July 18, 2019

Letters to the Editor: A Call for Jewish Unity,  Outrage Over Lecture, Zaglembie Memorial

A Call for Jewish Unity
As a people, we Jews are not unified. Politically, we’re divided into two camps, with roughly 70% liberal and 30% conservative. In general, liberals detest President Donald Trump and conservatives admire him. These differences broadly follow along the lines of religious observance, with Reform or secular Jews more liberal and Orthodox Jews more conservative. Both sides have lost respect for each other and rarely engage in meaningful dialogue. This has led to a fractured Jewish community in which we are more like rivals than brothers and sisters. 

According to Torah, we are all one family, descendants of our forefather Jacob. We are to love and care for one another regardless of our differences. We know from history that HaShem (God) will leave our midst if we dismiss his commandments and show animosity toward our fellow Jews. This occurred before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. 

As HaShem’s Chosen People, we must set aside our differences, engage in civil discourse and demonstrate goodwill toward one another. The adage “united we stand, divided we fall” is as true today as ever before. Our love and respect for one another will usher in a time of blessing for all Jews and make us far less vulnerable to outside threats and intimidation. 

To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “… remember God chose us as a people and it is as a people that we come before God and before the world. The Sages said …, ‘Great is peace, because even if Israel is worshipping idols and there is peace among them, God will never allow harm to happen to them.’ Go think about that.” The time for Jewish unity is now.
Michael S. Ginsburg, via email

Outrage Over Lecture
What is wrong with the administration of UCLA that allows an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel professor from San Francisco State University, who is Arab and Muslim, rant in front of an anthropology class? (UCLA Guest Lecturer Calls Zionists White Supremacists,” May 24). Rabab Abdulhadi called Zionists and pro-Israel students and Jewish students “white supremacists.”

There is nothing wrong with offering a different viewpoint regarding the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. However, in a classroom in front of an anthropology class to viciously attack groups of people with virulent hatred is not educational.

UCLA should let this miscreant pay for her own bus ticket back to San Francisco.
Richard N. Friedman, via email

Zaglembie Memorial
Thank you for your article about the Zaglembie memorial (“Honoring the Zaglembie Memorial in Mevo Modi’im,” May 31). When my cousin Avraham Green founded the World Zaglembie Organization to memorialize the Zaglembie Jewish communities, he wisely determined to minimize the use of metal, wood and paper products at their sites. This will facilitate the rehabilitation of the memorial in Israel, even after the terrible fires.

The organization also erected stone memorials at the sites of all the ghettos and Jewish cemeteries in Zaglembie as well as other Jewish sites. They are in good condition, and their information is easily read. In other areas in Poland, such as at the Gliwice concentration camp, brass engravings used to mark such sites have been stolen and not replaced.
Norman H. Green, Los Angeles

Story Clarifications
I read in your story on Hershey Felder’s Claude Debussy show that the Nazi regime banned Debussy’s compositions from being performed (“Felder Channels Debussy in New One-Man Show,” May 24).

I was skeptical of this as Debussy is considered to be one of France’s greatest composers (along with Hector Berlioz). I checked the performance history of Debussy’s only opera, “Pelléas et Mélisande.” I saw that in 1942, under German occupation, there was a revival with a new production of “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Undoubtedly German soldiers and officials would have had the opportunity to attend performances of “Pelléas.” This revival was successful and “Pelléas et Mélisande” remains in the repertory. LA Opera will do it again next season in a new production.

On to another matter. I am an admirer of the late Herman Wouk, who was blessed to have a long and productive life. May the author of “This Is My God,” “The Caine Mutiny,” and “War and Remembrance” and others, rest in peace.

However, it was incorrect in the Journal’s obituary to state that Wouk was survived by two sons. One son is a transgender woman by the name of Iolanthe Woulff, who is a writer. She ought not to be cast in any kind of shadows, especially upon the death of her father.
Murray Aronson, West Hollywood

‘Self-Hating Jews’ and Anti-Semitism
A couple of months ago, I read an article in a Jewish publication by someone who complained that they really resented being labeled “a self-hating Jew” just because they had written articles critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians. I was drawn to the article because I, too, am critical of Jews who publicly criticize Israel and its issues with Palestinians.

To my surprise, I found the article and its author’s rationale to be quite compelling. Specifically, the writer disputed the “self-hating Jew” label by explaining, despite their public criticism of Israel, they observed the Sabbath, kept kosher, attended shul on a relatively regular basis, and sent their kids to Jewish day schools. I also agreed with the author that perhaps the “self-hating Jew” label was an inaccurate description of the writer and other Jews that publicly criticize Israel and its interactions with the Palestinians.

Yet, I was troubled because I still strongly felt that Jews who publicly deride Israel’s dealings with Palestinians do great damage to other Jews in their community and worldwide.  Intellectually, I needed another label for Jews who are not literally self-hating but contribute to others’ open disdain for Israel, Zionism and Jews in general.  And then it hit me. Those Jews who join with non-Jews in their public criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians are perhaps, not “self-hating Jews” but, despite their good intentions, may actually be enablers of anti-Semitism.
Stu Bernstein, Santa Monica

A Poem for Our Times
This poem was written during a long discussion at a Temple Adat Elohim board of directors meeting in the Conejo Valley. I know that many congregations are dealing with the same issues.
Creating Safety
by Suzanne Gallant

A very long meeting
Lots of voices raised
Lots of worries expressed
Lots of concern on faces
Just because,
Because hate is reigning
Because our culture today
Encourages, aids and abets
Haters, anti-Semites, racists.
Have created a culture
That encourages acts of violence.
A culture that permits crazy
Haters to buy automatic weapons
And lots of ammunition
Which they turn into mass murder.
In our synagogue fear reigns.
This meeting to discuss security.
So much money is needed.
So much fear engendered
We must fortify ourselves
To make our congregants safe.
What has our world come to,
That makes us afraid?
What can we do,
To turn this around
And make everyone safe?
What can we do?
Each and every one of us,
To change this culture
To make our communities,
Our States and our Country
Live together in unity?


Now it’s your turn. Submit your letter to the editor. Letters should be no more than
200 words and must include a valid name and city. The Journal reserves the right to edit all letters. letters@jewishjournal.com.

The Eventual Honeymoon

Pexels

Being an observant Jew in Los Angeles is great, if you can afford it. So after my wife, Chanie, and I were married, the starting gun went off and the race was on. We had a future to prepare for, and that future included children, tuition, a house — there was no time for a honeymoon. The idea of a “newlywed” vacation was tabled for another day.
Sixteen years and six kids later, and I am now the director of Jews for Judaism, a job that requires me to visit Jewish communities worldwide. Chanie is a full-time teacher. So between my busy itinerary and my wife’s demanding schedule, our dream getaway was going nowhere.

But then I received a call from Rabbi Shneur Hecht, inviting Chanie and me to their upcoming Shabbat 180, a program intended to deepen community ties, where I would have the honor of visiting as their guest speaker.

Hecht and his wife, Mushkie, are emissaries of Chabad of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, where they oversee a successful Jewish community center, featuring a synagogue and religious day school. They also run Vallarta Kosher, a full-service restaurant that offers kosher food to Jewish locals and tourists. As their guest, I would have the opportunity to spend the weekend speaking to fellow Jews in one of the most beautiful locations in all of  Mexico  and my wife would be joining me. The offer was irresistible.

We landed safely in Puerto Vallarta, and as any red-blooded Orthodox Jew will tell you, there’s nothing like a hot, kosher meal after a long flight, which is exactly what was waiting for us at the hotel, compliments of the Hechts. Chanie and I enjoyed a relaxing lunch together — just the two of us.

That evening, we walked the boardwalk and joined Shneur Hecht at the local farmers market. Each week, Mushkie Hecht bakes hundreds of challahs in preparation for Shabbat, and sets aside a large number of them for her and her husband to sell at the busy outdoor mall. I was amazed at how many Jewish community members came out to buy the homemade loaves.

The rabbi explained that aside from its many tourists, Puerto Vallarta has about 250 Jewish residents and snowbirds, and most of them grew up with almost no connection to Judaism. That being said, they were inspired to move to Mexico by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who always stressed that the act of inspiring one person is akin to saving the entire world. The Hechts believe and live by the rebbe’s words.

“Before the Hechts arrived, there was practically no organized Jewish life in the entire area.”

Friday came, and Chanie and I spent most of the day preparing for my presentation. Shneur Hecht had rented space at a hotel, anticipating a bigger crowd than usual. Meanwhile, I was wondering how many people would even attend. Sure, many people turn out for challah but will they show up for my lecture on “Cults and the Power of Persuasion”? 

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised.

We arrived to find the hotel lobby packed with Jewish locals. Women lit candles, Shabbat services followed, and dinner was served. I shared my presentation, and a large portion of the audience remained for an impassioned discussion. The atmosphere was harmonious and lively, and Saturday was equally as meaningful. 

