Yeshiva U search committee to propose ex-NYC pulpit rabbi as president


Rabbi Ari Berman has emerged as the search committee’s top candidate to be the next president of Yeshiva University, a source familiar with the process told JTA.

A product of both Y.U.’s college and its affiliated rabbinical seminary, Berman served for 14 years as a rabbi at The Jewish Center, a prominent modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, until immigrating to Israel in 2008. He taught Talmud at Y.U. beginning in 1998.

Berman was promoted from assistant rabbi to lead The Jewish Center in 2000. The congregation, which has been home to many Y.U. donors and lay leaders, is something of a leadership farm team for the school. A previous rabbi of the synagogue, Norman Lamm, left to become Y.U. president and head of yeshiva in 1976. Another, Rabbi J.J. Schachter, is now a professor at Y.U. and a senior scholar at its Center for the Jewish Future.

Yeshiva University’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs would not comment on matters relating to the presidential search. JTA was unable to immediately reach Berman in Israel.

Whoever succeeds Richard Joel as president will face a host of challenges. Y.U. lost money in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme in 2008 and ran an operating deficit for seven straight years. Last year, it offloaded the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to the Montefiore Health System, losing half of its endowment in the deal.

Y.U. has also been rocked in recent years by a series of accusations of physical and sexual abuse that took place at its affiliated boys’ high school in the 1970s and ’80s. The cases could not be prosecuted because they exceeded the statute of limitations.

Berman was pegged by many modern Orthodox insiders as a possible Y.U. president due to his prominent perch at The Jewish Center, his intellectual capabilities and political savvy. After he moved to Israel and kept a relatively low profile in Israel, however, much of the chatter died down.

But during his time in Israel, Berman earned a doctorate in Jewish thought at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He now serves as rosh hamerkaz, or head of the center, at Hechal Shlomo, The Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem. He is also an instructor at Herzog College, a teachers’ college in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, outside Jerusalem.

Like Joel, who served as president of Hillel International before coming to Y.U., Berman is not well established in general academic circles. And unlike Joel, he lacks significant fundraising experience and has never managed a sizable entity. But he is well connected in the modern Orthodox world, maintaining good relations with the school’s leading rabbis and demonstrating an ability to forge relationships with its alumni and donors.

Though plucked from a major Jewish organization, Joel was seen as a departure, given that he was not a rabbi or Torah scholar. And in looking for his successor, the search committee again seemed to be looking beyond rabbinical circles. In July, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University who is heading the search, suggested to JTA that it was time to reevaluate what is most important in a Y.U. president, prioritizing a nuts-and-bolts candidate over an innovative modern Orthodox philosopher.

Trachtenberg questioned whether Lamm would have been selected had he applied under today’s circumstances.

“I said to the committee, to the faculty, to the rabbis and the board of trustees that they needed to learn from past experiences and be more flexible,” Trachtenberg said. “What you want to do is open yourself up to a greater definition of what it means to be a scholarly person.”

Trachtenberg said that today Y.U.s financial health is “sufficient,” but that its future stability demands “a creative person who knows what they’re doing.”

“The financial side is a very big challenge,” he said. “The challenges are those of money. Running a university is a labor-intensive enterprise. Jewish philanthropy is being drawn in all directions.”

While the shift away from the rabbi-scholar model was seen as a move toward enhanced fundraising and management, things didn’t work out as planned. In fact, Y.U. was in desperate financial straights when Lamm assumed the post in 1976 — by the time he stepped down as president, however, the university was on strong financial footing. During Joel’s tenure, the school’s fortunes plunged again.

Before zeroing in on Berman, the search committee was considering another departure form the tradition of hiring rabbis and Jewish communal leaders. Nick Muzin, the deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, met the head of the search committee multiple times as part of the search. In July, Y.U. announced that Muzin was no longer being considered.

As it turns out, Berman fits Lamm’s profile far more closely, though he lacks the same scholarly standing that Lamm had upon being plucked from the pulpit. That said, Lamm lavished praised on Berman upon his becoming a Talmud instructor at Y.U. According to a 1998 article in the Commentator, a Y.U. student newspaper, Lamm, then Y.U.’s president, called Berman “a rising star in the firmament of Talmudic scholars and rabbis. His talents are enhanced by an attractive personality and a sterling character, and we, therefore, are delighted with this appointment.”

Though the consummate Y.U. and modern Orthodox insider, Berman also has displayed a willingness to engage in discussion and debate with those across the political and denominational spectrum. In recent years, he has returned to The Jewish Center to debate journalist Peter Beinart, who calls for a boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements, and engage in conversation with Ruth Calderon, a secular Israeli Talmud scholar and former Knesset member with Yesh Atid, a party that prioritized reforming the country’s policy on religious affairs.

At The Jewish Center, Berman avoided being sucked into many of the prominent feuds and ideological battles between modern Orthodoxy’s ideological camps. Similarly, on Israel, Berman balanced many competing constituencies, managing to be an unabashed supporter of Israeli security and settlements without being seen as an opponent of Israeli territorial concessions.

Terror in Jerusalem: The merry-go-round


It was in the middle of Sukkot, that loveliest of holidays in Israel, set aside for family time, when even the most devout and serious yeshiva men can be seen with their entire families visiting the zoo or traipsing through nature trails in Galilee. We had woken up that Friday morning to the shocking news that, the night before, young parents had been slain in their car on their way home from a festive reunion, shot in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists as their four terrified little boys sat watching from the back seat. 

It is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t live in Israel and travel these roads every day what such news brings: grief, fury, fear and a fierce desire for a response that will deter the next such heinous and inhuman act.

Along with everyone else in Israel, I grieved. But then I heard their names: Eitam and Naama Henkin.

Henkin, I thought, flooded by a sudden, terrible shock that was like a blow to my stomach.

Oh, no!

I remembered that lunch not so long ago with Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder and dean of Nishmat, a revolutionary advanced Torah study program. We sat in one of those comfortable little coffee houses that line German Colony, two Orthodox women who had come to Israel from America, discussing how Nishmat was changing the face of Orthodoxy by offering the first study program approved by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment to qualify women to become halachic advisers in the area of intimate women’s issues — issues that many religious women would be embarrassed to discuss with a male rabbi.

I remember leaving that meeting feeling I had been granted a rare privilege. This petite, passionate woman in her head-covering and modest clothes was, in her own quiet, courageous way, making history improving the lives of countless Jewish women. 

Eitam and Naama were Chana Henkin’s son and daughter-in-law.

That her grandchildren had been spared was nothing less than a miracle. For a moment, my heart wanted to believe that even Palestinian killers and terrorists had some shred of decency and compassion. That they were, after all, descendants Abraham. 

A few days later, when the suspects were caught in a spectacular demonstration of amazing skill by the Israel Defense Forces, the truth was brutal. The suspects had been on their way to kill the children when one of them accidentally shot the other, forcing them to abandon their plans and rush to a hospital, where the injured suspect was picked up days later by an elite Israeli unit.

It made me feel much better that they had been so quickly apprehended. But before I could feel any real relief, terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Raanana and elsewhere followed at a rapid clip, thrusting me back into the terrible memories of an earlier homicidal rampage to strike Israel, when I experienced terrorism firsthand as I sat with my family on seder night in the Park Hotel in Netanya. 

Oddly, when I remembered those days of suicide bombers blowing up hotels, bar mitzvah ceremonies and buses, the current spate of stabbings and savage hit-and-runs seemed less threatening. After all, a bomb you couldn’t see coming, and you couldn’t defend yourself. With a knife attack, you had a chance to run, or, if you had a gun, to shoot. As devastating as these attacks were, they were small potatoes compared to the bad old days of Oslo, where there was no security fence to keep killers and their bombs out of the country. 

The bus attack in Armon Hanatziv was another matter altogether. Two passengers stood and started stabbing and shooting. It wasn’t a bomb, but it was close. But worst of all was the news that the suspects were Israeli Arabs, residents of East Jerusalem, citizens of Israel.

I have lived in Jerusalem for 45 years. This is something new. There is a delicate fabric of life in our city, interwoven threads of Arab and Jew that exist side by side. We shop in the same malls and supermarkets, sit together on the grass in our parks, watch our children playing in the same playgrounds. Palestinian Arabs have delivered my groceries, built and renovated my homes, and been my doctors and nurses in Hadassah Hospital.

One terrorist, who plowed his car into a crowd in the center of ultra-Orthodox Malchei Israel Street in Geula, then got out of the vehicle holding a meat cleaver and started cutting the injured, had worked for the Israeli phone company Bezeq for 20 years.

I wondered if our building cleaner, an Israeli Arab, would show up for work, and if the workers putting the finishing touches on my neighbor’s apartment would show up. And I wondered how I would feel about it.

When I encountered them in the following days, the answer became clear: Stronger than any propaganda, any isolated terror attack was the routine flow of normal life. I was not really surprised that I nodded hello to our maintenance man as he mopped the lobby floor, and that he nodded and smiled. Nor was I really surprised that the noises from the sixth-floor renovation were going on as usual, the Arabs congregating in front of the building. But what had changed was how we looked at each other, warily, searching each other’s faces for confirmation that all was well, and we would be exempt from the madness. Or not.

What did surprise me was my own reaction. With little or no fear, I took a public bus into the center of Jerusalem, walked calmly down Ben Yehuda Street and turned into the nearest army surplus store.

“We are all out of tear gas,” the owner said before I opened my mouth.

“That’s OK,” I answered. “I want a knife.”

He showed me a few. I tested the blade gingerly against my palm. “Something bigger,” I told him. “Something sharper.”

