Ultra-Orthodox leaders dial up Western Wall rhetoric


In the weeks since Israel’s government agreed to create a new, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox leaders and media have dialed up their opposition, threatening to derail what initially seemed a done deal.

Prominent rabbis and Charedi news outlets have unleashed a stream of heated rhetoric since the prime minister’s Cabinet approved the Jan. 31 compromise, a seeming blindside to the leadership of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition that threatens to stall the decision.

In recent days, the political balance that paved the way for the compromise appears to be slipping.

Women of the Wall supporter Tzvi Kahn warns Charedi Jews outside the women’s section of the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh, March 11, that they risk being part of his prayer quorum by standing too close.

Last week, members of United Torah Judaism, an Ashkenazi-affiliated party, threatened to quit the ruling coalition in part because of the proposed prayer space. And on Monday, Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Sephardic-affiliated Shas party, repeated that threat, telling Israel’s Channel 2, “We will not sit in a government that recognizes reforms — not with respect to the Western Wall, not with respect to marriage, not with respect to divorce.” A defection from either party would deprive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a majority in the parliament. 

Before that, a key deadline passed when Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign regulations for the establishment of the new prayer space, which were supposed to have been ratified 30 days after the deal was struck.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, posters are calling on residents to “Come together to prepare for war,” saying the egalitarian prayer space would “increase the power of Satan.” And Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, who previously served as the country’s chief Sephardic rabbi, ruled that adding a mixed-gender prayer space is “no less serious than giving [the Western Wall] up for destruction.”

The heightened tension was palpable on the morning of March 11, as members of the activist group Women of the Wall gathered at the holy site for their regular Rosh Hodesh services, ringing in the Hebrew month of Adar.

One of the main proponents of the new prayer space, Women of the Wall is continuing to hold prayer services in the current women’s section of the Kotel (the Hebrew name for the Western Wall), with many women laying tefillin, donning prayer shawls and singing — all forbidden to women under strict Orthodox tradition. 

As a few dozen women chanted prayers at the early Friday morning service, Orthodox onlookers attempted to disrupt the service by hurling insults and blowing high-pitched whistles, which were quickly confiscated by police.

One protester held a white umbrella with slogans written in marker, including, “Bitterly protesting the desecration of God” and “Deceivers and destroyers get out.”

“It’s not easy to feel that feeling of holiness — we come to pray — with all this abuse,” Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, said in an interview in the Western Wall plaza after services concluded.

Under the proposed compromise, Sachs’ group, along with representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements, would help administrate a mixed-gender prayer space in an area adjacent to the south of the existing Western Wall plaza that is currently part of an archaeological park. The existing site would be designated for Orthodox prayer.

The prime minister’s Cabinet approved the deal by a 15-5 vote on Jan. 31, with nay votes from the ministers of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition.

The decision, if it takes effect, would break the religious monopoly on the Western Wall held by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation under the stewardship of Charedi Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But in a March 14 letter, Rabinovitch urged Charedi Knesset members to block the compromise, writing that those pushing for the new prayer space “are seeking to tear the Wall and the people of Israel into pieces,” Haaretz reported.

Although the two Charedi parties in Netanyahu’s Cabinet objected to the plan, their dissent seemed unlikely to derail the compromise or threaten the governing coalition. So by not protesting beyond a nay vote, Shas and United Torah Judaism actually gave the plan “a silent nod of approval,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and the president of Hiddush, an Israeli religious freedom and equality organization.

Charedi politicians count on the coalition to protect their core issues, such as budget allocations and exemption from the military draft, and appeared willing to sacrifice on the Western Wall in order to focus on their larger concerns.

“They have to make noises because that’s what’s expected of them,” Regev said, adding that, until recently, most observers believed they were bluffing.

But on Feb. 11, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversion programs could access government-funded ritual baths, or mikvot. Coming on the heels of the Western Wall compromise, the ruling was seen as a blow for Charedi religious interests, helping to foment a backlash.

Coupled with brewing divides between religious and political leadership in both parties and the mikveh issue, the Cabinet decision “generated much greater heat and conflict than the Charedi politicians assumed,” Regev said.

In addition to strongly worded editorials in Charedi newspapers, posters went up in some ultra-Orthodox areas with the headline, “Western Wall to be desecrated and destroyed.” 

The posters, with large, black-and-white blocks of text, warn, “The Reform movement intends to sink its claws into the wall of Jerusalem.”

Quoting several rabbinical authorities, they call the new prayer space “unthinkable.”

“This monster is worse than all the secular people we know, because through these actions, they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid,” the posters read, quoting Tzvi Pesach Frank, a former chief rabbi of Jerusalem.

In bold print, the posters also quote the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a stark call to action: “We must come together as an un-breachable wall against our enemies who are coming to insert reforms into every area of the religion.”

 Declamatory posters, called “pashkvilim,” play a significant role in Charedi communities, which tend to be hesitant about using the Internet and television as means of mass communication.

Outside the Charedi enclaves, where colors and pictures are more acceptable on public notices, glossy, red-and-black fliers sounded a similar tone, exhorting the community to “Fight for the holiness of the Western Wall!”

A spokesperson for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declined to comment on the posters, instead referring to a February ruling by the Chief Rabbinate Council that held the compromise was illegal because the council had not been consulted, calling on the Israeli government to halt progress on the new site. (That ruling was also printed on posters around Jerusalem.)

Sachs blamed the posters and other similar means of incitement for the increased abuse at the Rosh Hodesh service compared with previous gatherings in recent months.

“This is the reason that there should be another plaza in the south of the Kotel — so that everybody can pray according to their way,” she said, gesturing toward the women’s section where the service had just concluded.  

Shira Pruce, public relations director for Women of the Wall, vowed the group would continue to hold services in the women’s section of the Western Wall plaza until the egalitarian site opens.

For the March 11 service, group members managed to smuggle a Torah scroll into the prayer site, only the seventh time they’ve been able to do so, according to Pruce.

Rabinovitch, the rabbi in charge of Israel’s holy sites, has forbidden any visitor from bringing a Torah scroll into the vicinity of the Western Wall, effectively restricting their use to the men’s section, where many are already available to the public.

By pledging not to relent, Women of the Wall essentially poses a choice to the Orthodox leadership: Continue to tolerate the group’s presence at the current site, however begrudgingly, or allow for the establishment of a new prayer space.

Felice Gross, an Orthodox Jewish real estate executive from New York who visited the wall at the same time as the Rosh Hodesh service, said the planned mixed-gender prayer space would constitute a “desecration of the wall.” But nonetheless, she said the Women of the Wall services disrupted the brief time she had to pray there.

So, while she does not approve of the Cabinet deal, Gross conceded, “If I don’t have to hear them, it would be better.”

But many Charedi leaders see the Western Wall compromise as a slippery slope that will lead to sweeping gains for the non-Orthodox community.

In an editorial shortly after the deal was struck, the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia wrote of the Conservative and Reform movements, “They will not rest until they have dug their claws into and totally distort every facet of religious life in Israel.”

The debate over the Western Wall also carries a larger significance for those on the other side.

Regev, the religious equality advocate, called the Charedi stance “a position that says, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine as well,’ ” and fears surrendering to that view represents a disquieting step toward theocracy.

And so, a landmark compromise has now devolved instead into a bone of contention. 

Wearing a Women of the Wall baseball cap and standing outside the women’s section during Rosh Hodesh services, Oded Earon was clear about where the battle lines were drawn.

“It’s a question of whether [the Wall] belongs to the Charedis or the entire nation of Israel,” he said. “And I’m part of the nation of Israel.”