One community member told me that before the Hechts arrived, there was practically no organized Jewish life in the entire area. Synagogues were nonexistent, and only a few Jewish residents would gather on Passover to perform a seder. 

The Hechts changed everything, and they did it together. 

On Sunday, Chanie and I toured the area as a couple. We agreed that it was our time to focus on each other, and the busy world would just have to wait. The rabbi and rebbitzen reminded us that success within the home is vital to success outside the home.

This was the honeymoon we should’ve taken long ago, and we look forward to our next one.


Rabbi Zalman Kravitz is the director of Jews for Judaism and host of #SMARTalks, a weekly webcast that strives to develop young leaders.

Israeli Chief Rabbinate Releases Standards for Recognizing Orthodox Converts

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate released their standards on Nov. 27 for recognizing those that have undergone a conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the rabbinate’s criteria states that they will only recognize rabbinical courts that consist of three judges and convene on a regular basis. Rabbinical judges in courts that do not meet that criteria will have to undergo tests in Israel from the Chief Rabbinate for recognition.

Even if the rabbinical judges pass those tests, the Chief Rabbinate has to conclude that they liked the “impression” given by the judges to receive recognition.

The Times of Israel reports that under those standards, the rabbinate approved 70 Orthodox courts and 80 rabbinical judges; however, the Post notes that thousands of Orthodox-Jews –by-choice in the Diaspora would not be recognized under those standards because most Diaspora rabbinical courts do not convene on a regular basis.

The Chief Rabbinate’s criteria was made public after ITIM, a nonprofit that helps Jews with Israel’s religious bureaucracy, pressured the Rabbinate for years to do so.

“I am proud that ITIM’s steadfast public policy and legal work over the past six years has made the workings of the Chief Rabbinate more transparent,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, told the Times of Israel. “This is the first step in improving relations between Israel and rest of the Jewish world.”

Jews, Is Trump Responsible for Thousand Oaks Too?

Demonstrators at Chicago’s O’Hare airport protesting Donald Trump’s executive order on Jan. 29. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

(Looking at the outcome of a JStreet survey of Jewish voters)

 

I am not much impressed by the fact that J Street – the leftist Jewish lobby – endorsed so many candidates who made it into Congress. Supporting “128 winning candidates” is not that difficult when one knows well in advance that a Democratic victory is to be expected. However, I am impressed by something else: that so many Democratic candidates embrace the support of J Street. Ten years ago, some of them would hesitate, fearing to be tagged as not-pro-Israel-enough. That they no longer hesitate means that A. J Street succeeded in legitimizing its politics and B. that the Democratic Party is indeed changing its tune on Israel (in my view, not for the better).

Following the midterm election, J Street released its midterm survey of Jewish voters, a commendable exercise conducted after every election. This is a useful tool for understanding Jewish sentiments and political tendencies. Crosstabs are also available for everybody to look at.

The two main headlines produced by this survey were essentially:

Most Jews voted Democratic. No big deal.

Most Jews partially blame Trump for Pittsburgh. A very big deal.

 

A.

 

The wording of the question sets a premise: “How much do you think Donald Trump’s comments and policies are responsible for the recent shooting that took place at the synagogue in Pittsburgh?” So – the question hints that there is responsibility that needs to be measured. Still, respondents could choose “not at all responsible” – and only 16% of them did. They could choose “not really responsible” and only 12% of them did. 72% picked “somewhat” (33%) or “very” (39%) responsible.

The implications of such assessments are profound. Most Jews in America believe that their president is partially responsible for the massacre of Jews in a synagogue. In my weekly print-edition article I explain what this means for Israel-Diaspora relations:

“American Jews feel that Israel is willing to throw them under the bus of anti-Semitism in exchange for the temporary political support of a bigoted president. Israeli Jews feel that American Jews are utilizing a tragedy for political purposes and thus alienating Israel’s strongest supporters in the United States.”

With 72% of US Jews thinking Trump has responsibility for Pittsburgh – with a majority of Israelis considering Trump a true friend – no wonder that we look at each other with horror.

 

B.

 

I wonder what would happen had we asked Jews a similar question about this week’s shooting:

“How much do you think Donald Trump’s comments and policies are responsible for the recent shooting that took place at the bar in Thousand Oaks?”

And then let’s try this one:

“How much do you think Donald Trump’s comments and policies are responsible for the recent shooting that took place in a San Bernardino Christmas Party?”

Oh, he was not yet president at the time of San Bernardino? Sorry, erase that question.

 

C.

 

Amid the recurrent talk about a present danger of distancing, it is worth looking at the J Street question about emotional attachment to Israel for Jewish voters. So as not to stay in the dark, I decided to compare J Street 2018 to the Pew survey of Jews from 2013. The question is the same, the answer is, well, almost the same. And just to make sure you understand what we see here: there is no sign of significant decline in the emotional attachment of US Jews to Israel.

 

 

Want more of this good news? J Street inserted the following question to the survey: “Compared to 5-10 years ago, do you feel more positive, more negative, or about the same toward Israel?” The answer, all in all, is encouraging. There are more Jews who feel more positive about Israel, than Jews who feel more negative about Israel. And this is not me saying. It is J Street, for which the argument of distancing is a frequently used tool.

 


D.

 

The survey has many questions about the two-state solution – J Street’s raison-d’etre. The bottom line: US Jews support this solution. So why do I choose not to elaborate on these many questions? Two reasons. One, because there is nothing new, or counterintuitive to report. Two, because the proposed “solution” is currently unavailable and hence it does not much matter if US Jews do or do not support it.

Take just this one example. In the J Street survey, the premise for future agreement is that “the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and Israel recognizes the Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people”. Is there a Palestinian leader that’s willing to recognize Israel “as the nation-state of the Jewish people?” The answer is no. Not one with which Israel can negotiate. So, the premise is false, and hence the result insignificant (23% strongly support, 54% somewhat support).

E.

 

US Jews also support the nuclear deal with Iran (71% in this survey). They oppose settlements. They oppose Israel’s Orthodox domination. We know all of this.

But apropos Orthodox domination: It is quite striking to see that appreciation of US Jews for PM Netanyahu – the man who cancelled the Western Wall deal – is almost identical among Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews (53% and 48%). Appreciation of the Israeli PM has to do much more with political affiliation (Clinton voters vs. Trump voters) than with religious affiliation (Reform vs. Orthodox). The only religiously-defined group that stands out in its unappreciation of Netanyahu is the unaffiliated.

 

F.

 

The unaffiliated are also the least attached to Israel. So disliking Netanyahu goes hand in hand with not feeling much towards Israel, which goes hand in hand with not having connection with Jewish life.

Still, a notable difference in strong attachment to Israel (very attached) can be found when we look at Reform vs. Orthodox Jews (33%-52%) and synagogue attendance or lack of it (59%-20%).

In the next J Street survey, it’d be interesting to analyze how J Street supporters fall into these categories.

 

G.

Health care and gun violence were the top issues for Jews as they headed to the polls. The Jews voted as they usually do, only a little more so. In a GOP wave in 2010, less Jews voted Democratic, in a Democratic wave in 2018, more Jews voted Democratic.

 

 

And if you want to know why Jews were more Democratic this time, don’t look to the most progressive group. They voted Democratic when the country turned rightward and voted Democratic again this time. It is the more conservative Jews – Conservatives and Orthodox – who changed their vote this time and moved to the left.

 

 

H.

 

My understanding of the Orthodox vote in this election? In presidential elections, Israel is more at the forefront – and Trump will benefit due to his favorable-to-Israel policies. In midterm elections, domestic issues (and maybe the echo of Pittsburgh) take precedent, and hence more Orthodox voters decided to go with the Democratic Party.

 

Divided-Israel Drama ‘Autonomies’ Possibly Headed to U.S.

The divide between secular and Orthodox Jews in Israel is taken to the next level in the Israeli drama series “Autonomies,” now being shopped in the international marketplace by its distributor, Keshet International.

In the series, which premiered in Israel in September, the Orthodox have seceded from secular Israel and have created a separate nation, The Autonomy. At the center of the story is a contentious custody battle over a child by adults on opposite sides of the wall. The show was described in the Israeli press as “Ultra-Orthodox society meets ‘Black Mirror,’” and “an original, impressive and fascinating dystopian drama.”

“The show really moves between the micro and the macro, and that’s what I like about it,” said Keshet International’s Keren Shahar. “It can resonate with audiences around the world, both as it is and as an adaptation, and you can really apply it to the most burning [societal] issues in almost any territory.”

In addition to selling the original to an American outlet, Keshet is working on an English adaptation of the show that would present a United States divided along red and blue state lines.

A Skeptic Meets Her Faith

Sensational, poignant stories about ultra-Orthodox Jews leaving behind their communities are in style right now.