I walked out with it in my purse, feeling better. As ready as I was to smile at innocent workmen, I was also ready to defend myself and my loved ones from those whose religious fervor sent them out to kill people like me and my family. I thought of every thrust: One for the Jews killed in the Holocaust. One for the Jews killed in every terror attack. And one very personal one for me and the Park Hotel.

That Shabbat, sans knife, we took our usual walk along the path built over the old Turkish railroad. Ordinarily crowded with kids on bikes and skateboards, and with families pushing baby strollers, it was practically deserted, except for a group of French tourists. One of them wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Proud of Israel.”

I was disappointed. Surely, Jerusalemites were not that easily spooked? We felt better when we reached the First Station, a lively collection of stores, cafes and play areas for children. It was slightly less crowded than usual, but still bustling with young families. Would the same be true of Liberty Bell Park, which every Saturday throbbed with Arab families and their laughing children from East Jerusalem, whose picnics of barbecuing lamb scented the air for blocks?

Unlike the First Station, it was absolutely deserted, as was the Lion’s Fountain across the street, which normally on such a warm day, would be packed with Arab families watching their kids jump in and out of the water.

We walked back to the First Station and took a bench across from the newly imported merry-go-round. Its painted horses and lively music filled the air, mingling with the laughter of children. When we got up to go, a young woman pushing a double baby carriage approached us. 

“Did you see how empty Liberty Bell Park is? Good! Why should they take over the park every Saturday? Let them be afraid to come here. This is our country. Let them stay home. They teach their children to be murderers and then they cry when they get shot trying to murder our children! They have no business here!”

An old Arab walking nearby carrying a large bundle turned around, staring daggers at her.

“Let him stare!” she said loudly. “This is my country. Mine. I’m not going anywhere!”

As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder. The merry-go-round was still turning. It went around and around and around.


Naomi Ragen is the author of nine international best-sellers. Her latest book, “The Devil in Jerusalem” (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), is based on the true story of a kabbalah cult in Jerusalem that took over the lives of innocent American olim with horrific consequences. She has lived in Jerusalem since 1971.

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 says Hamas militants behind abduction of three teens


Israel said on Sunday that Hamas militants had abducted three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, warning of “serious consequences” as it pressed on with a search and detained dozens of Palestinians.

The two 16-year-olds and a third man aged 19 disappeared on Thursday night in the West Bank, where they were seminary students in a Jewish settlement block.

“These teenagers were kidnapped and the kidnapping was carried out by Hamas members,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in English, referring to the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

There has been no public claim of responsibility. Asked about Netanyahu's allegations, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, stopped short of a clear denial or confirmation that it was involved.

Since the three vanished, apparently while hitchhiking, the Israeli army has carried out house-to-house searches, round-ups and interrogations in the Palestinian city of Hebron and outlying villages. The military said it detained around 80 suspects overnight and that the dragnet would spread elsewhere in the West Bank over the coming days. Palestinian officials put the number of people taken into Israeli custody so far at more than 100.

These included at least seven Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament and several prisoners recently released by Israel, the Palestinian officials said.

Israel identified the seminary students as Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Sha'er and Naftali Frankel, who also holds U.S. citizenship. In their last communication, one of the three managed to phone police on Thursday night to report that they were being kidnapped, according to an Israeli security official. “Naftali, your dad and mom and siblings love you endlessly, and you should know that the people of Israel are turning the world upside down to bring you home,” Frankel's mother, Rachel, said in a televised statement outside the family home.

Thousands of Jews flocked to the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem on Sunday evening to pray for the teenagers' return.

TESTY TIES

The crisis tests ties between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which were frayed by his power-sharing deal in April with Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates the Jewish state's destruction.

Gilad Erdan, a minister in Netanyahu's security cabinet, told Israel's Channel 2 television that Abbas's security forces were “willingly” helping search for the teenagers. Palestinian authorities acknowledged the cooperation, drawing Hamas censure.

Erdan played down the Palestinian role. Recovering the teenagers and tackling their captors would be “almost entirely based on the Israeli military and security services,” he said.

In broadcast remarks at a cabinet session held, unusually, at Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he has been overseeing the recovery efforts, Netanyahu said there would be “serious consequences” for the abduction of the teenagers.

Speaking later in English, he pledged that “Israel will act against the kidnappers and their terrorist sponsors and comrades”.

Abu Zuhri, describing Netanyahu's remarks as “stupid comments”, suggested that in casting blame on Hamas the Israeli leader was trying to draw the group into disclosing whether it was behind the teenagers' disappearance.

Palestinian militants have said they want to kidnap Israelis to win concessions from the Israeli government, and the current incident coincides with a hunger strike by some 300 Palestinian prisoners protesting against detention without trial.

More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed in 2011 in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in the nearby Gaza Strip for more than five years.

Netanyahu said Abbas's alliance with Hamas had emboldened militants in the West Bank, where the Western-backed Palestinian leader's Fatah movement has held sway, and demanded he do “all that is necessary” to resolve the crisis. The United States said on Friday that it had also urged Abbas to help Israel.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Sophie Hares and Stephen Powell

Yeshiva students missing, suspected kidnapped by terrorists [VIDEO]


Israeli forces are searching for three Jewish teenagers who went missing in the West Bank late on Thursday, the military said on Friday.

As media speculated that the three youths might have been abducted, large numbers of Israeli soldiers scoured the countryside around the flashpoint city of Hebron, carrying out house-to-house searches in neighboring villages and blocking roads.

[Related: Israel says Hamas militants behind abduction]

Local media said the three youngsters had last been seen trying to hitch-hike home from a religious seminary in the Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion, to the north of Hebron.

“Forces are conducting a widespread operation to locate the individuals,” the military said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special meeting of security ministers and said in a statement that Israel held P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed Palestinian Authority responsible for the safety of the three.

But Adnan al-Dmairi, a spokesman for Palestinian security services in the West Bank, deflected Israel's criticism.

“Three settlers are missing – why is this the fault of the Palestinian Authority? We have nothing to do with this issue. If a natural disaster hits Israel, would we be responsible? This is mad and unacceptable. We have no knowledge about this,” he said.

The military did not name the teenagers. The newspaper Haaretz said two were aged 16 and one was 19. Local media added that one of the three also held American citizenship, and that the U.S. ambassador to Israel had been briefed.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “expressed grave concern … and … our commitment to working with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure the situation is resolved quickly and the teenagers are returned to their families,” a U.S. spokesman said.

“Secretary Kerry has … spoken to President Abbas to urge him to do everything possible to assist in the effort to find them. President Abbas assured him that he is doing so.”

Kerry met Israeli chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni at a conference in London and later also spoke to Netanyahu, an Israeli spokesman said.

“The prime minister said to Kerry: Abu Mazen (Abbas) is responsible for the wellbeing of the missing (boys),” part of the Israeli statement about the conversation said.

PALESTINIAN PRISONERS

Palestinian militants have said in the past that they want to kidnap Israelis to win concessions from the Israeli government. Some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were freed in 2011 in return for the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in the nearby Gaza Strip for more than five years.

Chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Motti Almoz said security agencies were “making a very large intelligence effort to try to glean information on what happened to these three youths in the past hours”.

In September 2013, an Israeli soldier was kidnapped and killed by a Palestinian who had lured him to the West Bank. Police say the kidnapper wanted to use the soldier to obtain the release of his brother, held in an Israeli jail.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Arshad Mohammed in London, Editing by Crispian Balmer, Kevin Liffey and Larry King


The names of the boys are: 

  • Gilad Michael ben Bat-Gallim
  • Eyal ben Iris Teshura
  • Yaacov Naftali ben Rachel Devora
     

The appropriate Tehilim to say is Chapter 20.

Yeshiva student admits to writing anti-Semitic graffiti


A Long Island yeshiva student was charged with repeatedly scrawling anti-Semitic graffiti inside a commuter train station.

Jonathan Schuster, 18, a senior at Priority-1: Torah Academy of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, in Cedarhurst, N.Y.,was charged with the crimes on Thursday

He admitted to using black marker to write anti-Semitic statements, often including expletives, on eight occasions since December 2012, police told Newsday.

The boy, who lives in Far Rockaway, Queens, has no previous criminal record. The vandalism, at the Cedarhurst Long Island Railroad Station, mostly occurred at night, with the graffiti consisting of obscenities directed at Orthodox Jews scrawled on train platform billboards or station signs. On one occasion, a swastika was etched into the wall of a platform shelter.

Priority-1: Torah Academy of Lawrence-Cedarhurst bills itself as “the pioneering leader in alternative yeshiva high schooling to service capable and gifted young men whose needs are not being met by the traditional yeshiva system.”

The school “has led countless at-risk teenage boys to abandon self-destructive behavior and become true bnei Torah and observant Jews,” the yeshiva’s website says.

Rabbis urge Congress to back Obama on Syria


Leading rabbis covering the religious and political spectrum urged lawmakers in Congress to support President Obama’s plans to strike Syria to stop its use of chemical weapons.

“We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps,” said the letter sent Wednesday, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. “We write you as a people who have faced persecution for many centuries, and are glad to have found a safe refuge where we can thrive in the United States.”

The 17 signers included Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a past president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Yosef Blau, the rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University; leaders of the Conservative movement; and essayists such as Leon Wieseltier and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

They called on Congress “with great urgency to authorize the President to use force in Syria ‘in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,’ as outlined in his August 31st draft legislation.

“Through this act, Congress has the capacity to save thousands of lives,” the letter said.

The authors noted that the letter was timed for before the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“May this coming year be one of life and creation the world over, in which we cease to witness the deaths of so many innocent human beings,” it said.

Orthodoxy and ethics


One of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of our time, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, related the following story in the July 12-18 issue of the International Jerusalem Post:

“Let me tell you a true incident which for me is a metaphor of our times. A young man attended a yeshiva in Safed.