Now is the time to support Ultra-Orthodox core-curriculum yeshiva education


Israel’s new political reality—with the two main Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi political parties, the Sephardic-based Shas party and the Ashkenazi-based United Torah Judaism, inside the government won’t help the next generation of Haredi young people—in fact, on the contrary, it will perpetuate a broken system. While Shas and United Torah Judaism have negotiated financial windfalls for their constituencies, as well as a pull-back on the demand that Ultra-Orthodox young men serve in the Israeli Defense Force, this old style of conducting business could be harmful to our community’s young people. That’s because the reality is that education—not political power–is the key to the future for the Haredi community in Israel, especially if the government doesn’t put advancing Haredim through education and employment at the core of the agenda.

“Educate each child according to his own path,” the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “and he will not stray from it, even when he is old.” And yet, when it comes to educating Haredi youth in Israel, we still have much to learn. Quite honestly, there is nothing short of an education crisis in our community. Rather than providing real choices, our leaders have traditionally insisted that Haredi students have only one path: a formal, rote curriculum dominated by intensive Talmud study, with no option for students to take general studies or complete an Israeli matriculation certificate. This is the path that is likely to dominate the agenda right now—and it is not the path that our young people need or deserve.

The reality is that in the absence of a meaningful alternative, nearly a third of Haredi teenage boys will continue to become alienated from both mainstream Israeli society and the traditional ways of their community. Many drop out of school, spend their time on the streets, or are lost to the Haredi community altogether. They are unable to build families and successful lives.

Those yeshivas that do offer secular matriculation (and there are only a handful in the entire country) are far too expensive for most Haredi families to afford.

By creating Hachmey Lev Yeshiva High School, my aim is to do nothing short of transforming the Yeshiva model. We offer teens who are under stimulated in classical Yeshiva settings the opportunity to maximize their social, educational, and cognitive potential all while still maintaining a Haredi lifestyle. We are teaching the boys Gemara at the highest standards, in Hebrew and without compromise, and to live a Haredi lifestyle that will also allow them to earn a good living for themselves and their future families.

I was inspired to create Hachmay Lev based on my own family’s experience when our son reached seventh grade and boredom got the better of him. He showed little interest in his traditional yeshiva schooling. As a product of this schooling myself, I know the value of its rigor, but this model simply is outmoded for today’s young people.

Our students combine study of Talmud (32 hours each week) and general studies (20 hours each week), giving them a broader education than any other Haredi institutions in Israel. They study the core curriculum like English, math, history, Bible, civics, computer science, and Hebrew, while also enjoying music and sports. Students sleep in Jerusalem during the week and return home on weekends. Once the model has been fine-tuned, Hachmey Lev will be replicated in other locations across Israel.

I spent ten years putting Haredim into the workforce and that’s why I know that education is the core issue. After spending a lifetime of activism in the Haredi community on a variety of pressing issues, including making sure that our men serve in the IDF, and find gainful employment, I am convinced that unless and until we transform our educational system, there will simply never be the systemic change that we need.

North American and British donors know the necessity of getting the 20% of Israeli society that is Haredi into the workforce—and are supporting efforts to increase employment opportunities in the Haredi community, so that our young people can have new models to emulate. Philanthropists outside of Israel also know that Israel is the global exception, since nowhere else in the world are young people exempt from learning a broad range of studies or from working. But, money for employment without strengthening and expanding serious alternative educational models won’t create the type of workers for a 21st century workforce that Israel needs.

Philanthropists who want to impact the Israeli economy need to invest in educational models that will recast the pattern of poverty in our community. Now, more than ever, those of us who trying to change Haredi society from within need to show that our model can work for a broader segment of our community. 

Bezalel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, is the founding principal of Hachmey Lev, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva boarding school that also includes core curriculum.

[www.kidum-edu.org.il/en/education-campuses/hachmey-lev-yeshiva-high-school]

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox


Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel moves to outlaw use of Nazi symbols


Israel’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to laws to curb public use of Nazi symbols after ultra-Orthodox protesters caused outrage by calling police Nazis and wearing concentration camp garb.

Four bills swiftly passed one of five rounds of voting needed to become law, even though a spectrum of critics denounced them as a violation of free speech.

The laws call for up to a year in jail and stiff fines for anyone convicted of visually or verbally misusing symbols such as swastikas, the term Nazi or epithets related to the killing of six million Jews before and during World War Two.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the bills before they went to parliament, seizing on public outrage at devout Jews who dressed last month as Holocaust victims to show they felt persecuted by objections to their efforts to achieve gender segregation in public.

Some at the Jerusalem protest on December 31 also shouted “Nazis, Nazis” at Israeli police.

Israel has a law banning Holocaust denial but none so far against public displays of Nazi symbols.

The Jewish state established in 1948 is still home to more than 200,000 ageing survivors of the Holocaust, yet all kinds of protesters have long employed symbols of the tragedy to showcase their causes.

Jewish settlers protested against the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza by putting yellow Stars of David on their clothes, like those the Nazis once forced Jews to wear.

Critics of Israel’s occupation of land Palestinians seek for statehood have also sometimes called Israeli soldiers Nazis.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the new laws violated free speech.

“Freedom of expression means the right to say difficult things that might even been hurtful,” a statement on the group’s Web site said.

While the use of Holocaust symbolism was “indeed a big question which deserves a robust and free public debate, it is not a question that should be handled through criminal law.”

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Nazi-hunter group, said: “The misuse of Holocaust imagery is nothing new. It’s a terrible thing, we all agree.”

He said he thought Israel would avoid enforcing the measures for fear of aggravating social divisions and that “unimplemented, such a law would make a mockery of the whole issue.”

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Edited by Richard Meares)

Israel’s religion minister fears Jewish divides


Israeli society could be torn apart if disputes between ultra-Orthodox and less observant Jews continue to heat up, Israel’s religious affairs minister said on Wednesday.

In a telephone interview, Yaacov Margy, who also serves as director-general of Shas, a religious party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, condemned an incident last month in which zealots seeking gender separation spat at a schoolgirl they accused of dressing immodestly.

That attack was disclosed by an Israeli television station, whose report on the violence stunned many in the Jewish state, where concerns over religious coercion are mounting among its mainly secular population.

Margy said such incidents and ultra-Orthodox protests – in the latest, on Saturday, children were dressed as Nazi Holocaust victims to suggest public persecution of the community – had been overblown in the media.

“If they ganged up on an 8-year-old girl, this is something that must be uprooted. We have a police force, courts – anyone who is violent must be dealt with. But we don’t have to go crazy,” he said.

Margy accused media outlets of fueling the religious-secular dispute by covering in detail ultra-Orthodox protests.

“If we have a problem in Israeli society we should deal with it through dialogue,” he said. “I call on all people in the media and the extremists on both sides, crazy people: ‘climb down off the roof’.”

He said he feared that failure to do so “will tear Israeli society apart,” and pointed to banners at a recent secular demonstration where protesters voiced their fear that Israel could become like Islamist-ruled Iran.

“Every morning I go to look at the window and check whether I see some pro-Khomeini protest at my doorstep,” he said referring to the religious leader who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. “All I see are green fields, a good atmosphere and good neighbors.”

That view contrasts sharply with a cautionary note sounded last month by Israeli President Shimon Peres who said the country was in the grip of a battle for its soul.

BACK OF THE BUS

An emotional national debate has been raging over issues such attempts to segregate sidewalks in areas where devout Jews live and back-of-the-bus seating for women on public buses that ply religious neighborhoods and which are patronized by ultra-Orthodox passengers.

Turning to coalition politics in which his Shas party has traditionally been a king-maker, Margy said he was “very disappointed” in Netanyahu’s right-wing government, where a major partner has promoted contentious legislation governing marriage.

The bill introduced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party would give Israelis a freer hand at choosing rabbis to register them for marriage.

Jewish marriage in Israel is administered by Orthodox rabbis, whose refusal to register mixed couples poses difficulties for Yisrael Beitenu’s considerable Russian immigrant constituency, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

“Nobody expects the Jewish state to permit mixed marriages,” Margy said.