The new Netflix documentary “One of Us” examines three ex-Chasidic Jews trying to find their way in the secular world. In 2015, Shulem Deen’s “All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir” received media attention from Jewish and secular outlets. And this past March, The New York Times published a story headlined “The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life.”

But there aren’t so many tales about people having positive experiences in the religious Jewish community. Author Judy Gruen aspires to help change that with her new book, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press, $16.95).

Gruen, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Pico-Robertson, was raised in a non-observant home in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until she met her husband, Jeff Gruen, in the 1980s and started attending the Pacific Jewish Center (PJC), also known as the Shul on the Beach, that she became a ba’al teshuvah. “The Skeptic and the Rabbi” is all about Gruen’s roller coaster of a journey toward Orthodoxy, and her eventual decision to become observant.

“My goal for the book was to dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions about what it’s like to live an Orthodox life,” Gruen, 57, said. “Even the word ‘Orthodox’ is a problematic one. Are the ‘Orthodox’ the Charedim? … [Are they] women who wear pants and don’t cover their hair but go to a Modern Orthodox synagogue? It’s a huge umbrella term.”

“Frankly, I was just afraid of what my exposure to Orthodox teachings might lead to.” — Judy Gruen

Gruen was exposed to some cultural and religious aspects of Judaism as a child; her grandparents were stringent about rituals. But she truly didn’t experience Orthodoxy until adulthood. “I carried a lot of myths about what my Orthodox life would look like,” she said. “Was I wrong about everything? No. But I was wrong about most things.

“My biggest fears were that there would be a stifling uniformity to the people I met, which was not at all true,” she continued. “The PJC community in Venice in those days included artists, actors, writers, lawyers, psychologists, the whole gamut. While you could, of course, find some ‘group think,’ you also find group think in any group.

“I just want to create a little more understanding,” she said of her memoir.

The book covers Gruen’s childhood, her college days, and her courtship and eventual marriage to Jeff, as well as all the messy situations, reluctant thoughts and confusing questions she had along the way to becoming observant. She attempts to explain her new lifestyle to her family and friends while straddling the secular and religious worlds.

Unlike other religious articles and books, which might skip over the more challenging aspects of faith, Gruen doesn’t spare any details in “The Skeptic and the Rabbi.” Early on, she worried that because her rabbi “was Orthodox and South African, he would be both sexist and perhaps racist. I had zero exposure to Orthodox teachers and had intuited, unfairly, many stereotypes about all things Orthodox. Frankly, I was just afraid of what my exposure to Orthodox teachings might lead to.”

She also highlights an incident where she accidentally served a Shabbat guest something nonkosher.

“The book is “not sugar-coated,” Gruen said. “I talk about what I didn’t understand, and about what’s hard.”

Ultimately, Orthodoxy started to make sense to Gruen. She enjoyed Shabbat, saw how the religion solidified her relationship with her husband and felt her soul awakening through practice.

Gruen, a mother of four, a grandmother of three and a member of The Community Shul (formerly Aish HaTorah), has contributed to publications including the Journal and The Wall Street Journal.

She’s authored humor books such as “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement” and “Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping.” “The Skeptic and the Rabbi” will be translated into Spanish and is up for a Sophie Brody Award for outstanding Jewish literature.

Although the book has received mostly positive responses within the Orthodox community, Gruen wrote it for anyone trying to connect to a higher purpose. She said she once received a Facebook message from a first-generation, Indian-American man who found the book inspiring on his own path.

“That was very meaningful to me,” she said. “I want people to feel empowered in their journeys to faith, whatever they are.”

DeVos praises Orthodox schools as model after meeting Agudah leaders

Leaders of Agudath Israel of America meet at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, March 8. Photo by Shmuel and Dov Lenchevsky.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Orthodox Jewish schools as a model for publicly funded education.

“I applaud Agudath Israel for their leadership and commitment to providing their community with access to educational options that meet the academic and religious needs of their families,” she said Wednesday after meeting with leaders of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America at the Department of Education in Washington.

“I look forward to continuing to work with Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Jewish community and all who believe that every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education,” she said.

As a philanthropist who backed public funding for private education, DeVos had worked closely for years with Agudah and other Orthodox Jewish groups.

Secular and more liberal Jewish streams oppose programs like vouchers for private schools, in part to protect church-state separation, and because they argue that it diminishes funding and resources for public schools.

The complex, secret path to becoming an Orthodox Jew

Nicole, the American woman at the center of a crisis of faith in Israel’s highest religious authority, is now a Jew twice over.

Her mother is not Jewish, but the woman — who has appeared in the press and court documents only by that name — told The Times of Israel she grew up attending Chabad and considering herself a Jew, like her father. 

She knew, though, that when she wanted to marry her Israeli-born fiancé, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the body in charge of marriage, divorce and conversion there, would not consider her Jewish, so she converted to Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a Manhattan rabbi who commands the respect of the Modern Orthodox movement. 

Then, last month, Nicole was told by the Supreme Rabbinic Court of Israel that her May 2015 conversion by Lookstein was not valid, a decision that shocked the Jewish world. In order to marry, she underwent another conversion, this one abridged, in Israel.

The proxy battle for Nicole’s Jewish soul has been a damaging one for the Rabbinate, revealing that only three rabbis in California and 29 in the United States appear eligible to perform conversions that will be valid in Israel. What’s more, conversions even by those rabbis are not assured, depending on whether their names are on a secret list that may or may not exist.

There’s also a celebrity connection: Lookstein also converted Ivanka Trump, the daughter of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and currently, perhaps, the country’s most famous Jew by Choice.

“[Nicole] was humiliated, but she’s able to get married,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, the Jerusalem-based religious freedom organization that represented Nicole before the Rabbinate. “She got where she needed to be.”

However, the slight to a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi by Israel’s highest rabbinical authority has shaken the Diaspora’s trust in the Rabbinate to rule on some of Judaism’s deepest questions, like who is a Jew, and who gets to decide who is a Jew.

Nicole’s struggle with the Rabbinate was extreme but not unprecedented. Many Orthodox Jews by choice, including some in Los Angeles, have similar tales of confusion and frayed nerves.

American immigrant Nicole and her Israeli fiancé, Zohar. Engaged in April 2016, their marriage was put on hold until the Israeli rabbinate accepted Nicole’s U.S. Orthodox conversion.

Esther lives in the Pico-Robertson area with her Israeli-born husband and three children. She wears long skirts, speaks fluent Hebrew and has mastered the use of a fedora as a head covering when she goes to synagogue.

But in 2005, she was a prospective convert looking for answers. She and her husband, whom she’d already legally married, had been sleeping for months in separate bedrooms of their West Hollywood apartment. A rotating shomer, or guard, drawn from among a group of friends who volunteered to sleep on their couch, made sure they adhered to the separation mandated by the strict process of Orthodox conversion.

At some point, it began to dawn on the couple that to get a marriage certificate in Israel — which is what they wanted — the rabbi supervising Esther’s conversion, Zvi Block of Beis Midrash Toras HaShem, might not cut it for the Rabbinate, whose standards they were having trouble discerning.

They’d heard of other rabbis who claimed they could vouch for her Jewish status, but weren’t sure who to trust.

“There was a lot of weird alternatives that we could have gone through,” Esther, who also asked that her real name not be used to protect her privacy, told the Journal. “But it just didn’t sound right, and it didn’t sound legit. We wanted to make sure the way that we did it is totally legit, because it’s going to affect our kids. I want my kids to be able to marry whoever they want to marry.”

After she immersed herself in the mikveh, or ritual bath, she considered herself a Jew and thus bound by the modesty code of shomer negiah not to touch any man who was not her husband by Jewish law — including the man to whom she was civilly married.

“All of a sudden, that momentum crashed to a halt,” she said of the spiritual journey that had been accelerating through the process of finding a congregation and adopting Jewish customs.

She and her husband had arrived at a frustrating sort of nuptial limbo: They wanted badly to marry under Jewish law in Israel, but couldn’t get a clear answer on whether their conversion would be accepted. But as it happened, a cousin of her husband’s friend worked in a regional branch of the Rabbinate and was able to help. 

He faxed them a list of names in Hebrew and English. He told them the list was a secret, for their eyes only, and if anybody asked, it didn’t come from him.

“ ‘Nobody knows this, but this is a list of the rabbis the Rabbinate recognizes to do conversion in the United States,’ ” Esther said the bureaucrat told them.

Sitting at her dining room table with a blue folder in front of her that contains documents related to her conversion, Esther pulled out four pages she said the man faxed her with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of a list of U.S. rabbis.

Their suspicions were confirmed: Block, their L.A. rabbi, was not on the list. 

A few months later, Esther and her husband were on a plane to Monsey, a hamlet in upstate New York with a large Chasidic population, where a local rabbinical court performed her conversion. Shortly after, the two were married in Israel.

Whether or not such a list even exists is a topic for debate. The Rabbinate has flip-flopped on its existence, a crucial point in an ongoing courtroom drama with ITIM: The nonprofit sued the rabbinate in an attempt to compel it to release a list of rabbis approved to perform conversions abroad.