“The first morning, he arrived a bit late for breakfast and there was no milk left for his coffee. He went to the grocery, purchased a container of milk and placed the container in the yeshiva refrigerator with a sign, ‘Private property.’

“The next morning, the container was gone.

“He bought another container, on which he added to the previous sign, ‘Do not steal.’

“The next morning, that container, too, was missing.

“He purchased a new container, adding to the sign, ‘Questionable gentile milk’ (halav akum). This time no one took his container; he left the yeshiva.”

A year and a half ago in this column, I recounted a similar story that Rabbi Riskin had told me many years ago. It was about 10 candidates — handpicked talmudic scholarshe interviewed for the position of rosh yeshiva (head of yeshiva). Nine of them said that they would not return an extra electric shaver accidentally sent to them by a non-Jewish-owned department store. They contended that the halachah — one does not return a lost item to an idol worshipper — forbade them from doing so.

Unfortunately, pointing to Orthodox Jews who are not ethical in order to dismiss Orthodox Judaism has always been a popular pastime among many non-Orthodox Jews. One would have more respect for such criticisms if non-Orthodox and irreligious Jews were equally critical of themselves. The secular Yiddish press comprised the West’s most supportive group of Stalin and communism, and radical Jews were disproportionately involved in supporting that movement, one of the two monstrous, genocidal evils of the 20th century. Today, the Jews who are among the leading anti-Israel activists in the Western world are virtually all non-Orthodox. And the assimilation rate among non-Orthodox Jews is incomparably higher.

So no group of Jews ought to be casting stones, since all of us live in glass houses.

Moreover, at least the Orthodox have important voices like Rabbi Riskin, who criticize fellow Orthodox Jews on ethical grounds. Where are analogous Reform, Conservative or secular Jewish voices? One regularly hears liberal Jews — Reform, Conservative and secular — denouncing the Orthodox and denouncing political conservatives, but what about criticism of their own? When was the last time a liberal Reform rabbi spoke of the moral dangers of secularism? Or attacked the left for its widespread Israel-hatred? Is there a Reform rabbi who criticized the Reform movement’s former head for telling a Muslim audience that he “respects” the Muslim veil?

Nevertheless, the ethics problem within Orthodoxy is real.

I first confronted this dilemma when I was a student at a prominent yeshiva high school.

My classmate Joseph Telushkin and I conducted a survey and found fewer than five students among the 120 students in our grade whom we could identify as not cheating on tests.

When I later taught at Brooklyn College, I was told by Jewish and non-Jewish faculty that graduates of yeshiva high schools were the students most likely to cheat on tests.

A non-Jewish listener once called my radio show to ask me if Orthodox Jews are permitted to speak on the Sabbath. I asked him why he asked such a question. He told me that he lives in an Orthodox Jewish area of Los Angeles and that on Saturday mornings, when walking his dog, he would say “Good morning” to Jews wearing black hats walking to synagogue. They just don’t respond, he told me, and that’s why he wondered if speaking on the Sabbath is forbidden to Orthodox Jews.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community comprises about 9 percent of Israel’s population and receives about half of the country’s welfare payments — despite the fact that the recipients are nearly all healthy and young.

Charedi men who serve in Israel’s armed forces are increasingly humiliated, ostracized and even beaten when they return to their Charedi communities (see the Jerusalem Post, for example).

It would be very valuable to see data — if such data exist — on how many Israeli Jews in the 65 years of Israel’s existence came to Judaism and how many were alienated from Judaism as a result of observing how Orthodox Israelis lead their lives. 

To many Orthodox Jews’ credit, these examples are troubling. Also, one should not forget the role played by the Charedi first-responders to terror attacks in Israel, as well as the low incidence of drug use and the strong family life that characterize Orthodox Jews. And, among the ultra-Orthodox, there is a group, Chabad, that does stand out for its nonjudgmental love of Jews and for acts of kindness.

But Orthodoxy must address the ethics problem, if for no other reason than to preserve its own credibility. If Orthodox Jews are merely ethically no better — forget worse — than non-Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, religious Christians, what does that say about Orthodox Judaism? If its huge number of laws don’t generally produce better people, what’s the point of Orthodoxy? 


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

N.Y. yeshiva: Decision to boot students from plane ill conceived, not anti-Semitic


The decision to eject the senior class of the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn from a flight was not anti-Semitic, an internal school report found.

AirTran Airways “abused its discretion” in forcing the 101 students off the early morning flight June 3 to their senior trip in Atlanta, according to the report authored by the yeshiva’s executive director, Rabbi Seth Linfield.

The report was obtained by the Times of Israel and reported on Tuesday.

Flight attendants said the students did not stay seated and continued to use their mobile devices in advance of takeoff, despite their requests as well as from the captain.

The report found that students erred by not turning off their cellphones.

“At no time did the students disrespect the flight crew in words or tone — beyond not immediately complying with the directives… to turn off all electronic devices,” the report said, according to the Times of Israel.

The yeshiva’s report said the airline crew rejected offers of assistance from the seven school chaperones in controlling the students.

The report opined that the reason the story was picked up by so many news outlets was the claim that anti-Semitism drove the decision to remove the students from the plane.

It included an apology to AirTran, a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, “to the extent that any of our students behaved in a way that was perceived by the flight crew to be disrespectful or disobedient.”

The airline was praised for giving vouchers to the students to continue on to Atlanta and working to rebook them. Students traveled on several flights, some taking up to 12 hours to meet up with the group.

Outstanding Graduate: Daniel Schwartz — Grad’s goal: A better world


Tis the graduation season, but unlike most 17-year-olds wrapping up their high school careers in recent days and weeks, Daniel Schwartz knows exactly what he wants to do with his life. 

“I want to go to law and business school and receive a JD and an MBA,” the recent graduate of Shalhevet High School said. “I want to go into medical devices and then get into politics later in life. Whatever field you go into, you should do something meaningful with it.”

Schwartz has had no problem following that mantra so far, whether it’s been as co-captain of the varsity baseball team or chair of the Agenda Committee (school president).

He has honed his intellectual skills by taking part in Model UN and being captain of the debate team. A Model Congress participant as well, earlier this year he became the first Modern Orthodox Jew to be elected president of the University of Pennsylvania’s Model Congress.

Schwartz said he would like to go into law and politics because he’s always been interested in debate. 

“My parents said that when I was young, I would argue with them a lot, and I still do,” he said. “I like thought process and analyzing things as opposed to education that’s strictly memorization. I love coming up with new, innovative ideas.”

One area in which this attitude has come into play is the study of Talmud. Noam Weissman, principal of Judaic studies at Shalhevet and Talmud teacher, characterized Schwartz as a talmudic scholar. 

He also said that Schwartz is “the type of leader that gets his peers involved in the right thing. He does an admirable job of leading people to get into studying Torah and getting them to be more passionate about Judaism. He’s not just a religious Jew, and he’s not just a thoughtful Jew. He’s a thoughtful religious Jew. That’s a special thing to see. We don’t see that often enough.”

Schwartz, who attends Beth Jacob Synagogue with his family, describes himself as a Modern Orthodox Jew and a Zionist. In ninth grade, he volunteered for Etta Israel Center, where he worked with young adults with special needs, and this fall, he will attend Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Israel to further his Jewish education. 

“I love to learn, and I love doing Talmud,” he said. “[I wanted] to devote a year of my life to it.”

He added, “I love the State of Israel and I’ve always wanted to live there for at least some portion of my life. I think it’s important to contribute to the land if you’re a Zionist.”

For his sophomore, junior and senior years of college, he plans to study at Yeshiva University in New York, majoring in business. He chose Yeshiva so he would be able to learn more Talmud and live an Orthodox life. 

“You’re still in New York City, and you can have a lot of fun in the secular world, but you can also belong to your own Jewish community,” he said. 

After he graduates from Yeshiva, Schwartz wants to either pursue law, politics, or get into the medical device industry because they are professions he can use to better the planet. 

“Medical devices have always intrigued me,” he said. “Not only are you making money, but you’re saving lives in the country and the world that you live in.”

It’s Schwartz’s personal belief that everybody should try and make the world a better place, which is why he wants to do that through his career: “I think it’s important for people to contribute to society on whatever level they can.”

For more profiles of outstanding local graduates, go to jewishjournal.com/graduation.

Yeshiva teacher admits to sexually abusing boy


A former counselor at a summer camp run by a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., admitted three days into his trial to sexually abusing a boy.

Yosef Kolko, 39, made the admission on Monday after two more victims, a male and a female, came forward, the Asbury Park Press reported.

Kolko pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and child endangerment. His bail was revoked.

He admitted to committing the sexual assaults on the boy while he was a counselor at a camp run by the Yeshiva Bais Hatorah School.

Kolko was accused of sexually abusing the boy when he was 11 and 12 in 2008 and 2009. The boy and his family have since moved to Michigan.

Kolko’s attorney, Michael Bachner, said his client was “extremely remorseful,” apologizes to the victim and hopes after treatment “to return to society as a benefit to it,” The Associated Press reported.

Kolko, also a teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood, could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, but state Superior Court Judge Francis Hodgson has said he would consider no more than 15 years, according to the Asbury Park Press.

Before sentencing, Kolko will be evaluated at the state Corrections Department’s Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in the Avenel section of Woodbridge to determine if he is a repetitive and compulsive sexual offender, according to the newspaper.

What would Woody Allen do?


Paris-Manhattan,” whose respective residents consider their city to be the center of the known universe, is the title of an appealing French movie by a first-time feature film director.

The movie centers around Alice Ovitz, a Jewish pharmacist in Paris, and her worshipful obsession with the American director and actor Woody Allen, who is strongly associated with his native Manhattan.

Alice’s passion is unrequited, as she never tries to contact Allen, who, however, makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the film.