With 11 lawmakers in Netanyahu’s 66-member coalition, Shas has enough sway to stand up and be heard as it helps assure the government of majority support in Israel’s 120-seat legislature.

The next parliamentary election is not due until 2013, but Netanyahu has scheduled an early Likud leadership ballot for January 31, raising speculation the date of a national vote might be brought forward.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Madoff’s Redemption


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

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

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

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

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

Well, never.

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

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Agency wants changes in Israel conversion policy


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jewish Agency Assembly adopted resolutions calling on the Israeli government to establish an independent authority on Jewish conversions and special courts of Jewish law to “allow the conversion process to move forward.”

The twin resolutions were adopted by the world body Sunday after heated debate and a crossfire of amendments and counteramendments. The issue has long aroused the ire of Diaspora Jews, who have been upset at the refusal of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities to recognize conversions performed by rabbis in the Diaspora.

The assembly defeated a stronger resolution, submitted by delegates from Los Angeles, that would have called on the Israeli government to “recognize and accept as Jews” all those converted under the supervision of rabbis from the four major Jewish religious movements, as well as those from “other religious streams of Judaism.”

Yaakov Ne’eman, who has been appointed by successive Israeli governments to resolve the controversial issue, had threatened to quit if the stronger resolution was adopted.

One of the adopted resolutions cited “a deep crisis within the conversion process” brought on by the arrival in Israel of some 300,000 new immigrants not considered Jewish by the Orthodox religious establishment. It calls on the government to establish Jewish religious courts that “will base themselves on appropriate moderate and tolerant prior halachic decisions to allow the conversion process to move forward.”

Noting that Israel’s Supreme Court already has recognized “conversions by the different streams of Judaism for civil matters,” the other resolution calls on the government to “establish immediately an independent conversion authority to resolve and deal with the conversion issue.”

L.A.’s Jewish high schools are all over the map


Yael Glouberman, an eighth-grader at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, is awaiting admission letters from four very different high schools: Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox coed school; Milken, a pluralistic Jewish school; YULA (Yeshiva of Los Angeles) Girls High School, an Orthodox school; and a top secular independent school.

“Each school has many positives, but we’re looking for the right fit for Yael,” said her mother, Dina Glouberman. “Some are more religious, some are more academically strong, some are more philosophically and religiously where we are.”

Adding more complexity to the decision, all of the Jewish schools Yael has applied to are undergoing changes of leadership next year. Milken, Shalhevet and YULA Girls expect to be under new heads of school, and a new head started at YULA Boys High School this year, as well. By the time Yael’s three younger siblings enter high school, Los Angeles’ Jewish upper schools may well have morphed yet again. Over the past five years, three new schools have been founded, and one is in the planning stages, as parent activists try to marshal resources to found a nondenominational Jewish community high school on the Westside.

In the early 1980s, when Dina and her husband Michael were applying to Los Angeles Jewish high schools, there was only one choice — YULA (then known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles).

The Los Angeles Jewish community has expanded and matured since then, and its high school scene now offers nuanced choices with differences in overall philosophy, academic approach, religious level and social atmosphere.

Because of that range, a steadily growing number of families with teens are opting for Jewish immersion.

In 1987, enrollment at the seven Jewish high schools in Los Angeles covered just 720 kids, about 100 of them in one non-Orthodox school, a predecessor to Milken. Today, more than 2,600 teens attend 14 Jewish high schools in the Los Angeles area, with 1,000 students in two community schools. In addition to those in the Los Angeles area, a Chabad yeshiva in Long Beach has 55 students, and the trans-denominational Tarbut V’Torah in Irvine has 155 students. More teens in Los Angeles are now enrolled in full-time Jewish education than in supplementary Jewish education.

“It is my sense that there are more Jews who are choosing private education, and if there are Jewish schools which are offering an excellent education along with a solid commitment to values and a Jewish connection, then these are very serious options to be considered,” said Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles.

Across the country, the number of community high schools — nondenominational schools serving the entire spectrum of Jewish affiliation — has exploded.

In 1980 there were 10 community high schools in North America; today, there are nearly 40. According to recent studies, an estimated one-third of teens enrolled in a non-Orthodox high school did not attend a Jewish day elementary or middle school.

As competition has increased among all private secondary schools, the educational bar has been raised, and schools have been able to define their philosophies and educational approaches in more specific ways. At the same time, schools are seeing more crossover, with Orthodox students applying in increasing numbers to community schools, and Conservative students finding themselves in Orthodox schools.

Los Angeles has become a national leader in creating schools of excellence: Milken Community High School, with 600 students in ninth through 12th grade (the school also has a middle school), is the largest interdenominational Jewish high school in the country; New Community Jewish High School (New Jew) has in its five years of existence become the third largest, with close to 400 students. The robustness of Los Angeles’ high school spectrum means that students who emerge from this total immersion in Jewish life will send ripples throughout the community.

“The reason why these schools are so important is that they are educating, in the most intensive way, the next generation of people who are going to populate the active and involved Jewish community — not all of them as leaders, but as the people who are knowledgeable about what Judaism brings to one’s life,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a national advocacy and resource group. “The impact the graduates of these schools can have on a community is very powerful.”

Liberal

Seventeen years worth of Milken alumni are already populating Jewish organizations around the country and providing leadership to the Los Angeles Jewish community, said Jason Ablin, who will take over in July when Rennie Wrubel retires after 10 years as Milken’s head of school.

During Wrubel’s tenure, Milken turned on its head the model of a struggling Jewish school.

computer lab Milken Community High School

Milken was founded in 1990 when Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple, of which the school is a part, offered to pick up the pieces of a community high school that had been foundering since the 1980s. A gift from Michael Milken paid for the $30 million Mulholland Drive campus that opened in 1998, boasting of high technology (photo), science labs, theater and sports facilities and a recording studio. The luxurious setting, along with sophisticated marketing and alumni who became articulate and accomplished spokespeople, put Milken — and Jewish education — on the map for many people who might not have otherwise considered it.

Ablin plans to continue building both academic excellence and the culture of Jewish values, and to broaden the range of the school.

“Part of my goal is to expand the notion of pluralism on both ends of the spectru,” Ablin said. I want to make sure this place is accessible to families who sent their kids to public or secular private [lower] school and all of a sudden are interested in a Jewish education. And on the other hand, I want to make sure our community is represented by a traditional voice that can help us expand the definition of what it means to practice Judaism.”

New Jew has attracted students from Orthodox to Reform to those who don’t identify with any denomination, partially because of its location in the West Valley, where it is one of the only Jewish high schools, and partly because it has tailored its program to the needs of the students. With an intimate atmosphere that empowers students to achieve, both academically and in their particular areas of interest, the school has grown from 40 ninth-graders in its first year to 400 today. Students at the school have founded more than 35 clubs, ranging from a weekly philosophy club to a new group aimed at creating a relationship with the Latino community.

The Spinka money trail — and the informant who brought them down


The first snow flutters hesitantly in Brooklyn. Men wearing fur streimel hats and women wearing sheitls walk briskly past the corner of 15th Avenue and 58th Street in Boro Park as if nothing extraordinary has happened here.

And why not? The kosher shops of this self-contained ultra-Orthodox neighborhood — practically a city onto itself — are still a few blocks down, and here on this bleak corner, there are only three orange school buses parked in front of a four-story, dark-red brick building, which sits on a residential street, where tall, narrow houses nearly overlap. The structure (photo below) is rather nondescript and unimposing — garbage bags are piled haphazardly by a front gate, bars protect the windows, young boys can be heard chanting from behind the locked door and a white sign with sky blue Hebrew lettering reads: “Yeshiva Imrei Yosef Spinka.”

yeshiva imrei yosef spinka

A buzzer sounds. The door opens. No one asks who rang the bell. Up the four steps, a reception window sits empty. Hazy yellow fluorescent lights illuminate the narrow hallways adorned with graying yellow paint and frayed industrial carpeting. If there are millions — or even thousands — of dollars going to the Spinka yeshiva, it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s coming here.