Block, for one, said he’s gotten conflicting messages from Rabbinate officials on whether a list exists, and whether he’s on it if it does.

“ ‘Yes, you’re accepted; no, you’re not accepted. Do this, do that,’ ” he said on the phone with the Journal, imitating the rabbinic functionaries he’s spoken with over the years.

Block said he insists on strict observance among the converts he tutors. But he sees the Rabbinate as approving people based on “political considerations” rather than religious ones.

“To be perfectly honest, I think the Rabbinate is a tragedy,” Block said.

Nevertheless, he said, “I know enough people inside the infrastructure to get anybody I convert accepted. They don’t like me because I do that, but I’m committed to the people that I work with.”

ITIM’s lawsuit, which Farber said has “not reached the endpoint,” hopes to reveal who’s on the roster of rabbis outside Israel whom the Rabbinate finds acceptable, thereby removing the guesswork for converts.

The Rabbinate has responded to the suit by claiming no such list exists.

“Rabbis are not approved; rather, cases are approved,” the Rabbinate attorneys argued in Jerusalem District Court, The Times of Israel reported. “Personal status requests have been approved based on all the circumstances in the case, not necessarily based on the rabbi’s identity. And at present, there is no list of approved or recognized rabbis.”

In January, the court ordered the Rabbinate to release a list of rabbis whose conversions have been accepted in the previous six months. The list, published some three months ago, included only three rabbis in California — Avrohom Union, Shmuel Ohana and Avraham Teichman — all of them in Los Angeles.

The list also came with a waiver, Farber said: “ ‘Just because we approved them in the past doesn’t mean we’re going to approve them in the future.’ ” 

Despite the revelation, the Rabbinate walked away effectively denying the existence of a second, master list.

But when Nicole’s case came before the Supreme Rabbinic Court on July 13, Farber said he was shocked to learn that their reason for rejecting her conversion was because Lookstein is not on a list of approved rabbis.

“We’ve been in court a year and a half and they claim there is no list,” he said, his voice rising over the phone from Israel. “Now you’re saying Lookstein is not on the list. … You must be joking!”

The decision to repudiate Nicole’s conversion raised condemnation from Diaspora leaders, such as Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who saw it as an insult to religious leaders outside the Jewish state. 

The idea of certifying individual rabbis from an office in Jerusalem to perform conversions is a prickly one for some observers. 

“Once you’re imposing a list upon the entire Jewish people and the entire State of Israel — there’s no halachic [Jewish law] basis for that, and it’s really an innovation, a very destructive innovation,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a leader of the open Orthodox movement in Scottsdale, Ariz., who converted twice, once with a liberal rabbi and then again as an Orthodox Jew.

Yanklowitz said he has had his identity as a Jew challenged on several occasions, a singularly wounding experience. By allowing converts to be humiliated at the highest reaches of the Jewish law courts, he said, the Rabbinate alienates the Diaspora and creates a less inclusive Judaism.

“There’s a prohibition in the Torah to [not] oppress or shame converts, and I think that we’re violating that,” Yanklowitz said.

Farber suggested the Rabbinate could demystify the process by [collaboratively] identifying certain Orthodox institutions — the Orthodox Union (OU) or the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), for instance — whose members would automatically be able to vouch for a person’s Jewishness before the Rabbinate’s marriage registrars. 

The problem, he said, is that a system is only as good as the rabbinate that enforces it. 

The Chief Rabbis’ office vouched for Lookstein to the Petah Tikva beit din, or Jewish law court, where Nicole initially sought to have her conversion approved, but the local court effectively ignored them. 

When her case came before the high religious court, the two Chief Rabbis — one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardic — could have assigned themselves to the three-person bench reviewing the case, but they didn’t. 

The Chief Rabbinate didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on this story.

In practice, the Rabbinate entrusts the RCA with some authority on the conversion process in the United States. Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, director of the RCA’s Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) program, is on the list published by ITIM.

So is Union, who runs the beit din of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), an RCA affiliate.

Asked if he was aware of such a list, Union said in an email that not only does he know of it, but has long been a member in good standing.

“The list is not new,” he wrote. “We have been on it since 1989, when our beit din was organized.  What’s new is that Rabbi Farber is publishing it (not that there is anything wrong with that). In the past it was an internal list used by the batei din in Israel for guidance, since they obviously know very few of the rabbis outside of Israel.”

The RCC’s status applies to only the court it runs, which consists of Jewish law experts, and not to all of its member rabbis, he wrote.

“Rabbis who are members of the RCC cannot perform conversions or gittin [divorces] … Private Giyur [conversion] etc. is neither authorized nor accepted,” he wrote.

Shmuel Ohana is an RCA member but performs conversions on his own authority, through Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, a Sephardic congregation in Valley Village. Ohana’s name is also on the list.

He told the Journal he has close ties with the Rabbinate, in particular with Itamar Tubul — the functionary who corresponds with local marriage registrars about which rabbis are of good standing, and who plays a part in the ITIM suit.

“My conversions for the last 10 or more years have been accepted in Israel with no questions,” Ohana said.

He believes the Rabbinate accepts his conversions because of the rigorous process he adheres to. He said he asks each convert to “sign a paper on the oath of the Torah and on their conscience that they are going to raise their children as Jewish children, keeping all the commandments of the Torah, kashrut, Shabbat, etc.”

Yet Block, the rabbi who performed Esther’s conversion, said there are names on ITIM’s list whom he believes are less strict in their conversions than he is.

“I guarantee you: Anyone that converts with me is keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat and practicing family purity to the best of my knowledge,” he said. “That’s what we require from them.”

He suggested the Rabbinate solve its present confusion by crafting a set of universal standards for Orthodox conversion.

“Here’s what you’ve got to do,” he said. “Send out those standards to every beit din operating in America. Everybody that agrees with them is on your list.” 

At Jerusalem Pride March, Orthodox welcome

It had been a rough week or so for Israel’s LGBT community.

The mayor of Jerusalem opted not to attend the capital’s pride march so as not to offend haredi Orthodox and religious Zionist residents.

His decision came on the heels of 300 leading religious Zionist rabbis backed a prominent colleague, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who called LGBT people “deviant.”

Beersheba police banned a planned pride march from the southern city’s main street over security concerns, after the city’s chief rabbi criticized the event.

And the jailed haredi Orthodox man who murdered 16-year-old Shira Banki during a stabbing rampage at last year’s pride march in Jerusalem and his brother were charged with planning another attack this year.

Still, the vibe at the Jerusalem Pride March Thursday, attended by an estimated record-breaking 25,000 people, was cautiously optimistic. There was widespread agreement among participants that, despite setbacks, Israel is getting more LGBT-friendly.

Yuval Regev, a 22-year old who works in digital media in Tel Aviv, posed for photographs with friends in a homemade mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s face.

“We want Bibi to be here with us, and he’s not. So we brought him over,” he explained, as he waited to be screened by police before the march.

“But from right to left on the political spectrum, it’s positive that we’re hearing support,” he said. “It’s better to be gay in Israel in 2016 than it was in 2006. And it’s still getting better. It would just be false to say that because we’re going down the nationalistic path, we’re going down the homophobic path.”

Regev cited the election of Amir Ohana, the first openly gay Knesset member from the right-wing Likud party, as evidence of the emerging pro-LGBT consensus in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu was among the ministers who condemned anti-LGBT remarks by Rabbi Levinstein. The prime minister posted a Hebrew-language video to Facebook Thursday calling the Jerusalem event a “march of unity” for all those who believe in equality. After facing criticism, Barkat on Wednesday defended his decision to skip the march, telling Channel 2: “I am a partner to the aim of achieving more tolerance, but not every means brings you to that target.”

Like Regev, Tom Canning, the associate director of the Jerusalem Open House — the LGBT group behind the Jerusalem Pride March — saw marked progress in Israel, along with room for improvement.

“I’m happy that at least at the highest levels of government, they’re not letting what’s happening go quietly, and Nir Barkat has been widely condemned. He’s one of the fewer leaders in Israel who doesn’t support Jerusalem Pride,” he said.

“It’s clear that most of the homophobia is within Orthodox communities. But ultra-Orthodox communities have never been our enemy and we will be continuing to work in our ways, quietly and behind the scenes, to create tolerance wherever homophobia remains.”

Noa Eshel, a 24-year-old student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was marching with a group of dozens of LGBT activists from Beersheba. Organizers there called off the Beersheba march in favor of a protest at the city council after the High Court of Justice allowed police to reroute it. A former student in a mixed religious-secular preparatory course for the Israel Defense Forces, she said she and her friends agreed on the need for more dialogue, and less condemnation.

“I know a lot of rabbis who are going to be here,” she said.

Emanuel Miller, a 29-year-old British Orthodox Jew who works at an NGO in Jerusalem and prays three time a day, stood in the middle of the march wearing signs on his front and back.