Alice, played by the stunning Alice Taglioni, studies Allen’s movies with the dedication of a yeshiva student poring over Talmud passages and frequently offers DVDs of the master’s works to her pharmacy customers who come in complaining of depression or anxiety.

In her bedroom, she keeps an oversized poster of her hero and converses with him about problems of love, life and career moves.

She poses her questions and the poster Allen responds with appropriate lines taken from his various movies. It’s a shtick lifted from “Play It Again, Sam,” in which Humphrey Bogart’s Rick (“Casablanca”) counsels Allen on how to upgrade his love life.

Alice could use some of Rick’s advice herself, for between running the pharmacy and watching Allen’s movies, she hardly has time for dates, though her father frequently reminds her she isn’t getting any younger.

The father, Isaac Ovitz (Michel Aumont) is married to an alcoholic wife, so he takes on the role of the family’s Yiddishe Mameh, bugging his daughter about finding a mate and evaluating potential suitors.

Into all of this appears Victor (Patrick Bruel), of rough-hewn appearance but with a sensitive soul, who has come to install a burglar alarm system in Alice’s pharmacy.

The system emits clouds of chloroform, which knock out any intruder, but also any innocent bystander in the neighborhood.

Victor starts romancing Alice but faces two obstacles. First, he admits that he has (gasp) never seen a Woody Allen movie, and second, he has a formidable rival in the suave and sophisticated Pierre.

The only way Victor figures he can outscore the competition is to give Alice the one thing she desires most — a face-to-face meeting with the actual Woody Allen, in the flesh.

So crucial was Allen’s participation to the project that had he refused, the film’s director and screenwriter, Sophie Lellouche, would have dropped the whole project, Lellouche said in a transoceanic phone call.

As it turned out, enlisting Allen’s cooperation wasn’t nearly as formidable a task as she had feared.

On a trip to New York, she tracked Allen down at a nightclub where he regularly plays clarinet with fellow jazz musicians. Allen asked Lellouche for her script, and in a few days called back to say that he was available for a cameo role — uncredited and unpaid, yet.

It helped that Allen loves Paris, where the film was shot, a sentiment reciprocated by the French, who esteem him even more than do his American countrymen, according to Lellouche. “We love his intellectual humor,” she observed.

Lellouche drew heavily on her own background in writing the screenplay for the movie. “I come from a traditional Jewish family; we get together every Friday night for a Shabbat dinner,” she said.

“My father is exactly as I show him in the film, but my mother is certainly not an alcoholic — as a matter of fact, she never drinks.”

To her father’s relief, Sophie married when she was 28; her son just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and she also has an 11-year-old daughter.

Lellouche said there is much of herself in Alice Ovitz. “I am a dreamer and poetic; I feel that anything can happen anytime,” she said. “But the movie’s Alice is much more dynamic than I am.”

Reviews of “Paris-Manhattan” have ranged the spectrum from ecstatic to devastating, but Lellouche professes not to be bothered by the bad ones. “I’m very optimistic,” she said, “and in any case, it is not my aim to make movies everyone will like.”

Lellouche’s only previous film credit is a short movie, titled “Dieu, Que la Nature Est Bien Faite,” translated somewhat awkwardly as “God, That Nature Is Well Done.” Her original concept for that film was of a woman as the central character, who went out on a lot of blind dates and developed the ability to tell within two minutes what was on the man’s mind.

Because the idea seemed pretty obvious and repetitive, she switched her protagonist to a man who could tell what his woman companions were thinking.

“Paris-Manhattan” opens May 3 at three Laemmle theaters, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse in Pasadena.

Studying Sephardic roots


Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

Leading haredi rabbi in Israel: Say no to national service


The senior rabbi of the Lithuanian haredi Orthodox, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, said yeshiva students should not agree to enlist in National Service.

The rabbi's decision, quoted Monday in the haredi daily newspaper Yated Ne'eman, comes a day after Israel's Cabinet approved a temporary law that would allow yeshiva students to perform national service in place of the military.

“We must warn publicly against this serious and dangerous phenomenon, which only aims to destroy the foundations of our existence, against the essence and mission of a yeshiva student to devote his life to studying Torah,” the newspaper quoted Shteinman as saying.

The Cabinet's decisions and similar actions are “harming the foundations of Judaism,” he reportedly said.

Steinman's statements appeared in an article inside the newspaper as opposed to a signed statement on the front page, where his pronouncements are typically placed, The Jerusalem Post reported, showing that the rabbi may be trying to walk a fine line between his own convictions and those of rabbis who have taken an even more hard-line stance.

Shteinman has previously backed the formation of an all-haredi army brigade and the Tal Law that exempted yeshiva students from army service, according to The Jerusalem Post. The Tal Law was found to be unconstitutional.

Shteinman's predecessor as leader of the Lithuanian haredi Orthodox movement, the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also rejected national service and other programs geared to the haredi community.

Israel’s middle class increasingly squeezed


At Israeli weddings, gifts of china, silver and art are not welcome. Guests are expected to bring their checkbooks and contribute to a young couple’s purchase of their first home, often bought with substantial help from the newlyweds’ parents.

But a new report shows that only 65 percent of young couples in their 20s and 30s are able to buy a home, as compared with over 80 percent a decade ago.

These statistics are part of the State of the Nation Report 2011- 2012 published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which examines various aspects of Israel’s economy.

Director Dan Ben-David finds disturbing trends in Israel’s economy. “We are the ‘start-up nation’ with world-class universities, yet our productivity is falling further and further behind Western countries,” Ben-David told The Media Line.

While overall unemployment in Israel is relatively low, and employment rates among young and middle-aged Israeli men is much lower than in leading Western countries, tens of thousands of Orthodox yeshiva students receive government stipends for studying full-time instead of working.

Israel also has a lot of debt. The Taub Center found that the interest the country pays on its debt was more than its entire education budget last year, and double its health budget.

One bright sign is Israel’s national health care system. Almost all Israelis are members of one of four HMO’s and pay a percentage of their taxes for health insurance. Israeli Jews have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. However the report found that the number of hospital beds in Israel is continuing to drop, and is less than half the Western average.

The report also found that the government’s share of total health care spending in Israel has fallen, while private spending has risen.

“In essence, separate health care systems for the rich and for the poor have developed,” the report found.

Transportation is another problem. The congestion on Israel’s roads is 2.5 times higher than the Western average, although the number of cars per capita is much lower. Even though Israel has begun spending more money on its transportation infrastructure recently, traffic jams have gotten almost unbearable during rush hour.

But it is the plight of Israel’s middle class that economists find most disturbing.

Paul Rivlin, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, says the middle class is being squeezed all over the world. In Israel, he says, monopolies control important aspects of life.

“There is only one supplier of land because the State of Israel owns practically all of the land,” he told The Media Line. “There is only one supplier of cement. The food we buy is overwhelmingly sold or made or imported by monopolistic organizations that engage in price gouging.”

In the summer of 2011, socioeconomic demonstrations dubbed the “cottage cheese protests” swept the Jewish state. Hundreds of thousands, including Rivlin, went into the streets demanding lower food prices. Many items manufactured in Israel cost less when purchased abroad.

After those protests, prices of many commodities went down although they have crept up again over the past year. Rivlin says economic issues have often taken a back seat in Israel.

“The amount of time you can concentrate on social issues is limited because of security issues,” Rivlin said.

Taxes in Israel are also high, the income tax ranging from 10 percent to a whopping 48 percent.

“There have been some tax reforms that have benefited the bottom and the top, but the middle class still gets hit,” Rivlin says. “As you move up with moderate increases in income, you get pushed up into higher tax rates.”

“We are falling further and further behind in living standards and if we don’t do something soon, fewer Israelis will stay here,” Ben-David told The Media Line. “We are on some long-term social and economic trajectories that are simply unsustainable in the long run.”

Principal at Aussie school under fire sees child sex abuse inquiry as ‘welcome step’


The launch of a commission to investigate child sex abuse was welcomed by the principal of an Australian Jewish school whose students allegedly were victimized.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Monday that the royal commission — or public inquiry — would look into children under the care of religious organizations and focus on the response of the institutions to the alleged sex abuse cases. She called child sex abuse “vile and evil.”

Yeshivah College, an Orthodox school run by Chabad in Melbourne, has been at the center of controversy since allegations broke last year that its students had been victims of sexual abuse.

Its principal, Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler, issued a statement Wednesday saying that “Child abuse is abhorrent and has a traumatic consequences for victims and their families. Victims of abuse deserve support and closure, and a royal commission is a very positive and welcome step.”

Manny Waks, a spokesman for alleged victims who claims he was abused as a student at Yeshivah College, said that “I’m receiving more and more allegations of child sexual abuse coming from the Melbourne, Sydney and Perth Jewish communities. Some are alleged to have occurred years ago, while others as recent as the past few years.”

One alleged perpetrator, David Cyprys, is standing trial next year on numerous counts of child sex abuse against former students of Yeshivah College from the 1980s. Another alleged perpetrator, David Kramer, is awaiting extradition from America to Australia, where he is wanted by police who are investigating allegations that he also committed child sex abuse while he taught at Yeshivah College between 1989 and 1993.

Malka Leifer, a former principal of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne, fled the country for Israel in 2008 amid allegations that she sexually abused female students.

Study: Orthodox Jewish males transmitted mumps in school


A mumps outbreak in New York and New Jersey in which 97 percent of the more than 3,500 cases were Orthodox Jews was a result of the way Orthodox boys are schooled, according to a new study.

study on the June 2009 to June 2010 outbreak in New York City, two upstate New York counties and one New Jersey county home to a high percentage of Orthodox Jews appears in the Nov. 1  2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Adolescents 13 years to 17 years of age, representing 27 percent of all the patients, and males, representing 78 percent of patients in that age group, were disproportionately affected, according to the study abstract. Most of the boys had been vaccinated against the disease. 