This despite the fact that on Dec. 19, 2007, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office filed an indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California naming the Chasidic yeshiva and four other Spinka organizations, as well as eight people, in a multimillion dollar tax fraud and money-laundering ring that stretched from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Israel and elsewhere.

Two of those indicted are Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz, 59, the Grand Rabbi of Spinka, a Brooklyn-based Chasidic sect, whose yeshiva is in this undistinguished building, and his gabbai (assistant), Moshe Zigelman, 60.

Weisz is just one of a number of Grand Rebbes of Spinka, a Chasidic sect that yaacov zievaldoriginated in Romania in the 19th century. He is the great-great-grandson of the founding rabbi, and one of about a dozen Grand Spinka Rebbes who live in Boro Park or Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, or Bnei Brak and Jerusalem in Israel.

Four Los Angeles men were among those charged with taking part in the scheme: Yaacov (Yankel) Zeivald, 43, a self-described scribe (sofer) from Valley Village (photo, right); Yosef Nachum Naiman, 55, the owner of Shatz Et Naiman, d.b.a. Jerusalem Tours; Alan Jay Friedman, 43, a businessman from Pico-Robertson who sits on the board of the Orthodox Union; and Moshe Lazar, 60, owner of Lazar Diamonds, a Los Angeles jewelry company.

Although many of the details of the case have not yet been revealed — a trial date is set for Feb. 12, but the defendants’ lawyers say it will be postponed at least a year — what is emerging from the indictment, the search warrant and other documents of public record is a complex money-laundering scheme. According to the documents, people donated money to the Spinka institutions but then received 80 percent to 95 percent of their donations back, yet wrote off the full amount on their taxes.

These charges are just the beginning of a much larger case, Daniel J. O’Brien, an assistant U.S. attorney in the major frauds section, based in Los Angeles, said in an interview with The Journal.

“There were many other people that contributed in this fashion that would be the subject of government investigations,” O’Brien said.

While O’Brien said he has documentation that the Spinka institutions took in about $750,000 through the scheme — then writing receipts for $8.7 million — in 2007 alone, the assistant U.S. attorney believes the fraud has been going on for decades: “I believe this goes on beyond living memory,” possibly for generations.

This is certainly not the first time an ultra-Orthodox sect has been accused of attempting to break the laws of the secular government — aramos, or schemes, were perpetrated over the centuries in the shtetls of Europe. In the last decade, arrests have occurred in religious communities in Brooklyn, Lakewood, N.J., and upstate New York.

However, this particular case has shocked Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community, not only because Los Angeles had largely been exempt from such cases in the past, but also because some of the city’s prominent members have been charged as being at the center of the scheme.

As a result, the case has sparked a fierce debate about the type of behavior that is acceptable for observant people and what type of religious community Los Angeles would like to be. But there’s also debate about the laws of a moser, an informant, because one person who was not charged was the primary source of information for the federal case — though he allegedly started out as one of the perpetrators.

THE BEGINNING

On June 29, 2004, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud charges against Robert A. Kasirer and four executives of Heritage Healthcare of America, which sold $131 million in bonds to 1,800 investors in 36 states from 1996-1999, claiming that the money would be used to fund 10 health care facilities. In October of that year, Kasirer approached the federal government and “expressed a desire to plead guilty to criminal charges arising out of the investigation and agreed to reveal other criminal conduct he and others had committed, with a view that any sentence he might receive would be reduced,” according to an affidavit for a search warrant submitted by FBI Special Agent Ryan Heaton on Dec. 18, 2007.

Although the search warrant affidavit identifies Kasirer only as “confidential witness (CW-1)” and the recent grand jury indictment refers to a witness named only as RK, the companies in the affidavit attributed to CW-1 and RK are run by Kasirer, and several members of the Los Angeles community, who asked for confidentiality, have confirmed his involvement.

In 2004, under federal surveillance, the informant identified in the transcript as CW-1 resumed activities he admitted to having conducted with the Spinka since 1990, in which “he caused several million dollars in contributions to be mailed to the tax-exempt organizations operating within the umbrella of Spinka,” he is quoted in federal documents as having told the FBI.

Agudath Israel emphasizes outreach to non-Orthodox


Is it permissible for an Orthodox family to play host to a Jewish couple if they don’t observe laws mandating sexual abstinence in the period surrounding menstruation?

That was among the questions posed to two leading rabbinic authorities in late November at the 85th national convention of Agudath Israel of America, the main umbrella body for ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jewry.

The answer: It is, if the room has two beds.

The session, titled, “Kosher Kiruv: Halachic Dos and Don’ts,” was part of a broad push to make kiruv, or outreach to nonobservant Jews, a mainstay among the rank-and-file of haredim.

At a plenary session titled, “American Jewry at Cliff’s Edge,” speakers cited worrisome statistics about American Jewish assimilation and stressed the responsibility of individuals to support efforts to help draw nonobservant Jews closer to their heritage.

“The cause of the spiritual Holocaust of the Jewish people isn’t as much assimilation as it is ignorance,” said Antony (Chanan) Gordon, a Harvard law school-educated hedge fund manager from Los Angeles, who persuaded the Agudah leadership to make kiruv the convention theme.

“Essentially, what we want the Orthodox world to hear from Torah authorities is that the time has come where we have to galvanize our forces and do what we can to spearhead a solution to what’s clearly a well-known problem in America,” he said.

While Gordon and others say the emphasis on kiruv is a path-breaking change for the Agudah crowd, an insular community mostly centered in a handful of close-knit enclaves in New York and New Jersey, kiruv in fact has been on the Agudah agenda for more than three decades.

After the group’s 1974 convention, Agudah founded the Jewish Education Program, which brought Jewish students from public schools to nearby yeshivas for religious instruction.

At the group’s 2004 conclave, Agudah’s executive director, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, noting demographic trends showing that Orthodox Jews represent a growing percentage of an otherwise shrinking Jewish community, said Agudah constituents needed to take on greater responsibility for communal concerns that typically had been left to secular Jewish institutions.

Bloom said that this latest initiative reflects an urgent need to bolster efforts that have long been under way. But others said the convention theme suggested that the kiruv message has not permeated the rank and file.

“There seems to be a little bit of a disconnect between what the message that I think they have been giving and what the strictly Orthodox community has perceived, or at least has picked up on,” Rabbi Eli Gewirtz noted.

Gewirtz, who lives in New Jersey and runs a program that matches up nonobservant Jews with telephone study partners, was one of a handful of so-called “kiruv professionals” at the convention.

“It has not really filtered down in a very, very significant way,” he said.

Gordon, who chaired an outreach conference earlier this year in Baltimore, said he believes the new initiative could portend a potentially historic shift because of the collaboration between outreach professionals and Agudah’s religious leadership, which retains overall authority over the organization’s policies.

“We’ve never had the greatest sages and the most respected authorities in the Orthodox world articulating very unequivocally that this is an obligation and a call to action of not only activists and people who have a propensity to reach out to others,” Gordon said. “This is every single person’s obligation in the Orthodox world, so I think that’s a distinction.”

While the success of the new outreach initiative remains to be seen, the rhetoric alone suggests a growing self-confidence on the part of the ultra-Orthodox. Statistics show that haredim are growing as a percentage of American Jews and retain their young people at rates that dwarf those of modern Orthodoxy.

A widely cited study co-authored by Gordon predicted that on average, 100 haredim would yield 3,401 haredim after four generations, compared to 434 for Modern Orthodox Jews. The same 100 Conservative and Reform Jews would produce 29 and 10, respectively, according to the study.