The front sign read: “Hatred is my enemy. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.” The back sign: “Love and let love. Religious, straight, and I love all of you.”

“I think it’s essential when people are scared and feel vilified, for the people who are vilifying them to come out and show them that yes, we recognize that you’re human beings,” he said. “Religion can be used as a tool for good or bad. … There are rabbis who have come out and said wonderful things.”

While most of the march was relatively subdued, lacking the hundreds of thousands of revelers, floats and half-naked men Tel Aviv Pride is famous for, a rowdy wedding party made its way down the street, with the grooms, Jerusalemites Yochai Werman and Yotam Hacohen, dancing under a mobile huppah.

Gabi Gabai, 45, an Orthodox educator from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, stopped at a memorial to Banki along the march’s route. He was with his wife and six children.

“This is my first time [at a pride event], just because of the murder and because of all the bad voices. I wanted to tell my kids that you can think differently,” he said. “There are a lot of people here with a kippah, without a kippah. I don’t think this is a big issue now. This is a matter for all the country. It’s not just for the gay community.”

Despite the positivity among marchers, the 2,000 police deployed along the fenced-off route were a reminder that not everyone in the city felt the same way. Police arrested 48 people suspected of trying to disrupt the march.

Banki’s parents had urged the public to attend the march this year, and her father addressed marchers at the end of the route Thursday evening, saying: “The lesson we have to learn from Shira’s murder is that moderation is a virtue for all of us, and that radicalization of any kind is a sure path to destruction.”

Liron Shimonie, a 31-year-old stylist with two gay sisters, said she and many of her friends were at the march to honor Shira Banki.

“I came just because of Shira. It was very important to me. I saw it on TV. I felt the injustice, and I wanted to do something,” she said. “There’s not a lot I do. But I’m doing this.”

In what could be a first, Orthodox synagogue elects all-female board

An  Ohio congregation has become what is perhaps the first Orthodox synagogue to elect an all-female slate of officers.

At their annual meeting on June 26, the Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Lyndhurst, Ohio elected five women to their board.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told the Cleveland Jewish News that to the best of her knowledge, there has never been an all-female board in the Orthodox community in the United States.

The Modern Orthodox synagogue elected its first female president, Murial Weber, in 2013. Weber will now serve as the temple’s treasurer while Arlene Holz Smith will take over as president. The others elected to the board are Alanna Cooper as vice president, Gloria Jacobson as vice president and Ellen Worthington as secretary.

“What drew me to Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai was the fact that it’s a place where we were able to balance real inclusivity with traditional Orthodoxy,” Smith said. “The environment created by Rabbi [Zachary] Truboff is one that welcomed, encouraged, nurtured and mentored our daughter, and he has created a home at Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai.”

Truboff was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York. The Smiths’ daughter, Ramie, recently was ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in New York– the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox Jewish clergy. Both institutions were founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, New York, a long-time advocate for expanding women’s roles in Orthodox congregations.

Letters to the editor: Political balance, anti-Semitism, Harris Newmark and more

Orthodox Survey Needs Context

Shmuel Rosner’s column this past week is very troubling (“The Formerly Orthodox American Jews,” June 24). Rather than coming off as a news story, it comes off as very negative toward observant Jews. For example, there are statistics on relationships with parents, and there is nothing to compare it to, such as relationships with parents for the general population. Perhaps the percentage of people with a negative relationship with their father or mother in the general population is higher than that of the formerly Orthodox. 

Also, as someone coming from the other way (grew up non-observant and now observant), I know many people who are like me and do not have a good relationship with their parents. Some of their parents do not accept them being religious. Is Rosner going to write another column detailing the other side and how many non-observant Jewish parents are not accepting? So while I understand the column is based on this survey that was taken, the article could have at least been written in a less negative demeanor toward Orthodox Jews.

Alexander Wold via email

Statistics Don’t Reflect Rise in Anti-Semitism

According to the Anti-Defamation League audit issued last week, there was an increase in recorded incidents of anti-Semitism nationwide (“Anti-Semitism Stable in 2015, ADL Says, but Cause for Worry Remains,” June 24). While episodes in California declined marginally, the most violent incidents were up by 50 percent last year from 2014, incidents on college campuses nearly doubled nationally and assaults on Jews have risen every year since 2012. These figures do not include an explosion of hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric online and in social media. Though your headline reflects a cause for concern, I do not understand how you expressly imply the situation is stable when it most certainly is not. 

Pauline Regev, Santa Monica

Blast From the Past

Thank you for the article about an amazing man and family (“Harris Newmark Saw Our Future,” June 24). He was my great-great-grandfather: My father was Stephen Newmark Loew Jr. His father was Stephen Newmark Loew, his mother was Emily Newmark Loew, daughter of Sarah and Harris Newmark, married to Jacob Loew.

Susan Loew Greenberg via email

Dump Trump, but Then What?

I fully agree with David Suissa’s criticisms of Donald Trump (“Republicans Must Dump Trump,” June 24). In addition, and based on Trump’s track record, Trump (as president) would be a terrible role model for all American children, adolescents and adults. In fact, a worse role model than Trump would be hard to find.

However, Republicans dumping Trump at their convention would not guarantee that a gentler Republican presidential nominee would emerge to lead America down a path to achieve goals that many Americans (including myself and possibly even Trump) would support. In any event, the Republican delegates at the national convention will be between a rock and a hard place during their process of selecting their candidate for the November presidential election.

Marc Jacobson, Los Angeles

More Balance on Politics. Please 

The publication of two anti-Trump diatribes, without publishing a single rebuttal, leaves the false impression that American Jews are dead set against Trump. It is also poor journalism, since the public is entitled to both sides of the story.

Philip Springer, Pacific Palisades

Nothing Judaic About ‘Progressivism’

David Myers’ linking of “progressivism” and Judaism is opposed by common sense and facts (“Sanders Reignites Potent Strain of Progressivism,” June 17). First, progressivism is a terrible misnomer for the anti-freedom belief system some call “socialism” or “democratic socialism” but I call “welfare-state fascism.” It is not at all progressive, but regressive, even reactionary. It is, in fact, closer to feudalism than to modernity.

Bernie Sanders is touting a system that should be seen as anathematic to Judaism (and to Christianity). Judaism and Christianity have among their basics four rules: Thou shalt have no other god before me; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet; thou shalt not commit murder.

Yet the big-government approach preached by Sanders is based on covetousness and envy. And naturally on stealing. (Sanders will take from A to give to B. He calls it “taxation”; many of us call it, bluntly, “theft”!) Anyone who objects to being robbed stands a good chance of being killed, even if “legally.”

And God? He is shunted aside as Sandersistas prefer to worship the state. I see nothing Jewish in this form of collectivism and statism. I see a great disservice to Judaism in making such a link.

Michael Morrison, Encino

Correction

An article about the recent Israel-German Congress (“Israel-German Congress Aims to Ensure Support for Jewish State,” June 24) incorrectly identified the affiliation of Deidre Berger. She is director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee.

Ultra-Orthodox feminism: Not a contradiction in terms

I am an ultra-Orthodox feminist. And no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Furthermore, my identity and the social processes that my colleagues and I are leading, aren’t merely personal journeys and struggles: We may just hold the key to the future of Israeli society.

The Israeli ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) community is changing. These changes are mostly happening under the radar, away from the shrill headlines. A new generation of Charedi social activists is slowly emerging, inspired not only by the beauty of Jewish tradition, but also by values of individualism and equality. Charedi feminism is part of this trend, which also embraces integrating Charedi men into the Israeli workforce and society.

Charedi feminism is mostly focused on gaining equality of opportunities, opinions and representation. In this sense, it plays out quite differently from religious Zionist feminism, which is rooted in Rav Kook’s approach that, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified” — in other words, recognizing the authenticity of modernity and the need for religion to be integrated into every layer of life. On the other hand, the Charedi world is built on the Chatam Sofer’s famous line that, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah” and its consequent opposition to anything that smacks of change.

Ironically, this enables, rather than prevents, Charedi feminism. One of the central tenets of Charedi life is separatism. That separatism plays out not just as a physical separation of Charedi communities from the outside world, but also through internal cultural mechanisms of separation between religious values and other values. Torah study, the joy of the Charedi lifestyle, the value of learning without concern for material gain — these and other Charedi values are considered pure and separate from the outside world, with no attempt to integrate them. While that sounds draconian, the advantage of this system is that it leaves vast areas that can be considered simply “secular” or “mundane” — like getting a secular education or going out to work. These areas can be separated from Charedi values, without the baggage of needing to integrate them into one synthesized worldview.