Most of the boys that contracted the disease studied in Jewish yeshiva high schools, “where students spend many hours daily in intense, face-to-face interaction,” according to the study abstract, leading to the mumps' spread.

The study concluded that  “intense exposures, particularly among boys in schools, facilitated transmission and overcame vaccine-induced protection in these patients.”

Tradition meets future at Yeshiva High Tech


Yeshiva High Tech, a new Jewish high school opening this fall, will offer students a blended-learning curriculum—a form of education that gives technology a central role in the classroom.

The first blended-learning project founded west of the Mississippi, the Pico Boulevard school combines traditional forms of teaching with technology-driven activities, which is its main difference from online learning. 

Head of School Rebecca Coen, who will run Yeshiva High Tech with Director Rabbi Moises Benzaquen, says research shows students are more engaged in blended-learning environments than in traditional classrooms.

“Blended learning focuses on the student, rather than the educator,” Coen said. “The teacher is no longer the keeper of knowledge. The teacher supports and guides the students to meet the needs of each student at their own academic levels.”

The blended-learning system involves one teacher guiding students on a number of subjects, in contrast to the traditional one teacher per subject model. Students complete subjects in online programs under the direction of a teacher.

Coen gave an example of what a literature class would look like through blended learning.

“Students would be accessing literature, vocabulary development, grammar usage and application, etc. through an online curriculum platform. They would be reading and analyzing various types of literature [novels, plays, poetry, short stories, etc.] through classroom discussions, online chats, Moodles [an e-learning software platform] and essays.”

Coen says teacher-student ratios won’t exceed eight students per teacher.

“You wouldn’t find just one grade in a class,” Coen explained. “Students work collaboratively on individual programs. It’s an individualized program based on how students are performing academically and socially.”

Funding for the school is coming from various organizations, including the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Saul Schottenstein Foundation, the Jewish Community Foundation, the Affordable Jewish Education Project as well as a local charity.

“The school has rented facilities at Mogen David on Pico Boulevard near Beverly Drive, where we have had buildings renovated and upgrades through donations from the community,” Coen said.

Coen, who is a former head of Richmond Jewish Day School and a mentor at Harvard University’s Art of Leadership program, said the school is a recognized alternate to expensive Jewish private high school education.

Tuition will cost students $8,500 a year—among the lowest tuitions at Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, which usually run between $25,000 and approximately $40,000 a year.

“We offer a different way of learning, and we are already nationally accredited, so students will graduate with a degree that is accepted by colleges or universities.”

Coen also said the online platform will give students access to a wide range of subjects.

“The online platform that we are using is called Keystone. Through this platform, students can access all of the traditional subject areas in English, math, science and history as well as AP classes in each of these subject areas, and electives in subjects like money management, graphic design, screenplay writing, world languages [French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, etc.] and many more.”

Miriam Prum Hess, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education and Jewish educational engagement at BJE—Builders of Jewish Education—says the new high school is at an experimental stage.

“The advancement and application of technology in online learning has been around for a long time,” Prum Hess said. “But the possibility of a combination of online learning and classroom education is a new focus. The approach allows for more flexibility and personalization in education, as well as being more affordable.”

In 2010, all-boys Orthodox high school Yeshivas Ohev Shalom on Fairfax Avenue also began teaching students through online education.

Coen said Yeshiva High Tech’s target enrollment for its first year was 20 students. So far the school has enrolled 40 students and expects to cap enrollment at 50.

Prum Hess says this school will make high school more affordable for many people.

“Some people will be very excited about this; it will provide opportunities for parents to send their kids to school when they couldn’t afford other high schools. Also, there will be those who feel the online approach is best suited to them.  For others, it won’t be the right approach.”

The school’s blended-learning environment is to be based on Torah values and “a total commitment to the halachah that guides and determines a person’s lifestyle,” according to the Yeshiva High Tech Web site.

Coen says Judaic studies will be taught mostly in traditional form with a teacher, as online Judaic curriculum hasn’t been fully developed.

“We are an Orthodox school,” Coen said. “We expect students to keep Shabbat, kosher and Torah values. Boys and girls will share the same campus but will learn in separate classes. Students will pray every day, and about 50 percent of the day will be dedicated to Judaic studies.”

Yeshiva High Tech will begin its first semester in the fall, and registration is currently open at yeshivahightech.org.

Religion vs. Religion


It’s tempting to look at the latest crisis in Israel — over whether the Charedim should serve in the military — as pitting religion against the state. Just look at some of the comments from both sides. On the fervent religious side, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has declared a state of emergency. In his weekly sermon on July 7, as reported in Ynet, the rabbi is quoted as saying:

“We’re facing great distress. Unfortunately, there are some who think they can diminish the honor of the Torah, decrease the learning of the Torah, the number of those who study Torah, and the number of those who work for the Torah.”

He added: “We’re surrounded by people who hate us … Iran, Hezbollah and those Palestinians who hate the people of Israel. Who shall save us? The Torah! If the Torah hadn’t existed — the world wouldn’t have been created.”

Yosef has instructed synagogues in Israel and abroad to say the Avinu Malkeinu prayer twice a day until further notice. The prayer, which is recited during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes the words “Our father, our king, tear away the evil sentence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Nelly Barak of Arad, whose son, Lt. Hanan Barak, was killed during a June 2005 border incident:

“They [yeshiva students] should not use the Torah as an excuse. That’s unacceptable. Everyone is equal in this country. Why is my son’s blood worth less?” Barak said, as reported in Ynet.

She added: “When our children want to go to the university they first have to serve for three years [in the army]. The yeshiva students can also serve three years and then study Torah for the rest of their lives if they so desire.”

And right in the middle of this mess is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperately trying to balance both sides and keep his coalition intact. His new coalition includes partners from Kadima — led by Shaul Mofaz — who are pushing hard to enact a new law requiring the Charedim to serve in the military, while his Charedi partners on the other side are resisting these efforts.

This is an issue that was bound to erupt, ever since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided in 1948 to exempt yeshiva students from enlisting in the army. The exemption applied to only a few hundred students then; today, more than 50,000 yeshiva students study Talmud all day while other Israelis risk their lives to protect them.

Who ever thought that such an inequity could last?

Not only do these yeshiva students not serve in the military, they also receive financial aid from the government to sustain their Torah-only lifestyle. There’s something more than a little hypocritical about this. It’s like saying: “We want to learn Torah all day without engaging with the rest of secular society, but we will engage politically with this society to get their financial support.”

You might say it’s a classic case of the state versus religion.

But I think it’s a lot more than that: It’s also religion versus religion. Judaism hurting Judaism.

As one of the great religious Zionist leaders, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, once told me, nothing has created more animosity toward the Jewish religion in Israel than the fact that full-time yeshiva students don’t serve in the military. It’s easy to see why: If the ultimate representatives of Torah don’t do their fair share to defend their country, what does that say about the Torah they study and revere?

That’s why I so admire the religious Zionist movement, which has been able to marry both Torah study and service to their country. They have been the antidote to the isolationist tendencies of the Charedim. A few days ago, many of their leaders expressed support for the movement to introduce the draft to the Charedi world while also reaffirming the importance of Torah study.

Personally, I think the Charedim should see this crisis as an opportunity to honor their religion. They should stand up and say they will willingly serve. This would not just benefit their country; it also would honor the name of God in the eyes of every Israeli.

After all, where is it written in the Torah that defending your country and studying Torah are mutually exclusive?

And shouldn’t honoring your religion in the eyes of other Jews be as valuable as the mitzvah of Torah study?

Of course, because this is such an emotional issue, complicated by decades of ingrained habits and the reality of power politics, moving forward won’t be simple. So, to cut through all the drama, I asked my friend in Jerusalem, author Yossi Klein Halevi, to give me his take on the crisis. Here’s what he e-mailed me:

“We need to move on this issue with both sensitivity and resolve. Sensitivity in the sense of respecting the Charedi community for its extraordinary commitment to Torah, for assuming in many cases a voluntary poverty for the sake of study. And resolve in conveying the simple, non-negotiable message that the Israeli majority can no longer afford to carry, either economically or militarily, a rapidly expanding Charedi population.”

His last words perfectly summarized the crisis: “We simply can’t do it anymore.”


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

No, Adam Yauch wasn’t a yeshiva boy, but we can still claim him


As a student at an all-girls day school in Brooklyn, the first thing I learned about the Beastie Boys turned out to be untrue.
According to a yeshiva urban legend, two of the founding members of the Beastie Boys had attended The Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy in upper Manhattan. Some MTA students even claimed to know where the hip-hop pioneers had tagged the school with their handles.

This was before every claim could be verified or disproved with a Google search.

After seeing a photograph of the trio in a music magazine in the mid-1990s, I decided I could believe that the three nerdy-looking, funny white Jewish guys in fact had been nerdy, rebellious yeshiva students.

Of course they never attended an Orthodox educational institution. Still, despite denials from the Beastie Boys, the rumor persisted. Yeshiva students continued to project themselves onto this seminal hip-hop act for years, even after Drake came along and started talking about his bar mitzvah.

When Adam “MCA” Yauch, one of those alleged yeshiva students, died last Friday at 47 following a three-year battle with cancer, there was an outpouring of grief and condolences from fans and some of the biggest names in hip hop.

He and the Beastie Boys helped put hip hop on the map in 1986 with their debut, “Licensed to Ill,” the first rap album to hit the top of Billboard’s album charts.

The album yielded several classic singles such as “Fight for Your Right to Party” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” It also landed the Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone—the magazine had been notoriously unwilling to cover rap, a nascent and increasingly significant art form—with the headline “Three Idiots Make a Masterpiece.”

