to Jackman, in Riter’s nearly eight years at the Thousand Oaks synagogue, he implemented numerous programs, including Mussar classes (personal ethical development) that have drawn about 200 people.

“It was a great eight years,” Jackman said. “He brought a lot of wonderful things to our congregation.”

Getting ready for baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinner table revelations: The unexamined life

You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation. 

This happens to me every other week, on Friday night, when my mother hosts a summit of friends and family members from both sides of the aisle — religious and Reform — throws in a smattering of people who really couldn’t care less either way but will go along with the majority for the sake of keeping the peace, and lets the games begin. Almost invariably there’s a new face in the crowd, and it’s usually a very beautiful one because his or her ancestry stretches back to my mother’s grandfather, the once-mighty and forever fruitful Solomon (the Man), famous for his good looks, many talents and many, many wives. Solomon was Jewish but did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even geographic location. He once went to India to find “the most beautiful woman in the world,” married her and brought her back to live in the same house with his first wife and her children. You can read about that in my first novel, but the point is we don’t know how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to him. We just know that my mother has a knack for finding these “cousins,” and she loves to introduce them to the rest of the family at Shabbat dinner. 

The other thing we know, if we’re paying attention right now, is that what I just said about Solomon the Man and his amorous activities violates one or more of the three deadly sins of speech — lashon harah (negative speech about another person that is true), hotzaat shem ra (negative speech about another person that is untrue) and rechilut (gossip). Lest you think I’m trying to appear especially knowledgeable about matters of moral rectitude, I’ll confess I only learned the subtle variations in prohibited speech because I looked it up on Wikipedia a few months ago, and only then after being challenged one too many times by my religious relatives about something I said. 

“How do you know this is true?” they would ask every time I made an assertion that involved other individuals. 

The banking system and the economic meltdown are why I think so many Wall Street CEOs should be in jail. 

Lashon hara. 

“Do you know for a fact they’re responsible?”

A distant cousin I didn’t know I had (she lives in Europe, so my mother hadn’t had a chance to discover her before she found me on Facebook), who wrote to tell me she’s read my books, and did I know that Aunt X, who died a hundred years ago, actually had a lover? 

Hotzaat shem ra.

“Did you see this aunt and her lover together in bed with your own eyes? If not, you can’t say it’s true.”  

The mayoral elections in Los Angeles and why the DWP union boss’ backing of Wendy Greuel hurt her chances. 

Rechilut.

“Did you go door to door and ask every voter how they feel about the DWP union boss? Is there any real benefit to be drawn from making this observation? Do you know the union boss personally?” 

The rivalry between the Orthodox Iranian rabbis in Los Angeles and their Conservative colleagues over the souls and leadership of the community, how the two factions have fought for years over whether to have a microphone in the synagogue on Shabbat.

Lashon hara, hotzaat shem ra, rechilut. You’ve just “killed” a whole bunch of people in one breath. 

My relatives weren’t always religious. They used to talk about their own ancestors from time to time, which is how I managed to gather a few good stories before prohibitions kicked in and my sources dried up. They did, of course, apply all the usual standards of censorship, erasing for all time any trace of mental illness, genetic flaws, alcohol or other addictions, bad behavior, poor manners or any other factor that, in a tightly knit society such as ours, might interfere with the children’s chances at a good marriage. But it wasn’t until some of them became seriously observant that I became conscious of what a terrible and devastating weapon negative speech can be. 

I’m deeply grateful to them for this. I really am. I’m ashamed and remorseful for all the times I’ve blurted out something about another person without weighing the consequences. I’m trying to do better. We all should. It will make the world a better place. The only thing is, this kind of awareness wreaks havoc on one’s storytelling — in print or orally — and it also leads to a great deal of unwelcome self-reflection, and these, in turn, kind of ruin your life anyway. 

Which brings me to my hair. 

Nowadays, our Shabbat dinner summits follow more or less the same pattern: The religious group sits politely and keeps mostly quiet while the Reform faction engages in prohibited speech until, sometime during the meal, one of the observant people steps in and issues a gag order. 

“The long plane ride between L.A. and Tel Aviv is hard on the elderly.” 

Unless you have scientific data to back this up, you’re hurting Israel’s tourism. 

“The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh makes you wonder about the humanity of buying cheap, foreign-made products.” 