Aharon Ungar, author of a book on kiruv techniques that was distributed to conference attendees, said Agudah’s earlier focus on its own communal priorities reflected a mentality of galus, or exile.

“Now, the Jewish community as a whole is very strong and the religious community is very strong, as well,” Ungar said. “So the religious community now has the ability — both the wealth, the knowledge and the leadership — to go beyond our own circle-the-wagons mentality. That’s why it’s something new now. We’ve only reached this point in this generation.”

Agudah’s kiruv efforts had focused on its education program and so-called community kollelim — small groups of young men paid to study Torah full-time.

Agudah aims to make kiruv more of a grass-roots concern, though for now, the initiative is short on specifics. The sole kiruv-related outcome of the conference was the establishment of an executive committee charged with hashing out the details of an outreach plan.

“The Agudah is not going to start a new kiruv organization; we’re not going to become a kiruv organization,” Bloom emphasized. “What we’re attempting to explain to our constituency is that they have to work with all the existing kiruv organizations — to use their talents and their abilities — to volunteer to expand the effort. And we think that this is the right time for that.”

An Orthodox ‘cast-off’ holds God accountable


“Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir” by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, $24.95).

Dressed in black, Shalom Auslander wears three tiny silver blocks on a chain that falls close to his neck, with Hebrew letters spelling out the word “Acher,” or other. This was a gift from his wife when he completed his memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament.” Acher was the name given to Elisha ben Abuya, a learned second-century rabbi, after he adopted heretical opinions. Auslander says he smiles whenever he looks in the mirror and sees the chain.

Both humor and anger run deep in this memoir, two excerpts of which have appeared in The New Yorker. The author of the story collection, “Beware of God,” Auslander, 37, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox world of upstate Monsey, N.Y., from which he is now estranged.

“I’m completely religious,” he said, in an interview in New York City.

While he no longer observes the laws of Judaism, he’s rarely without the fear of God, or negotiating with God, on his mind: “If I could get rid of it, I’d be thrilled. I would love to have that atheistic sensibility that’s flying around now, to get some rest.”

The memoir is framed as the story of Auslander’s son, from learning of the pregnancy to deciding whether to circumcise him to the child’s first birthday. Auslander first describes the terror of God that he grew up with, and then skips ahead to his wife’s doctor’s visits and his unrelenting fear that his wife will miscarry, or will die during childbirth, or that they’ll all die on the way back from the hospital.

“That would be so God,” he writes.

He talks about God without a trace of reverence. His God is a personal God: vengeful, brutal and tormenting. While Auslander believes in God, he’s not entirely comfortable with the word ‘believer,’ which suggests that God is an answer.

“I’d like to hold God accountable,” he said. “I’m all for a bit of revolution. As a parent you start to realize that you’re trying to create a person who moves away from you to become himself. Maybe that’s what God is waiting for, for us to reach adolescence, to say it can’t be right, to come to a new understanding. The way it is now reeks of ancient stupidity.”

For an article about him in The New York Times, Auslander took a reporter on a driving tour through Monsey, and he said that he didn’t realize they had made plans for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. But he was aware that it was Sukkot on the day we met. His wife, Orli, the more traditional of the pair, likes to hang branches with birds and leaves in front of their Woodstock home, and their 3-year old son Paix (rhymes with Max, and means peace, as his own first name does, but “without the God part”) calls it “thukkah.”

“Woodstock is a town of foreskins,” he said, using his term for people like himself who are cut off and cast out. “The place is filled with people who come from elsewhere, looking for something new. I found it in the solitude.”

There’s a Reconstructionist synagogue in town, but Auslander stays away. When he once attended services, he recognized that some people found comfort in the guitar-playing rabbi’s presence. But he couldn’t get the voices of his rebbes out of his head, dismissing the place as watered-down Judaism, or worse.

In the narrative, his own account of growing up is the back story to his son’s. He described attending the Yeshiva of Spring Valley with its competitive blessing bees. When the father of a classmate died, the teacher advised the students to pray to God for forgiveness so that He wouldn’t decide to kill their fathers, too.

Auslander then thought he could make everything in his unhappy home better: by pleasing his mother by winning the blessing bee and sinning so much that “Hashem would have to kill my father.”

His father was an alcoholic, violent with his two sons. His mother was a sad character, trying to keep up appearances of a normal home life. Incessantly reading decorating magazines, she harbored the hope that if she rearranged their furniture well, they would have a peaceful home.

The reader learns that Auslander’s mother is the sister of Rabbis Maurice and Norman Lamm, one a best-selling author and the other the chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University. While growing up, she had wanted to be a doctor, but her father used the money saved for her tuition to pay for her brother’s rabbinical education. Soon after she married, her husband’s father died, leaving his fortune, thought to be millions, entirely to charity. Early in their marriage, Shalom’s parents lost a baby son.

As a young boy, Auslander began sneaking out of the house on Shabbat afternoon; a first transgression was to ride his bike to a local store, but then he couldn’t get himself to step on the electronic pad to open the door, which would have been another transgression. But soon after, he was taking taxis to the mall, shoplifting small items and sneaking non-kosher foods. By the time he was in high school, the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, he was shoplifting the kinds of expensive clothing his classmates wore, smoking dope and skipping classes to go to museums, bookstores and porn shops.

When he was caught with more than $500 of stolen clothing and some marijuana in his pocket at Macy’s, he was sentenced to community service and a heavy fine. He worked at a local hospital, doing filing on Sundays, until he learned that he could also fulfill his service at a religious institution. He then went off to study at a yeshiva in Israel, pasting a poster of a bikini-clad Cindy Crawford above his bed.

Most of the rebbes there had stories of their own — they had been on drugs or in street gangs and then found God. While their tales were meant to be inspiring, for Auslander they were cautionary. He mostly skipped class and prayer services, and occasionally showed up stoned. But even he experienced the phenomenon of return. After accepting invitations to a rebbe’s home, he felt loved and accepted — as he had never felt before — as long as he agreed to live as they did. He returned to New York still wearing his black hat, and while studying in a Queens yeshiva, worked nights as a shomer, watcher, in a funeral home. Not the most traditional of watchers, he’d get high and fall asleep on the gurney.

In defense of Madonna


I interviewed Madonna in the early ’90s. At the time I was the managing editor of “In Jerusalem,” a weekend section of The Jerusalem Post. Madonna was in the ‘hood as part of an influx of A-list pop stars who made a symbolic trek to the Holy Land to show support for the fledgling peace process. Other famous notables included Sting, Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, not to mention a red carpet full of actors, movers and shakers, and wannabes.

Recently, Madonna and her husband, British film director Guy Richie, were in Jerusalem celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday and attending a kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) conference. They were joined by celebs Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Rosie O’Donnell and designer Donna Karan. Madonna met with Israeli president Shimon Peres, and the two exchanged gifts. He gave her a copy of the Tanach. She gave him a volume of “The Book of Splendor,” the guiding text of kabbalah. Madonna is not a Jew. Nor is her hubby. Yet she wears the red kabbalah string around her wrist, calls herself Esther as well as an “Ambassador for Judaism.”

But as those of us know, it’s not so easy being Jewish.

The ultra-Orthodox community has cried “Shanda without a sheidel! They proclaim Madonna and her merry band of tinseltown kabbalists an abomination. They say she has turned kabbalah into a three-ring circus, and in response they have engaged in an impassioned we-don’t-want-her-among-us campaign.

Truth be told: Many of those holier-than-thous who are bad-mouthing Madonna were once themselves on the wrong side of the tracks, before they rediscovered Judaisim and 613 new ways to live their lives.

Let’s set the record straight: Madonna is good for the Jews.