So this mechanism of separation is actually what has opened the window for these groundbreaking recent developments. If you make a total separation between the value of Torah study and its communities of dedicated scholars on the one hand, and the harsh reality of poverty and the economic necessity of earning a living on the other, then it becomes acceptable to encourage Charedi women to go out to work. We just compartmentalize: When we need to, we close off our “holy” compartment, and open up the one marked “secular,” where there’s room for earning a living and even enjoying it. This philosophical understanding has created a new generation of middle-class Charedim whose members use it to take part in Israeli society without feeling that they are compromising their values.

These so called “New Charedim” thus effectively live in two worlds simultaneously. One is value-laden and spiritual, full of beauty and daily wonders but also cloistered and isolationist; the other is pragmatic, anchored in Western values, and collaborates with the rest of Israeli society.

Things aren’t perfect. In the areas where people fear that the secular can blur with the holy, there are still barriers. A Charedi woman can talk about earning a living, but not about a career; a Charedi man can go to college to learn a profession, but to study Torah through the prism of academic scholarship is still utter heresy.

What about the New Charedim’s attitude to Zionism? Charedi society has in recent years developed an Israeli and even a Zionist identity. Charedi Zionism isn’t the same as classical religious Zionism, and doesn’t talk in terms of the holiness of Israel or messianic redemption. Charedim are voting in greater numbers in the elections, and though Charedi members of the Knesset play increasingly active roles in government, they still mostly avoid taking on full ministerial appointments. You see Charedi families having barbecues on Yom HaAtzmaut, but you won’t find Charedi synagogues where they sing Hallel thanking God for the State of Israel. The Zionism that the Charedi community has adopted is, ironically, a secular Zionism of symbols and cultural identity.

And the same goes for Charedi feminism. It’s a secular feminism. It’s focused on secular areas such as representation and equal opportunities. The hot potato issues of mainstream religious feminism, like the equality of women in prayer, aren’t even on the radar screen of Charedi feminism.

I pay a price for my split existence. It’s not easy — sometimes even impossible — when the gaps between the isolationist Charedi worldview and modern society get bigger and bigger. But there are more and more people like me in the Charedi world. You won’t believe what kind of magic has been brewing there recently. You won’t believe how honestly we want to be an inseparable part of this people. There are more and more seeds of hope.

My colleagues and I are paving a critical path for Israeli society. The Charedi communities aren’t going away. If Israel is to survive, then we all need to find a way to enable us to participate in Israeli society.

Racheli Ibenboim is a leading Charedi feminist activist and heads Shaharit’s Charedi programs. She is the founder and director of Movilot, a program that places Charedi women in high-quality jobs through internships.


This is the first in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision. 

Swastika posters left in north London playground 4 consecutive days

Police are stepping up their presence in a charedi Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of London after swastika posters were placed in a playground there four days in a row.

London’s Jewish Chronicle reported Friday that local police have increased patrols in Stamford Hill and are investigating the matter.

The local branch of Shomrim, the Jewish volunteer security group, first reported the posters to police Monday, and they have appeared every day since then. The playground is next to a Jewish senior home, many of whose residents are Holocaust survivors.

Stamford Hill Shomrim’s Shulem Stern told the Chronicle the posters have sparked “a sense of anxiety and fear amongst local parents.”

“The daubing of Nazi symbols in a place where Jewish children study and play is an act of racism intended to spread fear and alarm,” Marie van der Zyl, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Chronicle.

The northeast London neighborhood is home the largest charedi Orthodox community in Europe, according to the Chronicle.

 

Great Adventure: How an amusement park goes Orthodox for Passover

Pinchas Cohen spent most of Monday wandering around Six Flags Great Adventure under a blazing sun, wearing a knee-length black coat and carrying a big box of shmura matzah under his arm.

An imposing, Russian-born Chabad-Lubavitch Hasid who now lives in Brooklyn, Cohen came to this amusement park in New Jersey with his 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, the two youngest of his nine children, to have some fun on the first day of chol hamoed, the intermediate days of Passover.

But when Cohen’s turn came to ride the Runaway Mine Train roller coaster, he faced the dilemma of what to do with the box of matzah, which was labeled “fragile.” A Great Adventure staffer helped him stow it in a nearby bin, along with Cohen’s hat.

“That’s my lunch,” he said with a smile as he offered a large piece of matzah to a stranger.

The Cohens were among the thousands of Orthodox Jews who flocked this week to the popular park about 90 minutes from New York City in what has become an annual Passover tradition.

“I used to come every year when I was a kid,” said Yocheved, a 35-year-old mother of two from Teaneck who was at the park on Monday with her husband, kids and two nieces from Sharon, Massachusetts. “I can’t turn the corner without seeing someone I know.”

Kid-friendly amusements all around metropolitan New York tend to be jammed with Jewish children on Passover, from the Bronx Zoo and botanical garden to the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut.

But nothing compares to the annual Passover pilgrimage to Six Flags, which some years is open exclusively to visitors from the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the organizer of the program.

Passover at Great Adventure, a mainstay since 1983, is also the year’s biggest fundraiser of the year for NCSY’s New Jersey chapter, which usually raises more than $100,000 after expenses. NCSY buys tickets in bulk and resells them for 30 percent off regular admission price, markets the program, organizes busing to the park and coordinates with park administrators to accommodate Orthodox needs. The park offers kosher-for-Passover food concessions, and NCSY puts on a concert featuring a popular Orthodox singer. This year the entertainer is Baruch Levine.

Six Flags Great Adventure, an amusement park in New Jersey, on Passover becomes the site of an annual Orthodox Jewish pilgrimage. (Uriel Heilman)Six Flags Great Adventure, an amusement park in New Jersey, on Passover becomes the site of an annual Orthodox Jewish pilgrimage. 

“Every kind of Jew ends up coming here during Pesach. Depending upon the time of year, we bring public school kids together with Orthodox, non-Orthodox, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, kids with kippot, kids without, poor kids, rich kids, special-needs kids,” said Rabbi Ethan Katz, the director of New Jersey NCSY and coordinator of the Passover program. “It’s a tremendous kiddush Hashem” – sanctification of God’s name – “for so many Jews to be together in one place for such an amazing event.”

On Monday, a beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the high 70s, more than 4,000 park visitors bought tickets through NCSY, Katz said. That comprised more than one-third of all visitors, according to a park representative, and many more Jewish visitors came on their own.

At the 150-foot tall Ferris wheel, wig-wearing mothers in ankle-length skirts and commandeering double strollers lined up surrounded by broods of children dressed in identical outfits. At the 15-story giant swing, modern Orthodox teens in jeans and T-shirts who had taken off their yarmulkes for the ride seemed in no hurry to put them back on. Near the kosher food concession, a group of men held an impromptu afternoon prayer service.

Yeshiva students from the nearby Orthodox stronghold of Lakewood congregated around the basketball throw, removing suit jackets and ties to take shots and drawing cheers from casually dressed general-admission visitors when they sank their free throws.

At the gondola that ferries visitors around the park, an Asian-American staffer named Josiah did his best to wish Jewish visitors a happy holiday.

“Are you guys Jewish?” he bellowed, offering a mangled version of a Yiddish-Hebrew Passover greeting when they nodded in assent. “Did I say it right?” he called out as the gondola rose into the air.

Staffers practice some deference when it comes to asking visitors to remove hats and yarmulkes on rides — though only an act of God could save one’s head-covering from flying off on rides like Kingda Ka, a roller coaster that goes from zero to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds.

Pam Nuzzo, general sales manager for Six Flags Great Adventure, said that after doing Passover for so many years, staffers are familiar with Orthodox needs.

“Passover is part of the park’s history. It’s one of our bigger special events throughout the year,” she told JTA. “It’s good for the park. It brings a lot of people.”

NCSY also brings groups throughout the year, including on the intermediary days of Sukkot. But Passover, when Jewish schools stay closed and many Orthodox parents take off, is the biggest draw. This year, because Passover coincides with schools’ spring holidays, the park is also open to the general public.

Once when NCSY had exclusive rights to the park, Katz recalled that the administration made the faux pas of including Wonder Woman among the costumed characters entertaining visitors. The “woman walking around in her underwear” disappeared once staffers realized their blunder. NCSY also has organized all-boys days at Great Adventure’s water park, Hurricane Harbor, for those whose religious observance precludes mixed-gender swimming. All the lifeguards that day are male. (An effort to organize an all-girls day so far has been unsuccessful.)

“We work a lot on bridging gaps, especially so the ultra-Orthodox can come here and have a great experience and feel very welcome and at home,” Katz said. “It’s a very positive Jewish environment for everybody.”

Pinchas Cohen, a restaurateur and father of nine from Brooklyn, brought his own box of handmade shmura matzah to the amusement park for Passover, April 25, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)Pinchas Cohen, a restaurateur and father of nine from Brooklyn, brought his own box of handmade shmura matzah to the amusement park for Passover, April 25, 2016. 

Dovid Kessner, a Lakewood father of seven, came to the park on Monday along with his family and those of two of his siblings, with 23 or 24 children among the three couples. A first-timer, Kessner said he decided to come after seeing an ad in his local Jewish weekly.