Unless you did the building inspection yourself …

You really can’t talk about anyone who is not in the room except to say something positive, which is nice, but takes only two seconds because no one is allowed to disagree, and no further discussion is needed. Because it’s Shabbat, you’re not even allowed to talk about historical public figures with a bad reputation — Nebuchadnezzar, say, or Kim Il Sung — because the mere utterance of their name sullies the holiness of the table. So what you have are long stretches of silence that can be filled in one of two ways: either you start reciting prayers or you talk about yourself and each other, which is how I learned, exactly two Fridays ago, that my hair looks bad — really bad — and, they hope you don’t mind their being honest, they hate your hair, it looks awful, worse than it did last year this time, and it was pretty dismal then. They don’t know what it is — the color or the cut or just the fact that it’s there, on your head — but you should undo it immediately and stop wearing these dead, drab shades in clothing, you don’t look good in white, it makes you appear ashen, like you should be taking hormones, which of course will give you breast cancer …

A few minutes of this, and North Korea’s labor camps don’t sound like such a bad topic of conversation. 

“So,” I said after checking my hair a couple of times in the mirror and deciding it’s beyond saving, “Do you like Michelle Obama’s new hairstyle?” 

Oh what a relief it is when you hit the right note at just the right time! No sooner had the name “Obama” been released into the air than all the walls came down, the injunctions expired, and my entire family, religious or otherwise, launched into an all-out attack on the man’s character, abilities and intentions. They hate him all right and don’t mind saying so, and they can’t stand his wife or her new hairstyle, and if that doesn’t fill entire evenings with lively chatter, how about those Palestinians? What’s wrong with saying they’re bloodthirsty criminals when it’s true, already common knowledge, and meant to effect positive change? Oh, and do you know you’re not allowed to listen to the Persian-language radio run by Mr. X anymore because he’s an agent of Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah? 

I love my relatives, and I love my mother’s Friday night summits. I even like self-reflection once in a while. But it seems to me that our laws — all of them, even the holy ones — are subject to human interpretation. We pick and choose how to observe even when we believe we’ve stuck entirely to both the letter and the spirit, and I’m thankful for this, and so is my hair. And really, what’s history if not glorified gossip? And besides, that thing I said about Solomon the Man and his taste for beautiful women, that wasn’t hearsay or gossip, there’s DNA evidence to support my claim. Just look at this latest cousin my mother has discovered, her bronze-colored skin and agate eyes, the seven languages she speaks and 700 suitors she has already turned down. Did you know her mother once ran off with a …  

Co-op living, revisited

Philip De Wolff had it all: Two houses, expensive cars, several profitable businesses, money to pay his children’s way through college. 

But it wasn’t enough.

About 10 years ago, having sold off his last business as he approached retirement age, De Wolff, 69, realized the traditional definition of success as financial well-being no longer made sense to him. He wanted something more.

“All the material things, once you start achieving them, you’re either constantly striving to achieve them or you come to realize they are the least valuable thing in your life,” explained the Redondo Beach resident, a native of South Africa who grew up in the Reform Jewish tradition. “Where does it all lead to? It always leads to one thing: There’s never enough money.”

So, instead of looking for a retirement home, De Wolff set out on a different kind of quest. Accompanied by his partner, Margaret “Maxx” McKenzie, 54, he went in search of a place that would give his life new meaning, where he could live alongside others who shared his values of putting health and the planet above monetary concerns. He wanted to find a place where people worked together for the common good, shared food and other resources and supported each other instead of competing.

What De Wolff had in mind was an intentional community. These communal-type living arrangements, which range from urban housing cooperatives to communes, number thousands across the United States. Some revolve around specific religious, social or environmental beliefs. Some require the pooling of income or other assets. Some consist of just a few people, others of hundreds. But what they all have in common is a desire to break away from an individualistic approach to life and create a community based around shared values, shared resources and mutual support.

Typically, people in an intentional community own land together or control a long-term lease on a property where they live. Individuals or families usually have their own private space — a room, apartment or house — but there are also common facilities shared by the group (a living room, meeting space or recreational area, for example). Members are generally required to contribute to the group in some way by helping with chores such as farming, childcare or food preparation, and by participating in collective decision-making on how the community is run.

According to Laird Schaub, executive secretary and co-founder of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), a clearinghouse for information and resources related to this field, interest in intentional communities has been growing over the past eight years. More than 2,000 communities or communities-in-formation are listed in the FIC’s online directory at ic.org — which Schaub emphasizes is not all-inclusive because some communities don’t want to be listed — and the number of visitors to the Web site has been growing by 10 percent per year, he said. 