“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” Rick Rubin, who produced “Licensed to Ill,” said in an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Of course, this sort of attention turned the Jewish bohemians into targets for those who viewed their success through the prism of white privilege and racism. Yet, and this is much to the group’s credit, the criticisms eventually dissipated.

“We don’t hear the word ‘Elvis’ uttered in the same breath as ‘Beastie Boys,’ ” Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback,” wrote in a tribute to Yauch published in Spin. “The integrity of Yauch and his peers had a lot to do with it.”

Yauch and the Beasties came of age, creatively speaking, in the downtown bohemia of Manhattan in the early ’80s where punk rockers (as the Beasties had formerly been) mixed freely with uptown emcees and DJs. The racial lines in this scene and early hip hop were crossed in surprising ways.

The Beastie Boys’ own career reflects that. They were introduced to black audiences by the biggest rap act of the day, Run DMC.

In turn the Beasties, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, helped launch the career of Public Enemy, which opened for the mega-successful Boys on tour.

The Beastie Boys paid homage to their myriad influences in the pages of the now-defunct Grand Royal magazine, which started in the early ’90s and reflected their tastes, from movies to artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, a name familiar to those inside the hip-hop scene as his work is often sampled in tracks.

By exposing a wider audience to these important figures in the culture’s history, the Beasties Boys helped give credit where it was due and properly situated themselves within the hip-hop tradition.

“The Beastie Boys took responsibility for being grown-up white people without boring everyone with long rationalizations about how down they were,” Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop,” wrote nearly a decade ago in “The Hip-Hop Album Guide.”

Except when they actually did apologize for some of their earlier homophobic and misogynist lyrics. This wasn’t a Rush Limbaugh-style mea culpa. They didn’t apologize that women and gays took offense at what they said—the “I’m sorry you took umbrage at that really awful thing I said”—thereby putting the onus on the targets of the hateful comments for even reacting to them.

Rather Yauch and the Beasties expressed true, sincere regret. Yauch famously rapped, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through.” This from a group that had once performed onstage alongside caged female dancers and a hydraulic-powered penis.

And the Boys did more than give lip service to these feminist impulses; they acted on them. The group famously asked Prodigy not to perform the song “Smack My Bitch Up” at the Reading Festival.

When the Beasties were criticized for this seemingly hypocritical stance, Yauch defended the move, saying they had begun changing the words when they performed old songs that had contained misogynistic lyrics. This was just one example of how deeply intertwined the Beastie Boys’ artistic and social progression was.

Yauch created a successful template of how to evolve, not only as an artist but also as a human being.

In addition to directing some of the most visually arresting and retro-inflected Beastie Boys music videos under the alias Nathaniel Hornblower, he also created Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film production and distribution company that cultivated and released several critical hits, including the Oscar-nominated “The Message” and “Exist Through the Gift Shop.” 

A practicing Buddhist, Yauch also founded the Milarepa Foundation, which raised money and awareness through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts.

While this doesn’t exactly sound like the work of your average yeshiva student, I have no problem with future generations of Orthodox boys pretending that the Beastie Boys had been their own.

Yeshiva boys couldn’t do much better than Adam Yauch as a role model.

Dvora Meyers is the author of the ebook “Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess,” a memoir essay collection about Orthodox Judaism and gymnastics.

Yeshiva University ranks as 4th most popular U.S. college


Yeshiva University is the fourth most popular school in the country, according to a recent U.S. News and World Report ranking.

The annual rankings are based on the percentage of students who attend a university out of the total number who are accepted to the school. According to the report, which was released Tuesday, 70 percent of the accepted students enroll at YU.

Harvard, Brigham Young and Stanford universities respectively took the top three spots, with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks placing fifth.

“Most of our students have grown up with certain values and a certain belief system, and we believe that those should not be compromised when they hit college,” said YU President Richard Joel. “Our students are looking to continue growing in their Jewish and secular studies, and they know that we provide the pre-eminent university platform for them to grow Jewishly and intellectually.”

Bibi bypassing Cabinet on extending yeshiva students’ military service law


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will bring a vote on extending a law that allows yeshiva students to delay their military service directly to the Knesset floor, bypassing his Cabinet.

Netanyahu’s office said Thursday that the Cabinet will not vote on extending the Tal Law at its regular meeting on Sunday. Netanyahu had said last week he would ask the Cabinet to extend the law, which was adopted 10 years ago to allow haredi Orthodox students to delay military service and then make the transition to a shorter service, for five more years.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said he would like to end the Tal Law ended and have a fairer system put into place.

The Tal Law allows yeshiva students older than 22 to take a year off their studies for professional training without being drafted. In doing so they must commit to a shorter army service or a year of national service, or return to yeshiva studies.

Also Thursday, Israeli reserve soldiers set up what they are calling a “suckers camp” in Tel Aviv to protest a decision to extend the Tal Law. Politicians, high school students about to be drafted and university students visited the camp, Haaretz reported.

Secular Yeshiva holds Socratic-style seminars


For the second year in row, local Yiddish learning organization Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) will offer Secular Yeshiva, a bimonthly course with Socratic-style seminars, focused on “history and basic ideas of secular Jewishness,” “critical examination of Tanakh and post-biblical literature,” “Jewish calendar and holidays” and more.

The course begins in February and is open to the public. Instructors will include local scholar Hershl Hartman, a member of the Workmen’s Circle District Committee.

Secular Yeshiva demands a two-year commitment; each class will last two-and-a-half hours. Classes take place two Sunday evenings per month.

Participants may take an additional third year of study to earn certification as a “vegvayzer,” which means they can conduct secular life cycle and holiday ceremonies.

Registration for Secular Yeshiva is due no later than Jan. 21. To apply, e-mail hershl@sholem.org with a brief description of past education and/or activities in Jewish and general cultural/educational/social movements. Visit circlesocal.org for more details. Prices to be announced.

Shh! Don’t talk about sex at Yeshiva University


It wasn’t your typical college sex scandal. There were no accusations of molestation, inappropriate faculty-student relationships or date rape charges.

Instead, the precipitating incident was the publication by a student-run newspaper of a female student’s first-person account of a premarital sexual encounter.

But this is Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution where the campuses for men and women are separated by approximately 10 miles, and the story’s publication in the YU Beacon newspaper prompted an intense, open discussion of a topic normally considered taboo in this conservative college community.

Following a cascade of negative comments by online readers of the piece, titled “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This?” the student council elected to withdraw its funding from the newspaper and several editors resigned. Meanwhile, stories about the clash between freedom of expression and fealty to Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on modesty appeared in news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Yeshiva University officials issued a statement noting that the decision about de-funding the Beacon was made by students, but Y.U. officials declined to be interviewed by JTA about sexual health practices at the school.

The university’s reticence to talk publicly about student sexual activity extends beyond the pages of student publications. A review of the Health & Wellness section of the school’s website found no discussion of contraception or other relevant information, and several students—including the anonymous author—said the school had not provided them with any sort of orientation on health issues related to sexual activity.

That’s not to say student health services doesn’t provide students with guidance or resources—it does—but the university’s low-key approach to sexual health issues stands in stark contrast to the approach of many U.S. colleges.

“The information should be available,” said Lisa Maldonado, the executive director of the New York-based Reproductive Health Access Project. “If you look at the data of who is having the most unintended pregnancies, it’s young women in their 20s.”

Sarah Lazaros, 21, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women, said it’s clear why Yeshiva doesn’t have such material available online.

Having information on the website “would go against a lot of what the university stands for, which is total devotion to Jewish law. A lot of potential students would see that and not come to the university,” Lazaros said. “I think the main reason is that they don’t want to encourage these behaviors.”

Several YU students interviewed by JTA said it’s a mistake to pretend that the university’s students are not sexually active.

The sex essay “addresses something that we don’t often talk about in the Orthodox Jewish community, especially at YU,” Simi Lampert, 22, the Beacon’s editor, told JTA.

The Beacon, an independent, online newspaper launched in January by students at Yeshiva’s men’s and women’s colleges, will continue to publish, albeit without funding from the student council.

Lampert said she saw the story’s publication as an opportunity to start a conversation about sex among YU students.

“You have someone like me who went to a coed high school, has had boyfriends and has no intention of waiting until marriage for intercourse,” said S.B., a freshman at Stern who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her initials. “I don’t think anyone should go around denying that there are students having sex because that is not reality.”

The author of the Beacon story, a 20-year-old Stern student with the initials L.P., said her essay was true. She said she penned the piece, which was published in the literary section, where fiction and nonfiction appear, to help resolve her own complicated feelings about the experience.

“I was really kind of distraught about the whole thing,” L.P. said, her voice cracking.

Maintaining the appearance of the typical Orthodox Stern girl, L.P. said she felt like she could not talk to her friends about her night in the hotel room.

“It’s not like it was expected of me by how I dress,” she said. “I wear skirts. I do that whole song and dance.”

L.P. complained that the culture of the Orthodox institution makes it difficult to take effective safeguards when engaging in intercourse. When her period was late in coming after her sexual encounter, L.P. said she was worried about pregnancy even though she and her partner had used contraception.

Panicked, she went to Stern’s Health & Wellness Center, where she said she was counseled nonjudgmentally and asked for and received a pregnancy test.

“They’ll have a conversation with you about sex,” she said. “They’ll talk to you about the risks of being sexually active.”

Responding to a JTA inquiry about the contraceptive and counseling options available to students, YU’s senior director of media relations, Mayer Fertig, referred to the website of the Health & Wellness center. The site does not list contraceptives, Plan B or pregnancy tests as an available resource, unlike the websites of other major universities, and students say that Stern College doesn’t explicitly inform students that there are pregnancy tests and counseling about sexually transmitted infection available in the university system.