“I’m not such an amusement park guy,” said Kessner, who obtained a group rate for his crew. “I usually take my kids boating or fishing on the Jersey Shore.”

Great Adventure forbids bringing in outside food or drink, and many Orthodox families picnicked right outside the gates. But Kessner said attendants didn’t give him a problem bringing in provisions.

“I told them I needed to bring in some food for the kids. They didn’t give me a hard time,” he said. “I didn’t try to sneak it in. That’s not what I want to teach my kids.”

At the Passover concession, Reuben’s Glatt Spot, menu items included $7.25 hot dogs (on Passover buns), $16 chicken nuggets, $7 French fries and 2-liter bottles of Coke for $9 apiece.

“The hot dog buns don’t really hold the hot dogs well. It keeps slipping out,” said Sarah Ifrah, who was in town from Toronto to visit her sister in Woodmere, New York. “It’s also a little on the expensive side, but we’re glad they have it. Who comes to an amusement park on Pesach and can buy some food? It’s great.”

Orthodox parents of LGBT children seek communities that care

When my husband and I married, neither of us fully appreciated the role community would play in our family’s life. It proved to be a most crucial component in creating and forging a Jewish household and in passing on our traditions. A life lived according to halachah (Jewish law), needs a community. In Orthodox families, kids grow up seeing themselves as part of a much larger whole.

As our children grew up, we were comfortably ensconced in our shul. Then, about 18 years ago, our younger daughter told me she was gay. She was in her last year of college and in a relationship with a young woman who was also from an observant home. Trembling in my arms, she begged me not to tell her father, and tearfully asked if I wanted her out of our home. She had packed her bags and was prepared to leave.

I calmed her as best I could, and tried to push away the questions, fears and thoughts swirling through my own head. Initially I kept her news from my husband, as she had requested, and cast about for someone I could turn to for advice. In 1998, I knew that Orthodox parents of gay children were marginalized. I didn’t want that to happen to my daughter and our family. Who could I talk to?

When I finally shared the news with my husband, we both agreed the answer was obvious: nobody! My friends? How would they react? How would I tell them, and what would they say? Would they still be our friends? I could imagine each one thanking God that it wasn’t her child. The rabbi? A crazy idea.

Even today, according to a first-ever survey conducted by Eshel, Orthodox parents of LGBT children report that only 9 percent go to their rabbi first for guidance — an astonishingly low number and sad statistic for a group whose members routinely seek counsel from their spiritual leader.

Several years earlier our older son became seriously ill. It was then we saw the strength of community. There were days we arrived at his bedside in the ICU to find community members saying tehillim (psalms) for him and his recovery.  We were constantly surrounded by friends and family. Somehow we made it through the terror of it all. We received absolute love and support from the entire community.

That wasn’t the case when our daughter came out.

Those early years were lonely. We did not know another Orthodox family who was in the same situation. Admittedly, that isolation was self-imposed, which is still true today for most parents before they come out.

Carrying this secret can lead to feelings of loss of community and a sense of chaos. We experience bouts of endless questioning, worries and tears. But on the outside we remain silent — as do our communities. Three out of four parents of LGBT children told Eshel that their rabbis, day school administrators and other communal leaders do not speak about “it.”

Silence and rejection might have been acceptable in the past, but not now. Rabbis must learn how to minister to all of their congregants, including their LGBT members and their families. Every congregation, day school or community has families who are dealing with this issue. Our leaders must convey their readiness to engage in conversations and be educated so they can offer support and resources.

For our children the rejection is all too real. The Eshel parent survey reveals that 60 percent of our children have left the Orthodox community or no longer attend any shul. For traditional parents, synagogue and community rejection can be the most painful part of the coming-out process. When the community no longer makes space for your child, ­what is there to belong to and why?

But change is coming. Eshel, an organization with a mission to create community and acceptance for LGBT Jews and their families in Orthodox communities, holds an annual parent retreat. This year’s retreat, from May 13 to 15 in Copake, New York, features the theme Community. Through Eshel events, phone support groups and the annual retreat, parents with LGBT children can have a community.

Eventually we did tell our rabbi about our daughter. We were not seeking approval nor guidance; with the help of time we were beyond that. We did not ask for advice, and none was offered. To his credit he has become more knowledgeable and open. Recently he spoke about the topic to the entire shul.

Like 70 percent of parents surveyed, my husband and I are cautiously optimistic about the future for ongoing change in Orthodoxy.

Change takes time. Our rabbi has embraced what seems to be an attitudinal shift. We know of communities that are welcoming, respectful and inclusive. And we know there are rabbis and communities who are beginning the learning process. As Orthodox parents, we appreciate the complexity of the issue, perhaps more profoundly than even the most learned in our communities.

We understand that we cannot rewrite Leviticus 18:22, but we can reconsider its implications. We can work to change our community’s attitudes.  This change can only begin to happen with the courage of our leaders. The conversation must begin in our shuls and schools. All of our children, LGBT or straight, deserve to be respected. After all, aren’t we are all created “b’tzelem elokim,” in God’s image?

The writer is a mother and grandmother and member of Eshel’s parents’ group.  For more information about Eshel or the upcoming parent retreat, please visit www.eshelonline.org.

Even Orthodox Jews starting to wrestle with transgender issues

Here’s a riddle: If a transgender Jew shows up at an Orthodox synagogue, on which side of the mechitzah barrier separating the sexes should the person be seated?

That’s an easy one compared to more complex Jewish legal questions raised by people who don’t identify as the gender suggested by their physical anatomy at birth.

Is a woman who transitioned to male required to put on tefillin daily? Can a man who becomes a woman marry under Orthodox law? What about someone whose gender identity doesn’t fit binary categories? Can the circumcision requirement of conversion be waived if the convert is male but has no penis?

With the growing visibility of transgender people, these are no longer theoretical questions.

While American society generally grapples with how and how much to accommodate trans preferences, Jewish religious denominations are doing some unique grappling of their own. 

The more liberal movements have been the most progressive on transgender issues. But even in the Orthodox world, which presents the most barriers to transgender acceptance, both culturally and in Jewish law, some community figures are talking about the need to find a place for trans Jews.

“It’s something that has to be dealt with,” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, told JTA. “I’ve read a lot about it and offered a range of opinions along with a plea for compassion. These are people who are going through difficulties. How do we reach out to them compassionately as human beings, as fellow Jews, as people we don’t want to lose from the Orthodox community?”

Last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a landmark resolution affirming transgender equality. It called on Reform institutions to adopt changes to embrace trans individuals without impediment: referring to them by their chosen identity, providing gender-neutral bathrooms, instituting sensitivity training for staff and community members, and making liturgical language more gender neutral. The trans equality resolution went further than any major religious denomination in America has gone – Jewish or non-Jewish.

In the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is nearing a vote about what constitutes sufficient grounds in Jewish law for someone to change their gender: Is it enough to “present” in the new gender identity, or must there be at least hormonal change, or is sex reassignment surgery required?

There are practical implications to this question. Even in egalitarian Conservative Judaism, gender determines how one is prepared for burial, what kind of wedding ceremony one has (same-sex or traditional) and whether one must undergo a circumcision in order to convert.

The new proposed Conservative rule, drafted by Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, argues that gender identity should be broadly defined.

“A person with male anatomy who identifies as female and is presenting to the world as female in terms of dress and action, even if there has been no hormonal therapy or surgery, then in most situations we should apply halachah as it applies to their adopted gender,” Sharzer said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.

Meanwhile, the movement is making trans-friendly changes. The Jewish Theological Seminary recently designated two all-gender bathrooms, and the school’s application form has been changed so applicants can define their gender any way they choose rather than checking off boxes labeled male or female. Some rituals, too, have been adapted. For example, individuals may be called to the Torah without the traditional gender-specific language “son of” or “daughter of.” Instead, the person is identified as “of the family of.”

“We’ve tried to help students who do not want to identify according to strict binary categories,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS rabbinical school. “I won’t claim we’ve got it all down. They have discreet needs that we’re trying our best to understand – and to embrace them, which is what we really want.”

Though most but not all Orthodox authorities who have considered the issue say the hallmarks of transgender identity – cross-dressing, hormonal treatment, sex reassignment surgery – are forbidden, that still leaves two key questions. One, if someone has surgically altered their anatomy, what gender are they according to Jewish law? And two, how should Orthodox communities strive to treat trans Jews?

To be sure, in most Orthodox communities these are still largely theoretical questions, and there is no shortage of Orthodox Jews who don’t want to talk about or see transgender Jews in their shuls. And most Orthodox Jews who do come out as trans tend to leave Orthodoxy.

“Most people who are trans probably won’t feel comfortable remaining in the Orthodox community, which is sad but for the moment I think is a fact of life,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinical association. “On the other hand, for those who want to stay Orthodox, there are the challenges of creating a safe space in a community where there’s lots of misunderstanding, prejudice and concerns about halachic complications.”