In a world chock-full of anti-Semites, the pop icon is displaying her heartfelt connection to Israel and Judaism in klieg lights. She celebrates Jewish pride, and she declares through her words and artistic endeavors that Judaism provides a profound source of meaning and spiritual depth. Unlike many doubters who were born Jewish — the assimilators, the self-haters and the apathetics — Madonna, the Material Shiksa, is proud of her inner Jewishness, and is not afraid to wear it, sing it, shout it, love it.

With one flash of the camera, Madame M does more for the Jews than our Jewish lobbies combined: In short, Madonna has made shul cool.

She inserts kabbalah teachings in her music and even in the context of her best-selling children’s books. And Lord knows, we Jews need to do whatever we can to appeal to our Internet-brainwashed kids. With intermarriage skyrocketing, and Hebrew School “totally boring,” Madonna’s stories, particularly “The English Roses,” is a beautifully recreated modern kabbalah tale. Her protagonist, Binah, is a motherless teenager who embodies the gift of mitzvah. Her difficult life sets a shining example for a group of rich, spoiled “Gossip Girls,” who are insanely jealous of Binah’s physical beauty. Binah teaches the girls how to appreciate what they have, and that being a good friend is much more fulfilling than buying the latest iPod Shuffle.

Madonna is not a liar (she never said she was a virgin, she said she was like a virgin). She is and has always been unapologetic, a woman without regrets. She couldn’t care less what you think, as she abides by her own set of principles. Not to mention that she is a physical wonder to the 40-plus crowd. Nearing 50, Madonna has never looked better. Her body is toned and strong, her face is more beautiful than in her youth. Her eyes now glow with the wisdom of an incessant seeker, who was once lost and is now found.

Make no mistake, we are not talking Saint Madonna here. Everybody knows she has been there, done that to the nth degree, but in her controversial journey, Madonna is an inspiration to those who have lost their way, proving that they, too, can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

And her light happens to shine upon Jewish teachings. How bad is that?

Accept her, embrace her. While the likes of Britney and Lindsay are rehab hopping, and other it girls are spending their days trying to avoid the slammer, Madonna the Goy is busy running around the world being a Good Jew.

So here’s to you, Esther. Bruchim Habaim, as they say in the Old Country. Any time you need a holiday, you are not only welcome in my house, but also at my Sabbath table.

Lisa Frydman Barr is a Chicago-based writer.

Not your grandfather’s shtibl


As we walked back from shul on a recent Shabbat, my friend and neighbor David Myers asked me if I was “comfortable” with the service we had just attended.

He asked me that question, because I’d mentioned that I’m not used to a service where they don’t separate the men and the women. I have many non-Orthodox friends, and have occasionally visited their synagogues, but this was the first time I really got down and prayed with them.

So no, I was not too comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings.

But I was fascinated.

While the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is clearly dominated by the Orthodox community, there is a whole other hood within the hood that is not Orthodox. And to be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that it’s taken me about 40 columns to finally get to them. I guess I was going where my comfort level was. Orthodox is what I was raised with, and it’s what I know. But when David invited me to an egalitarian minyan on Robertson Boulevard, I saw my chance.

The first thing that shook me up is the namethe Shtibl Minyan. Shtibl? Doesn’t that sound a little ultra-Orthodox, like something you might see in a shtetl?

Well, yes, but nothing about the Shtibl Minyan is too predictable. For one thing, everyone chips in on everything. And I mean everythingthey take turns leading the prayers, reading from the Torah, making commentaries on the Torah portion of the week and, of course, setting up and cleaning up after the Kiddush.

That’s why they call it egalitarian. There are no presidents, no rabbis and no chazzans. Everyone’s equal. It’s sort of a structured free-for-all. If a decision needs to be made, it must be by consensus. You wonder how they still talk to each other.

When I visited, there were maybe 25 or 30 people in a nondescript, medium-sized conference room, which they rent from the Workmen’s Circle. There are long tables facing each other, a perfect setting for, say, a city council meeting in a tiny Midwestern town. But you quickly realize that you are in a shul, a serious shul. No one talks, everyone prays.

And which melodies do they use when they pray? A Chasidic rabbi’s, of course: the late Shlomo Carlebach, the master of the joyful niggun. On the Shtibl’s Web site, they claim to bring the energy of Simchat Torah to their Shabbat services. That’s easier said than done, but these are clearly happy people who like being where they are.

I’ve been to many Chasidic minyans, and when the simcha hits a fever pitch, we usually clap our hands or bang on the tables. At the Shtibl minyan, they do something I hadn’t seen: they stamp their feet. Not in a loud way, but almost gently, to the rhythm of the prayer and the occasional circular dances that sprinkle the service.

In fact, everything about the Shtibl mynian has a certain gentleness. The dress is earthy casual, the facial expressions reverential but still laid back. If a liberal, musically inclined kibbutz had a minyan, this might be it.

There was one moment in the history of the shul, however, when gentleness took a back seat. This was about seven years ago, during the Democratic Convention in downtown Los Angeles. Arieh Cohen, a pony-tailed Talmud professor with the look of a beatnik hipster, decided to gather a little group of friends for a political demonstration. This show of passion so galvanized the group that it led to the creation of the Shtibl Minyan, which also became a home base for social activism.

This is not a shul that is Jew-centric. The membersa mix of progressive intellectualstake their tikkun olam very seriously. They interpret the Jewish mission broadly to care for the downtrodden of all races and religions. Their Judaism has the most meaning when it is taken out into the real world, like when they link up with groups such as American Jewish World Service, which fights worldwide poverty, and an anti-slavery group called iAbolish, which bills itself as the “world’s first e-abolish movement.”

While I admire these causes, I confess that in the past few years my priorities have shifted. I’ve become more Jew-centric. The Jews are my people, and since we are so tiny and have so few friends around the world, I don’t mind saying that they are my main agenda. When I asked Arieh if he felt a certain obligation to put his Jewish brethren first, he quoted Torah sources that speak to the importance of tikkun olam, and then he brought up a notion I had never heard beforewhat he calls “permeable boundaries.”

Permeable boundaries are Arieh’s way of reconciling the dual obligations of the Jewish faith. When it comes to helping God’s children, we don’t set boundaries that can’t be crossed. It’s a constant back and forth between helping our fellow Jews and helping our fellow humans, and it’s up to us to find the right balance. Personally, my balance skews toward other Jews, but I love knowing that there are Jews like Arieh who might have a different balance.

So when David asked me if my egalitarian experience had made me uncomfortable, it turned out to be a trick question. Because while the correct answer was yes, the more important answer was that it didn’t really matter.

What mattereda lot more than my comfortwas that I met Jews who love their Judaism, and who showed me different ways of expressing that love.

It’s true that there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the familiar, but there’s also a lot to be said for those butterflies you feel when you discover the unfamiliar.

Especially when that unfamiliar happens to be family.

For more information, visit http://www.shtibl.com.

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

Nahal Haredi: Unorthodox battalion seeks to change Orthodox image



Click BIG ARROW for a soldier’s video about his comrades in the Nahal Haredi
In Israel, where service in the armed forces is every man’s — and most women’s — duty, the majority of Israelis, from secular to Modern Orthodox, have long scorned the ultra-Orthodox “black hats” for avoiding military service by studying in yeshivas.

Now, a battalion of ultra-religious young men, known as Nahal Haredi, is seeking to change this image by combining Torah study with the bearing of arms.

Between 10 percent and 12 percent of the 800 to 1,000 men in the battalion are mahalniks, or volunteers from abroad, with the largest contingents from the United States and France, followed by Russia and South Africa.

Currently, in an unorthodox outreach campaign, the Orthodox rabbis, who worked with the army to establish Nahal Haredi, are planning an advertisement campaign in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain to encourage foreign volunteers who can meet specific standards to come to Israel and join the battalion.