“From what I know, there is no information that has been made very accessible in terms of contraception, rape or pregnancy,” S.B. said.

Many Stern students hail from Orthodox institutions and thus are unlikely to have picked up knowledge about condom usage, pregnancy or the risks of disease transmission from their high schools.

Tamar, a senior at Stern who asked that her last name not be used, said she could recall just one event in her three years on campus in which women’s sexuality and health was discussed. As for contraceptives, she said, “It’s not something that’s talked about.”

Lazaros, a women’s studies major, said that a student-run women’s studies society on campus once brought a sex therapist to the college to speak. She also said the Health & Wellness Center does not provide a broad spectrum of services, probably because of limited demand and the school’s small size.

While L.P.’s essay did not go into much detail about the sexual encounter, several YU students described how their friends at the school attempt to skirt the Orthodox ban on premarital intercourse by being sexually active in others ways.

M.H., 27, who graduated from Yeshiva College in 2007, told JTA that he engaged in oral sex with girls from Stern and talked with friends about their similar exploits.

“I know that they were definitely hooking up—oral sex, kissing, touching,” he said. “I found that it was much harder to get a religious girl to actually have sexual intercourse because they place a premium on virginity.”

In public, at least, the rule at Yeshiva remains unchanged, students say.

“I know couples that behind closed doors, they’ll cuddle or they’ll make out,” L.P. said. “But when it comes to sitting in the student lounge, they sit five feet apart.”

Yeshiva shuttered over students’ ties to West Bank attacks


A West Bank yeshiva high school whose students have been identified as being involved in attacks against Palestinians has been ordered shut down.

The Dorshei Yehudcha yeshiva high school, which has about 100 students, reportedly was ordered closed last week by Israel’s Education Ministry following the recommendation of the Shin Bet security service.

According to Haaretz, the Shin Bet had recommended closing the yeshiva because the security service had collected a great deal of classified information showing that the yeshiva’s students were involved in illegal and violent activities against Palestinians and Israeli security forces. The Shin Bet also said that the yeshiva rabbis were aware of the actions and continued to allow students to participate.

The school is connected to the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva of Yitzhar, to which the Education Ministry cut funding. One of the yeshiva’s heads is Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who was investigated by police for his book “Torat Hamelech,” or “The King’s Torah,” which reportedly discusses situations in which it is permissible for Jews to kill non-Jews.

Letters to the Editor: Yeshivas and Settlements


Are Settlements the Issue?

Surely, like other ideologues, historian David N. Myers means well when he claims that “settlements [on the West Bank] are the major impediment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state,” as he denigrates Dennis Prager for his thesis that the settlements are not the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Settlements Are the Issue,” Dec. 3). Myers (conveniently?) overlooks the many facts that support Prager’s position.

Most significant, Myers states, “If settlements remain … then the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one political entity. And … the majority of the residents … will be Palestinian.” Therefore, he argues, as a democracy, Israel will have to grant all residents the right to vote; and then the Palestinian majority will vote a virtual end to the State of Israel.

Aside from the fact that Israel’s “occupation” of those territories is a myth, the Israeli settlements are located primarily near the current Israeli border. The rest of the West Bank (with or without the Gaza Strip) could easily be forged into a “Palestinian” state – independent of the State of Israel.

George Epstein
Los Angeles

The letter from Americans for Peace Now (Letters, Nov. 26) states that the settlements are an obstacle to Israel becoming a “full and legitimate member of the family of nations,” implying if not directly stating that Israel is not a “legitimate” nation. Thus, APN joins the “international campaign to deligitimize the Jewish state,” a clear demonstration that this organization not only contributes to the undermining of Israel but functions as a support to Palestinian and other anti-Israel propaganda. For shame.

Robert Friedman
via e-mail

It is time for Americans to be told the truth. Islamic states will not tolerate a non-Muslim state within [their] midst. It is an affront to their Muslim sensibilities as outlined in Quranic doctrine. To pretend, as Peace Now does, that it is a territorial dispute gives credence to the Islamic resistance movement, which has gained momentum by placing the onus on Israel, and it prevents Israel and the West from confronting the real issue — the lack of tolerance and acceptance of a non-Islamic state within its midst.

Kudos to Dennis Prager for his independent analysis and his courage to go against the tide of political correctness.

Shari Goodman
Chapter Leader
Calabasas-West Valley ACT!
For America

If professor David N. Myers were right that “[Israeli] settlements are the issue” preventing the progression of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, then Mahmoud Abbas would have been talking about settlements for the past 15 years, instead of the past 15 minutes. The reality is that only when President Obama started talking about settlements did the Palestinians suddenly turn a talking point into a reason for not talking.

Steve Meister
Sherman Oaks

Knowing Mr. David Myers’ qualifications, I was perplexed how he could come up with such a one-sided view on the subject of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank (“Settlements Are the Issue,” Dec. 3).

History, which is Mr. Myers’ raison d’etre for this article, shows us that most of his arguments are baseless and hold no merit. But first allow me to agree with his biggest concern that I do share —the effect of the occupation on Israel as a democratic country. For years I have decried the negative effect the occupation has had on Israel as a nation and on its citizens as humane human beings. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and it has had this effect on soldiers and policemen guarding and controlling Arab populations, it has had the same effect on the settlers themselves and on Israel’s population as a whole to some degree.

Another concern of Mr. Myers that I used to share is the changing demographic in favor of the Arab population if we do not separate the two peoples as the two-state solution dictates.

Now let me dispel the concerns and theory the learned professor has put forward.

1. Until very recently the settlement freeze was not an issue, negotiations came and went with no real results and any reason to believe a peace settlement is feasible. Neither Arafat nor Abu Mazen claims the continued construction was the only hurdle to the peace process. It was well understood that most of the settlements, including those surrounding Jerusalem, will stay on the Israeli side of the peace agreement. The freeze is the brainchild of president Obama as an effort to further appease the Arab countries and it has picked up momentum [faster] than a snowball.
2. Settlements were never an impediment to a peace treaty between Israel and its peaceful neighbors, unless we include Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beer Sheba, Jerusalem and every Israeli town, village and home in the framework of the above-mentioned settlements. Professor Myers has most likely been deprived of all that is being declared by the Palestinians, not only in Gaza but in Ramallah and around the Arab world. Or maybe he chooses not to believe what is being said.
3. Israel has proven in the not too distant past that it is a very determined country and will vacate its citizens for a real peace. The evacuation of the Gaza Strip and Gush Katif was not in return for peace, just a demonstration of our willingness and determination. It was a smaller scale experiment that failed, not because of Israel, as maybe you would be led to believe by the likes of professor Myers but because of those above mentioned peaceful neighbors who could not restrain their true nature more than a few days and started the rocket barrage on Israel immediately.
4. Not only are the settlements not the issue, the occupation is not the issue; Israel is the issue. Not wanting to delve on ancient pre-1948 history, let me remind the learned professor that terrorism from the Gaza Strip as from the West Bank and Syria was a staple of Israel life since 1948. Thousands of nightly attacks, hundreds of Jews massacred on buses, in their home and while working the fields was a way of life up to 1967. The first years after the war were the quietest days Israel enjoyed because the fight to control terrorism was conducted on occupied territory for a change, not in Israeli homes.
5. And finally, the professor’s great concern for Israel’s future if the status quo continues. Sir, had you had the chance to study some of the statistics in Israel you would have learned to your great dismay that the population balance that so concerns you has not changed in the past 20 years. This may be due to a variety of reasons, including Jewish immigration and a high birth rate in the Jewish population that offsets the declining birth rate among the Arab citizens in Israel and the West Bank. It may also be due to forced migration out of Arab neighborhoods of Arab Christians by their Muslim brothers. It may also be caused by a host of other reasons, including the inability of many able-bodied men to procreate while in jail for terrorism charges. That in itself may be an interesting research project.

I’m sure we will be innovative enough in the coming years to figure out a way to allow the Palestinians to continue their life in a semi-autonomous environment that will assure Israel a safe way of life while not depriving the Palestinians (those among them that are assured rights by their laws and exclude women, gays, Christians) of a free environment to define their destiny with a few limitations that include restriction on efforts associated with the destruction of Israel.

If we will not find that solution, we may have to settle for a not fully democratic system of law, a possibility that may shock many in this wonderful country. The Palestinians will still have a much better and prosperous life than under any Muslim regime and Israel will be able to continue to exist. Not perfect but it beats having to swim all the way to New York.

Ethan Teitler
Sherman Oaks

David Myers of the UCLA History Department believes that Dennis Prager is wrong in denying that “the settlements are the major impediment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.” Then Prager slams the parasitic Israeli ultra-Orthodox who are strong supporters of the settlements due to their belief that the West Bank is part of biblical greater Israel.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village


Contrasts Between Secular Universities, Charedi Yeshivas

Unlike virtually all of his other Jewish Journal screeds, Dennis Prager’s column (“Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas and Secular Universities,” Dec. 3) is only half wrong. Prager correctly condemns the Israeli government’s policy of paying 65 percent of Charedi Jewish men to study Torah, rather than work. However, he goes spectacularly off the rails with this non sequitur: “Most secular left professors and most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva scholars are mirror images of one another.”

After quickly glossing over the obvious distinction that college professors are paid to work while Charedi “scholars” are paid not to do so, Prager embarks upon an anti-intellectual and anti-academic jeremiad whose bottom line is that American universities are a secular left “cocoon.”

As a graduate of Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, I wonder if Prager had in mind one of my alma mater’s icons — Harry Victor Jaffa, who authored Barry Goldwater’s 1964 GOP nomination acceptance speech? Could he have forgotten Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago? What about the Hoover Institution at Stanford University? Or Brigham Young University? Bob Jones University? All hotbeds of secular liberalism?