Schaub, 63, who lives in an income-sharing rural community in Missouri, said these types of living arrangements used to appeal mostly to young people in their 20s and 30s. That was particularly the case during the 1960s and 1970s, a period when intentional communities flourished in the United States. Now, older people are increasingly getting involved in the movement, he said.

Schaub attributes the change partly to “delayed curiosity” among progressive-minded baby boomers who may have been intrigued by communal living during the ’60s and ’70s and want to revisit the idea. Many are still healthy and active and don’t want to idle away on the sidelines of life waiting to be put in an assisted-living facility. By joining an intentional community, these older Americans can be a part of something, contributing their time, skills and experience to a group, he said. It’s also a great way for seniors to find companionship, particularly when a spouse has died, Schaub indicated. 

For De Wolff, the search for a community has taken him and McKenzie all over the country. They’ve spent time on a well-known collective called “The Farm” in Tennessee, visited communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia, helped at a friends’ homestead in Arkansas, and worked on a community garden while living in a shared house in Savannah, Ga. They said they haven’t found their ideal community yet but won’t give up searching.

“I like being on the land. I like eating food that I’ve grown. It’s so strange to go to the supermarket now,” McKenzie said. “I’m not looking for a safe place to retire. I’m looking to be the most active I’ve been in my life. I want to bloom.”

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, one of the city’s most successful intentional communities is celebrating its 20th year in the Wilshire Center/Koreatown area. The Los Angeles Eco-Village Intentional Community is a two-block neighborhood, where about 40 residents dedicate themselves to living in a way that demonstrates the art of sustainable, healthy, community-oriented urban living. This includes cooperatively owned housing — where members enjoy rents well below market rate — community gardens, an organic food co-op and a volunteer-run bicycle repair space.

Among the members are several seniors, including co-founder Lois Arkin, 76, who says an intentional community is a place to which people of any age can bring value.

“There’s always a need for people to share in communities, for work to be done in the community, for truth to be told — which is sometimes easier for older people than for younger people — and certainly a sense of belonging,” Arkin said. “We read about the problems older people have in our societies, [but] we don’t think of them here. … I still work way more than full time and can’t imagine not doing it.”

Arkin, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and considers herself culturally Jewish, noted that Jews are well represented in intentional communities. In fact, she estimated as many as a quarter of the people she interacts with in these groups are Jewish. 

“I think Jews like to think of themselves as very community-oriented and they’re drawn to community,” she said. “And of course we have this great history of the kibbutzim in Israel.”

But ultimately, Arkin believes, intentional communities can appeal to anyone wanting to make a difference in the world.

“There are so many people who want to change and don’t know what to do,” she said.  “Living in community, you have mutual support for change. Living alone, you may change, but it’s hard to do without that support.”

Israel’s mikvahs open to non-Orthodox conversions, official clarifies

Clarifying existing policy, the office of Israel’s deputy religious services minister said Israel’s state-sponsored mikvahs are open for use for Conservative and Reform conversions.

Wednesday’s announcement, said a spokesperson for Eli Ben Dahan, does not change existing policy. The spokesperson said that some mikvahs, or ritual baths, had blocked Conservative and Reform Jews from entering,  but that because the mikvahs are public spaces, any Jew is allowed to use them for any purpose.

“It’s a public space, so it’s open to any Jew regardless of the movement,” she said. “This is an issue of equality.”

The spokesperson emphasized that the  announcement did not amount to recognition of non-Orthodox conversion. Ben Dahan is a member of the Modern Orthodox Jewish Home party, which is opposed to state recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

The chairman of Jewish Home, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, unveiled reforms of Israel’s religious services earlier this week aimed at streamlining the state’s religious institutions.  The reforms shrink the number of Israeli regional religious councils, allow couples to be married by any Orthodox rabbi in the state and change the criteria by which religious council heads are chosen, including adding more women to the process.

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating with an eco-conscience

A small group gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Isaiah on April 11 to do what Jews do best: talk about food and then eat some. 

The occasion was a panel convened by Netiya, a Jewish network dedicated to advancing urban agriculture in religious institutions, nonprofits and schools across Los Angeles. The crowd had come to share and discuss best practices for creating change in the food systems at their churches, mosques, synagogues and schools as part of “Just Food: The 411 on Food Procurement for Your Synagogue.”

Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, introduced the group and its mission, which is to act as a resource for faith-based institutions all over the city attempting to rethink their food purchasing policies and create garden sites on their campuses. She was particularly excited about the interfaith group that had convened for the event, which included representatives from several local mosques. 