The ad drive is due to begin in July or August and, if effective, will be extended to other Diaspora countries with sizable Orthodox communities, said Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, director of Nahal Haredi-Netzah Yehuda, an auxiliary that serves as the link between the IDF and the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community. He hopes that Orthodox lay and spiritual leaders in the United States will support the drive.

Nahal Haredi was established in 1999 and was met initially with considerable skepticism by both Charedim and army generals. The beginnings were quite rocky, but now the project seems to be hitting its stride.

What kind of men is Nahal Haredi looking for? According to the organization’s Web site the basic requirements are “Shabbat observance, wearing a kippah and a refined speech.”

Theoretically, any man (no women, of course) who meets these basic criteria can join the battalion, but in practice, some 70 percent come from ultra-Orthodox homes in B’nai-B’rak and other Charedi enclaves.

Time is set aside for daily Talmud study, and the food is glatt kosher. No women are allowed on the base, but on Shabbat, married soldiers can meet their wives outside the base.

“Nahal Haredi has the highest proportion of Diaspora volunteers of any Israeli unit; they come to us with high motivation, and many subsequently make aliyah,” Klebanow said. “Sometimes, they are more Zionistic than native-born Israelis.”

Klebanow cited other advantages: “The Orthodox population is going up because of its high birthrate, while the secular population is going down, so if Israel is to have an army in 20 years, it must have more Orthodox soldiers.”

To further integrate Charedim into mainstream Israeli society, Klebanow’s organization supports one year of college studies for discharged soldiers, while last month American telecommunications tycoon Howard Jonas promised a job in one of his Israeli companies to every soldier in the battalion who completes his service.


This video shows training excercises for the medical team

U.S. Jews choose to serve in the Israel Defense Forces



Click the BIG ARROW for Matzav Shelanu –a video about “our situation” —
from American solider “Daniel” of the IDF.
Warning: Strong language in soundtrack.

Zach TaylorThe Israel Defense Forces (IDF) want a few good men like Zach Taylor (photo).

Actually, the IDF wants a lot of them.

Taylor is a 20-year-old volunteer from North Hollywood serving in an Israeli infantry battalion of Torah-observant and predominantly ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

The unit, Nahal Haredi, plans to launch an advertising campaign during the summer in major Jewish newspapers in the United States and Britain to augment its ranks with more foreign recruits.

Taylor is among the surprisingly large number of Americans, of all denominational and secular persuasions, serving in the army, navy and air force of the Jewish state. According to official government statistics, their number totals 14,250, of whom 4,419 serve on active duty and 9,831 in the reserves.

Cpl. Zachary Rowen Taylor, Hebrew name Zacharia Ben Abraham, comes from a nonobservant home but attended Shalhevet and Valley Torah, both Orthodox high schools. He grew up in a very pro-Israel home, and his mother, Allyson Rowen Taylor, is the associate director of the American Jewish Congress regional chapter and one of the founding members of StandWithUs.com.

Immediately after graduation, he enrolled in a Jerusalem yeshiva for one year and then decided to join the Israeli army for a two-year hitch, to be followed by one of subsidized college studies. His unit has been stationed mainly in the Jordan Valley and the West Bank, including Hebron, the site of frequent clashes between Arabs and Jewish settlers.

Taylor spoke from his parents’ home during a one-month leave the IDF grants to soldiers from abroad and said that he plans to move permanently to Israel and hopes to become a career officer in the IDF. Taylor’s army service has reinforced his belief that Israel can survive only through armed force, and in a recent letter home he wrote in part:

“Our Jewish naivete is that everyone is nice and perfect and can be dealt with through diplomacy. This is not true. Our enemies learn one way, and the one and only way is through the language of war and the language of the sword. We did not set it up that way, they have.”

Jeff, a 27-year-old lieutenant in the army, was born and raised in Northridge as the son of Israeli parents and enlisted in the IDF shortly after graduating from San Jose State. Because of the sensitivity of his work, Jeff asked that his last name and photo not be used, and he declined to discuss his army experiences, except to say that he had seen combat. However, he was willing to talk about some of his personal background and motivations.

“I was raised to take pride in my Jewish heritage and Israeli roots,” he said. “To me, Israeli soldiers were heroes, and from a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted to be.”

“The biggest parts of my motivation were Zionism and Judaism,” he added. “I can’t really separate one from the other.”

Jeff described his religious outlook as Conservative and said he has never had a second thought about his career choice: “I had very good job offers from brokerage firms and high-tech companies after my graduation, but it didn’t matter.

“What I’ve gotten out of my service in Israel is a deep sense of responsibility and developing my leadership skills,” he added. “As an officer, I am entrusted with the lives of 40 soldiers or more. I’m responsible that they get food, sleep and come home safely. That’s a big deal.”

While their sons and daughters serve in Israel, the parents in America watch from afar with a mixture of pride and constant anxiety. Every news bulletin about a Hezbollah raid or a soldier’s death hits them personally.

Baltimore resident Devorah, whose last name cannot be used, has two sons, ages 21 and 19, serving in the IDF, while her 16-year-old son at home can’t wait to join his brothers.

“I don’t forget for one hour that they are in danger,” said Devorah, a psychodramatist who lived in the San Fernando Valley for seven years. “I fully support what they are doing, but I don’t sleep well.”

Her worst moment came last August, when she received a phone call that the oldest son, Yehuda, a paratrooper, had been wounded during the Lebanon fighting.

“He was in a house surrounded by Hezbollah and was shot in the arm,” she recalled. “But he refused to be evacuated for four days. He didn’t want to leave his buddies.”

Her 19-year-old son, who always wanted to become a foreign correspondent, is serving in a covert unit and can be identified only by the initial E.

In IDF parlance, the two volunteers from Baltimore are “lone soldiers,” with no family in Israel to visit on Shabbat or furlough.

“The boys get invited out, they have girlfriends and they share an apartment in Tel Aviv, but they work so many hours, and when they get a day off, they have to do their own laundry, shopping and cooking,” lamented their mother.

Besides, their Israeli comrades think that the two volunteers “are nuts to leave the fleshpots of America to come to Israel,” she reported.

Devorah and her husband, a San Francisco-born kindergarten teacher, are “kind of Modern Orthodox,” she said, but their sons are not religious.

At home, Devorah has transformed herself into a one-woman fundraising organization to buy the extras, and even some essentials, for her sons’ units, including combat boots, hydration bags, flashlights and super-Swiss army knives that can cut through barbed wire.

She took a load of such goodies with her in late February, when she visited Israel under a unique program to lift the morale of soldiers from abroad and their families, called Regulim Eem Eema (Time Off With Mom) in Hebrew and Parents of Lone Soldiers in English.

The Married Charedi and Me


I met Oren after watching “Kol Nidrei,” a new play by Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol. The play is about Charedi (ultra-Orthodox)

Jews who lead double lives — as Bnei Brak yeshiva bochers by day and Tel Aviv bar-hoppers by Friday night. “Kol Nidrei” is inspired by real life, and the main characters are played by former Charedi Jews who had left their communities for the “free life” of Tel Aviv and who now study acting.

My friend Tovy and I got in the elevator with Oren, who was wearing a black kippah and a blue collared shirt. Curious, we asked him what he thought of “Kol Nidrei.”

“I’m shaking,” he said. “It really spoke to me.”

He revealed to us that he lives in an ultra-Orthodox community with his wife and child, who didn’t know where he was. By going to see the play, Oren, too, was leading a double life.

Tovy and I sat down with him, and he continued to tell us his story.

“I was always a very appeasing child, I always did what people expected of me, and I’ve always suffered,” he explained.

Now 27, he was set up with his wife when he was 18. He doesn’t love her, and they both know it. His work as a computer salesperson brought him into contact with secular Israelis, who seemed so much freer to him.

“You have a choice,” he said to us. “I want that choice.”

Internally, Oren is completely secular. He no longer believes in God. He doesn’t pray or don tefillin. Externally, however, he looks like a good yeshiva boy.