Prager’s mantra is clear: I hate all liberals; facts, logic and reason be damned. How sad that The Jewish Journal wastes valuable trees to publish such drivel.

Douglas Mirell
Los Angeles

Dennis Prager’s column is right on — until he compares liberal arts professors with the Charedi in Israel. He claims professors in the liberal arts are geared “to produce a secular leftist.” His analysis of the Charedi’s impact in Israel is well founded, and eventually the government will have to make serious adjustments to avoid an economic burden that can overwhelm the country. The ultra-Orthodox here in North America are also facing a similar issue of having so many “Torah scholars” in their productive years draining social welfare funds from actual needy families — not those who choose to have a dozen children without a breadwinner.

Sol Taylor
Former professor of education,
Chapman College, 1971-1982
Sherman Oaks

Dennis Prager devotes much of the first part of his column “Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas and Secular Universities” (Dec. 3) passing along information written in a Wall Street Journal column by Evan R. Goldstein about ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) Jews in Israel who do not work but instead study the Torah while demanding increasing amounts of money from the taxes paid by Israelis who work for a living. This is like Prager getting paid by The Jewish Journal for this column by using the work of Goldstein. But then Prager compares these Israeli ultra-Orthodox men with the Western universities. Prager complains about the individuals who teach liberal arts while being paid from our taxes while only working a few hours a week and spending nearly their whole lives in a secular left cocoon, interacting almost only with people who live and think as they do.

As usual with Dennis Prager, he cites not one fact to back up his outrageous statements. He goes on with his rant of the “left” by saying these teachers devote their life to the study of increasingly irrelevant matters, with the results that lack wisdom and therefore too often produce nonsense, sometimes harmful nonsense.

I assume Mr. Prager concludes that conservative teachers never teach liberal arts. Prager should do at least a minimal amount of research before writing his columns. The dictionary defines liberal arts as “the studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.” It is apparent that Mr. Prager is saying that he and the conservative right have no interest in developing the capacities of reason and judgment.

Leon M. Salter
Los Angeles

Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas and secular universities


The Wall Street Journal recently published a column about ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) Jews in Israel who do not work for a living. Sixty-five percent of ultra-Orthodox men ages 35-54 do not go to work. Instead, they study Torah while demanding increasing amounts of money from the taxes paid by Israelis who work for a living.

The author of the column, Evan R. Goldstein, wrote: “Voluntary unemployment has become the dominant lifestyle choice for [Charedi] men. And even if there was a desire to work, [Charedi] schools leave students unprepared to function in a modern economy.”

If these data are correct, this is not only a problem for Israel, it is a problem for Judaism.

It is a problem for Israel for the same reason that able-bodied citizens receiving welfare has been a problem for America. It is economically unfeasible to support large numbers of nonworking citizens, and it is morally wrong for citizens who work and pay taxes to have their money forcibly taken from them (i.e., taxes) to pay to people who could work but who choose not to.

The reason for this problem in Israel is that in 1948 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion excused 400 yeshiva students from serving in the army, arguing that after the Holocaust it was critical for the Jewish state to support some of its citizens to concentrate on Torah study.

Few Jews, inside or outside of Israel, would oppose continuing this policy for a handful of scholars. But for hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Jews to demand to be supported — and protected — by other Jews (and, for that matter, the non-Jewish citizens of Israel as well) is entirely different.

It is also a problem for Judaism. It presents religious Jews, Torah and Judaism in a terrible light. Of course, most Orthodox Jews in Israel work as hard for a living as other Israeli citizens. But the largest group of Israelis that chooses not to work while demanding public funds to sustain them is the ultra-Orthodox, who also constitute an increasingly large percentage of the Israeli population.

As Goldstein notes in his article, the Shulchan Aruch, the Orthodox compendium of Jewish law, declares that “a respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”

Goldstein quotes Israeli Orthodox scholars who claim that there is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship, let alone getting paid to do so:

“ ‘Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,’ Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at [the Orthodox] Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is ‘diametrically opposed’ to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says.”

Goldstein cites an additional problem for Judaism in state-supported Torah study for vast numbers of men: He quotes professor Shlomo Naeh of the Jewish Studies Department of the Hebrew University, who says that it has harmed the quality of Jewish thought. Writes Goldstein: “Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut ‘learning off from life,’ he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars ‘is far from being one of the greatest … despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.’ ”

This “self-segregation” — these ultra-Orthodox men rarely interact with non-Orthodox Jews, let alone with non-Jews — has another negative consequence: These men gain and therefore impart little wisdom. One might say that insularity and wisdom are mutually exclusive.

The irony here is that a similar problem exists at Western universities. There, too, many individuals who teach in the liberal arts or “social sciences” live off public funds (they get paid to teach a few hours a week, but otherwise the parallel is apt), and spend nearly their whole life in a cocoon (a secular left one), interacting almost only with people who live and think as they do, just as the Charedim do.

Most secular left professors and most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva scholars are mirror images of one another: A life devoted to the study of increasingly irrelevant matters, with the result that both groups usually lack wisdom and therefore too often produce nonsense, sometimes harmful nonsense.

Both groups venerate brainpower and knowledge over wisdom and common sense. The fact that Jews are drawn to each of these lifestyles — that of the yeshiva scholar and secular professor — reflects a real problem in Jewish life, whether ultra-Orthodox or ultra-secular, namely, worship of the intellect.

I saw this at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva I attended and at the Ivy League university I attended. Men with fine brains and immense knowledge about narrow areas of life taught me little about real life.

The intellect cut off from the real world, whether in a Charedi yeshiva in Israel or at almost any modern Western university, is not good for society. The issue is not Charedim or professors per se. The issue is Charedim and professors who leave the world to live in yeshivas or academia their whole lives. Thus, ultra-Orthodox like Chabad and others who do not want their followers to spend their lives only studying, and professors in junior colleges, who often come from outside of academia or who combine outside work with teaching, are not the problem.

The lesson is that far more important in life than intellect are common sense, goodness and the wisdom produced by a life that comes into regular contact with the Other. The Other in the Charedi yeshiva world is the non-Orthodox Jew and the non-Jew; the Other at the university is a conservative Christian or a conservative, period.

There is, however, one important difference between ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and universities. Yeshivas are honest about their primary goal: to produce an Orthodox Jew. Universities never acknowledge their primary goal: to produce a secular leftist.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.

Israeli chief rabbi: give stipends to yeshiva and university students


An Israeli chief rabbi told university students that stipends for yeshiva students should also apply to them.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar met Thursday with leaders of the National Students Union at his office in Jerusalem to discuss an amendment to the state budget bill that includes stipends for married full-time yeshiva students. The meeting comes amid ongoing protests by university students against the yeshiva stipend.

The amendment to the budget granting the stipends comes after an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in June that said paying stipends to yeshiva students and not to university students constitutes discrimination. Amar reportedly asked the students to tone down their demonstrations, since he said they were perceived as being anti-haredi Orthodox.

Student Union Head Itzik Shmueli told reporters following the meeting that “we were pleased to find that the rabbi has an open door and an open ear to our problems.”

Shmueli also said that the student protest “is not against the haredim or the yeshiva students, it is merely in favor of equality and the greater incorporation of the religious public into the workforce.”

In addition to expressing agreement that university students should also receive government stipends, Amar reportedly also agreed that haredi Israelis should be integrated into the workforce.

Israeli students protest yeshiva stipend


Thousands of Israeli university students gathered in Jerusalem to protest a bill that would provide stipends to yeshiva students.

As many as 10,000 students from universities throughout the country arrived by chartered buses to the capital Monday evening for the protest march from the prime minister’s official residence to Zion Square.

The protesters carried signs reading “We’re not suckers” and “Haredim—go to work” and chanted slogans such as “Students are worth more” and “We’re hungry for bread, too.”

The demonstration was protesting Knesset approval of the first reading of the 2011-12 state budget, which includes stipends for married full-time yeshiva students.

The amendment to the budget granting the stipends, proposed by Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party, comes after an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in June that paying stipends to yeshiva students and not to university students constitutes discrimination.

Germany considering funding of Orthodox seminary


Germany’s Interior Ministry says it is considering options on funding an Orthodox rabbinical seminary.

Ministry spokesman Hendrik Lorges told JTA on Monday that the request for funding by the Rabbiner Seminar zu Berlin has been the subject of ongoing talks between his ministry and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Stephan Kramer, the council’s secretary general, confirmed that he had spoken with ministry officials.

The German government supports only the Reform seminary, the Abraham Geiger College, which on Thursday will hold its third ordination ceremony since its founding in 1999. Kramer urged a solution that would channel funds for both seminaries through the nonpartisan Jewish umbrella organization he directs.

“Then you will have a balance,” Kramer told JTA.

Geiger receives about $416,000 per year from the Interior Ministry, which also provides $695,000 annually to the College for Jewish Studies at the University of Heidelberg “with the goal of training Orthodox rabbis,” Lorges said. Heidelberg, however, does not ordain rabbis.

Rabbi Josh Spinner, director of the Orthodox seminary, as well as the vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, told JTA that he only wants funding equal to what the Reform institution receives. The amount would cover about half the annual budget of the Rabbiner Seminar, which like Geiger also receives funding from the Central Council.

Since its official incorporation in 2009, the Rabbiner Seminar zu Berlin has ordained four rabbis. Three serve German Jewish communities; the fourth is director of Jewish studies at a school in Vienna, Austria.

The Orthodox seminary, which has been frustrated in its bid for government funding, is the successor to the Hildesheimer seminary that was shut down by the Nazis in 1938.

Spinner stressed that both the Reform and Orthodox seminaries “are successors to the two prewar legendary rabbinical seminaries in Berlin that were closed by the Nazis” and “both deserve funding.”

Approximately 50 pulpit rabbis are serving about 100 Jewish communities in Germany.