Sue Miller, a lay leader at Leo Baeck Temple who started the synagogue’s Green Team, kicked off the event with a slideshow about the Sustainable Shabbat she created at the congregation. She described the program as a “shop and drop”: An e-mail goes out weekly to a list of some 30 volunteers who sign up to purchase local, organic produce from a farmers market, and they drop it off at Leo Baeck before Shabbat services on Fridays. The temple staff then prepares it and sets it out with locally made hummus for worshippers to snack on, so that alongside cheese and cookies there is an eco-conscious and healthy option to offer.

“We consider this a kind of mindfulness practice,” Miller said of her efforts to green the temple’s food program, which also has included a campaign to make all paper goods on the premises recyclable or compostable. “We start every meal by blessing our food, so the first question we asked ourselves was: Is our food worthy of being blessed?” 

She’s led Leo Baeck’s Green Team in a holistic attempt to narrow the gap among Torah, belief and action, encouraging congregants to make connections between what’s on the dinner table and issues like water pollution and labor rights. 

Bill Shpall, the executive director of Temple Israel of Hollywood, offered another perspective. After tasting the food being served to nursery and day school students at the congregation, he decided that anything he wouldn’t serve to his own children — much less eat himself — had no place at his temple. He empowered a committee to taste test their way through the offerings of a number of caterers, and though taste was the deciding factor, the option they chose was, happily enough, also a vendor invested in sustainable, organic food. 

The program wasn’t without pushback, mostly on the financial side; where previously the school had made money on the lunch program, Temple Israel now only breaks even, he said. It’s worth it, though, Shpall explained, to have twice as many kids eating and enjoying the school’s improved hot lunches as a result of the change — and knowing that the food the temple provides is thoughtfully and ethically sourced. 

“It proved that you can move away from the cheapest option and still be crazy successful,” he said.  

There’s also an attitude switch that came with the lunch change, he added. The temple started hosting catered Friday night dinners once a month, with food from the same vendor. The janitorial staff also now uses a biodegradable cleaning product instead of a variety of environmentally destructive options.

Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Joel Nickerson recently convened a committee that spent more than a year examining food and Judaism from the ground up, starting with the biblical laws of kashrut and working its way to modern issues of food justice. The committee then sent a survey to the entire congregation to help create an updated and cohesive food policy for the temple. The survey garnered some interesting and impassioned responses, he said.

“People hold synagogues to a higher standard,” Nickerson said. “We’re working on balancing choice with the values of our tradition and making sure people know that, whatever we decide, it’s not a judgment on their personal practices.”

Each of the panelists remarked on the difficulty of making choices for a large and diverse group, especially about something as personal as what to eat. All of the institutions represented were Reform, and though some require kosher-style food be prepared and served on the premises, none require that those vendors be certified kosher.

Paula Daniels, a senior adviser to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, wrapped up the event by bringing in a citywide perspective. She discussed the fruits of her work with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Among its efforts, the council has put together a “good food” procurement policy for organizations looking to green their food sourcing. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) already has signed on and is aiming to source 15 percent of its food locally.

One of Daniels’ ultimate goals is to create initiatives that will get produce into corner stores and create regional food hubs around Los Angeles, leveraging the massive buying power of purchasers like LAUSD to create economies of scale that will make organic food cheaper for consumers all over the city. 

“Los Angeles’ problems come in threes,” Daniels said. “West Los Angeles has three times as many supermarkets as South Los Angeles, which has three times as much poverty and three times the rate of obesity and diabetes.” 

While farmers markets have created access to fresh, local, healthy food for consumers in wealthier parts of the city, they can be prohibitively expensive; one of Daniels’ goals is to ensure access to a broader swath of the community.

The final words of the evening came from Got Kosher? owner Alain Cohen, who grew up in a restaurant family in France. He discussed the issue of sustainability from a provider’s perspective, emphasizing how difficult it can be to get high-quality organic product that also is kosher. 

Cohen is proud, though, to be living the laws of his faith: “Kosher is a decision, not a duty,” he said. This statement echoed a sentiment shared by all of the panelists — that while the strict laws of kashrut represent part of Jewish tradition and history, there is more to think about in the modern food world than milk, meat, pork and shellfish.

After the panel concluded, the crowd — an interfaith, intergenerational mix of people from all over the city — munched on vegetables, hummus and challah from Got Kosher?, which has ethical sourcing policies in place, and chatted about what’s been done and all that’s left to do. The Belgian chocolate pretzel challah was a particular favorite, a perfect example of the kind of food the panelists had been praising all evening long: something thoughtfully sourced and carefully made, ethical in its origin and very good to eat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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