“I can’t just shave my beard and go to my family and say, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t have the courage.”

I felt sorry for him, but also happy for him that he was courageously questioning his confines. And I couldn’t help but be tempted to encourage him.

“Are you into nightclubs and bars, like the characters in the play?” I asked.

“I’m intrigued,” he admitted. Once, an 18-year-old gas station attendant took him to a pub, but he felt “out of place.”

Then I told him I was well connected with the Tel Aviv nightlife scene, but I debated whether or not to exchange phone numbers. On the one hand, he seemed like an interesting project. On the other hand, he was married.

“He’s definitely into one of us,” said Tovy, as he left.

That was obvious enough.

A few days later he called me with an “idea.” “Maybe I can join you when you go to bars or nightclubs?”

He wasn’t really experienced in asking a woman out on a date.

I deferred the date for a week; I was still hesitant. Would I be evil by escorting him to the Tel Aviv underworld, while his wife and child are at home? Am I aiding and abetting a probable adulterer?

But when he called me again, I decided to go out with the poor soul — with caution.

We sat for beer at a pub on Ben Yehuda Street on a Thursday night, Tel Aviv’s party night.

There was no small talk to bypass to get to the nitty gritty. We immediately began talking real life, and the dialogue was intense.

“Doesn’t your wife mind you’re out late?” I probed.

He looked at me with a concentrated glance I hardly receive from secular men I date.

“We both know that it’s going to end sooner or later,” he said. “We talk about it.”

His admission relieved some guilt I felt in luring this married Charedi. His marriage was a lost cause anyway. As long as I didn’t kiss him, I reasoned, we were kosher.

And I wouldn’t want to kiss him anyway. He really looked nerdy in his beard, white collared shirt, black kippah and black slacks. He totally didn’t fit in, and I could tell people were looking at us. I fantasized about shaving his beard and taking him to the mall for a makeover. He had potential — if only one could see his face.

We continued to talk Torah, philosophy, relationships, and I shared with him the process I underwent as I began to question the Modern Orthodox way of life. I realized what I really liked about him: He was a thinking creature. He thought about life, its meaning and his personal happiness.

“How does it feel to be in a Tel Aviv pub?” I asked.

“I’m on a high,” he said.

As he dropped me off at my car, we shook hands and he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t like the feel of his beard.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said.

But then I wondered if he was acting. Maybe he dramatized his frustrations to attract a female savior? Maybe I was insecure and liked the feeling of being appreciated and needed by a man who saw me as a tempting, exotic fruit.

Then I remembered that this was not a play. “Kol Nidrei” was over. Art imitates life, but life rarely imitates art. His drama was real. Neither of us were actors.

For now I think it best I remain a minor, friendly character in Oren’s story. Once the major conflicts are resolved — and he goes through a wardrobe change — then we’ll see if I’ll take on a bigger role.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

 

Your Letters


Political Correctness

Jane Ulman’s attempt to deconstruct the story of Purim is another revolting exercise in political correctness (“Viva Vashti,” March 5).

Those who really care about the plight of women need to concentrate their energies on dealing with some very horrific realities: There are countries where women are enslaved — both as labor slaves and sex slaves, killed at the whim of a family member, denied the most basic human rights and even brutally mutilated. Except for a few lonely and courageous voices, there is very little protest over these heinous situations.

Oops, I forgot. Forgive me. Please don’t call the politically correct thought police! We are not supposed to be “judgmental” about other cultures; we are only allowed to trash our own Bible and our own sanctums.

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman, Van Nuys

Jewish Exceptionalism

For more than 60 years, Jewish voting patterns have defied one of the rules that govern most voters: People vote for their own economic interests.

The Los Angeles Times exit poll still shows Jewish exceptionalism. Looking at Proposition 56, a measure to lower from 66 percent to 55 percent the majority needed to pass tax bills, we find strong evidence of Jewish exceptionalism. Forty-seven percent of Jews voted for Proposition 56, compared to: 33 percent of Anglo Catholics, 42 percent of Latino Catholics, 27 percent of white Protestants, 41 percent of black Protestants and 35 percent of Asians. Jews are still more willing than other communities to pay for government programs to help others.

The economic self-interest rule of American politics seems to be trumped by an older Jewish rule: “There will never cease to be needy people in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller, Temple Akiba of Culver City

Both Sides

Thank you for publishing William S. van der Veen’s letter to the editor, “Gaza Withdrawal” (March 5). I appreciate that you print both sides of an argument and feel that this higher standard which you set for yourself makes for a more educated public. Once again, thank you.

Dick Wrigley, via e-mail

Carin Davis

I have been reading Carin Davis’ columns all year. I greatly admire her writing style and use of humor. Carrie Bradshaw has nothing on her. Keep up the good work.

Jackie Taus, via e-mail

Different Reasons

There is a difference between Queen Esther marrying a non-Jew and a Jewish person nowadays intermarrying (“Keeping Jews in the Flock,” March 5). Esther was on a mission to save the Jews at that time. A Jew nowadays who intermarries does it for personal reasons.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Los Angeles

Retraction Sought

You owe an apology to me, my children, friends and associates (“What Jews Need to Know About Jesus,” Feb. 20). Since I attempt to be observant, I suppose my family is what is called “ultra-Orthodox.” Without sources, Jack Miles indicts all of us who, he alleges “called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin.”

I suggest a prominent retraction at your earliest opportunity so that I can continue reading your paper and recommending it to others.

David J. Leonard, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note:

Jack Miles’ only point with regard to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin was that some Israelis applauded the deed and others decried it. The label applied to those who applauded it was a secondary matter and could have been left out altogether.

That said, in the ever-changing political landscape of Israel, not all of the ultra-Orthodox are also ultranationalist, but some have been. Charedim (black hats, Chasidic communities) are ultra-Orthodox. Chardalim (knitted yarmulkes, settler communities) are in general both ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist. The two groups are distinct, but some of their views overlap.

In retrospect, Jack Miles’s reference to “Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed” would have been more accurate had he not identified them by any label or else characterized them as either “ultranationalist” or “ultra-Orthodox, ultranationalist.”

A Moment


A key element in Labor Party leader Ehud Barak’s strategy tobecome prime minister is to win support from Orthodox andultra-Orthodox (haredi) voters, who backed Binyamin Netanyahuoverwhelmingly in the last election. Now Barak is faced with adilemma: The price of wooing Orthodox votes is apparently his supportfor the Conversion Law, which is fast approaching decision time inthe Knesset.

When the bill — which would enshrine in law the Orthodox monopolyover conversions performed in Israel — came up for a preliminaryKnesset vote in April, Barak finessed the issue. The Labor Partyannounced that it would oppose the law. But when the Knesset votetook place, about three-quarters of the Labor Knesset faction,including Barak himself, were conveniently absent from the floor, andthe bill won preliminary approval by a lopsided margin.

This week, once again, Labor announced its opposition to theConversion Law. Once again, no one is taking the announcement asLabor’s final word on the issue, especially in light of the bracingmessage Barak received from leaders of Shas, Israel’s largestreligious party.

Last Friday, Barak met with Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi OvadiaYosef; Yosef’s son, David, a leading Jerusalem rabbi; and Shas’Knesset leader, Arye Deri. Following the meeting, Barak joined PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu in calling on the Reform and Conservativemovements to delay their upcoming Supreme Court challenges of theOrthodox religious monopoly — all in the name of “Jewish unity.”Reform and Conservative leaders, however, rejected the appeal, sayingthe Orthodox establishment had dismissed every attempt at compromise.

At the meeting with Shas, Barak was informed that the ConversionLaw was a critical issue for them. “If Labor votes against us, theyhave no business trying to get us to join a coalition with them –not in this world or in the world to come,” one Shas official said.

The message was underscored at a Shas rally two nights later.Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called for a