Dana Friedman, a 51-year-old trans Orthodox Jew, is familiar with many of those complications. She grew up modern Orthodox, left the community amid transitioning three decades ago and returned to Orthodox observance in 2008, when she felt things had changed enough for her to be accepted.

“It’s been eight years and nobody’s made a public fuss,” said Friedman, an information technology consultant in New York who dabbles in “Orthodox tranny” standup comedy (it’s a very small genre). “Nobody has asked me to leave anyplace. And I have not heard that anybody has a real problem with me being in the women’s section.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the head at Yeshivat Maharat, a religious seminary for Orthodox women co-founded by the liberal-minded Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, has researched trans-related questions of Jewish law. Since he started lecturing publicly about the subject three years ago, he says he has been contacted by some 30 trans Jews in the Orthodox community.

“How can we help them have a meaningful Jewish life? I don’t think the answer is to tell them you just don’t belong in my shul,” Fox said. “This means we’re confronting questions we could never have imagined before.”

At first glance, Orthodox Jewish law might seem pretty clear-cut on gender transitions. Cross-dressing is explicitly prohibited in the Bible, and the Torah’s ban on castrating animals generally is understood to apply to humans, too. From the perspective of Jewish law, according to Weinreb, a Jew’s gender is unchangeable and determined solely by anatomy at birth, regardless of surgery or hormonal treatments.

However, there is ample rabbinic discourse about men who have lost their genitalia – once a more common happenstance due to warfare, accidents, disease and the prevalence of eunuchs. The Talmud also debates Jewish law as it relates to those born with both male and female physical characteristics, and those who appear to have neither.

In fact, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law known as the Shulchan Aruch makes clear that a prospective convert whose penis has been amputated may convert without circumcision.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Orthodox rabbinic figure known as the Tzitz Eliezer who died in 2006, suggested that a person’s gender was determined by their current anatomy. He ruled that a married person whose genitalia were surgically altered to that of the opposite sex would not require a get, or religious writ, to consummate divorce, since same-sex marriage is impossible according to Orthodox Jewish law. Many of the rulings by Waldenberg, who served as an Orthodox rabbinic authority for Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital, were not consensus views, however.

Fox said there are instances when Jewish law may support helping someone make a gender transition – namely, in cases where an individual is so distressed by gender dysphoria as to be suicidal. That’s actually quite common, Fox said, noting that the commandment of pikuach nefesh – saving a human life – should supersede restrictions against castration or cross-dressing.

If someone surgically alters their anatomy even in contravention of Jewish law, the question of what gender they are – and therefore what Jewish rituals they are required to observe – depends on which rabbinic opinion one follows.

In any case, most trans Jews are not asking rabbis for permission to undergo hormonal therapy or surgery, Fox noted. They’re making changes on their own, and are concerned about being welcomed in the community. The question, then, is how rabbis and Orthodox communities react.

“When you’re dealing with life and death issues, the question of whether you count in a minyan is secondary,” Fox said. “We have to make sure these people are safe and are welcomed.”

The quandary of how Orthodox communities should relate to people who have contravened Jewish law is not unique to transgender issues. Generations ago, Orthodox rabbis debated how to treat Jews known to violate the Sabbath or kosher laws, and whether they could be counted toward a minyan. More recently, Orthodox communities have been grappling with how to treat openly gay individuals.

Trans Jews should be treated just as sympathetically, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open” Orthodox rabbinical school also started by Weiss. He recalled helping an observant trans congregant at the Chicago synagogue he led for two decades figure out which side of the mechitzah to sit on. The community’s own comfort level figured into the decision, he said.

“These things are not always as binary and clear-cut as people think,” Lopatin told JTA. “LGBTQ issues at least have to get us to start thinking and being creative.”

Jewish platform raises political dough for Cruz

UPDATED 11:54 a.m.

A group of Orthodox Jews supporting Ted Cruz for president have launched a 24-hour campaign to raise $1 million for Cruz's campaign on the day of crucial primary contests in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.

The campaign “Million For Ted” was posted on the popular fundraising website Charidy.com, a non-partisan corporation that serves as a crowdfunding platform for non-profit charitable campaigns. The goal is to raise at least $250,000 from members of the Orthodox Jewish community sympathetic to the conservative policies of the Texas Senator, which will then be matched 75 percent by the Wilks family. “It’s all or nothing, if we don’t reach one million, all donations will be returned,” a message posted on the site read.

The organization hosting the campaign is called Reigniting the Promise, a super PAC in support of Cruz. 

The fundraising platform appears to be a for-profit business that takes a 2.9% cut of funds raised, which is legal under campaign finance laws, according to Paul S. Ryan Paul, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. Hecht told Jewish Insider that no service fee will be charged if the goal is not met by midnight (CT)

“Charidy is a bipartisan website. We are not officially endorsing. We are hosting this campaign,” Moshe Hecht, a chief fundraising specialist at Charidy, told Jewish Insider. “There are some Jewish people behind the scenes who want to promote this to the Orthodox community because they feel the community should support Ted Cruz.”

Hecht said that while certain people in the company may have contributed to Cruz's campaign, this campaign is not an endorsement, adding that this is the first political campaign out of 600 campaigns that the site has hosted so far.

The campaign raised $15,000 in the first half hour (1:30 p.m. ET).

Separate but equal? Egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall makes Israel similar to Iran

A plan to create a special prayer space in the southern expanse of the Western Wall where the Conservative and Reform movements can hold gender-mixed services was approved by the Israeli government on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

While being hailed as a historic landmark for Jewish pluralism and the non-Orthodox movements in Israel, the cabinet's decision does little more than legitimize denomination-based segregation.

Leave it to the leaders of a Jewish democracy to support discrimination against the Jewish majority! A sad but constant historical truism is that governments have tended to pass and enforce discriminatory legislation against minority segments of the population.

Israel however is an exception to this historic pattern of tyranny of the majority.

Jewish Israelis, who comprise over 80 percent of the population, must live within a legal framework that discriminates in favor of one Jewish stream at the expense of all other denominations, as well as against Jews who are altogether secular.

Sunday's decision codifies the same prejudicial thinking that guides the 'Mehadrin' bus lines, in which gender segregation rules as observed by some ultra-Orthodox Jews are applied to public transportation.

Israeli women have a plethora of equally valid and accessible transportation options to choose from. Yet the very existence of separate bus lines where men sit in the front and women in back is anathema to the pluralistic values on which Israel was founded and on which the country has thrived.

From its inception the Jewish state has been governed by the rule of law as drafted by a democratically-elected legislature that guarantees non Jewish Israeli citizens the right to practice religion without external, state-sanctioned, coercion.

Yet while Israel has no state religion the country's Chief Rabbinate imposes its religious interpretations ‎upon any Israeli citizen who dares identify as a Jew.  If you happen to be a Jew living in Israel you must contend with constant intrusions into your personal manner of religious observance, reason being that there's nothing personal about it.

The Rabbinate has jurisdiction over everything from Jewish marriages to Jewish divorce, Jewish burials, conversions, Kosher certification, Jewish immigration to Israel and of course the supervision of Jewish holy sites.

And the Chief Rabbinate doesn't limit its scope of operations to internal Israeli affairs. In December 2015, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau lambasted a visit by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to a Jewish school in the United States that is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.

Lau called the visit by Bennett, “unacceptable…since it granted recognition to those who have distanced themselves” from the People of Israel.

Bennet also happens to be Israel's Diaspora Affairs Minister.

At its core, the religious intervention in secular society is fueled by a nagging self-doubt that Jewish Israel cannot possibly remain Jewish if left to its own devices.

Yet any system of beliefs that relies on threats instead of persuasion is intellectually suspect and morally bankrupt, only surviving by resorting to strong-arm political tactics.

How strange that in the only Jewish country on earth debate is stifled. As far back as the Mishna, through the 2,000-year Jewish Exile, there were lively discussions regarding the interpretation of Halacha between the more liberal Beit Hillel and more stringent Beit Shamai schools. 

As such, the Israeli government's decision on to validate the Haredi-controlled Rabbinate's discriminatory policies is an affront to Jewish tradition, which upholds the centrality of robust discourse within the Jewish community. 

With the cabinet's approval, Israeli society took one step towards the empires of darkness in Tehran and Riyadh and one step away from its own glorious founding creed.

Official launch for West Valley Eruv

After 25 years of discussion, prayers, lobbying, false starts, delays and setbacks, the “walls” are finally going up in Encino and Tarzana — and the community of Orthodox Jews living there couldn’t be happier.

With state and city permits in place, the West Valley Eruv will be blessed and officially launched Dec. 16 at a 6:30 p.m. ceremony at the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana. The establishment of the eruv — a halachic perimeter that transforms a public area into a private domain for Shabbat — will help unite the community and allow it to grow, say the advocates who have spent the last three years raising support for the project.

“It’s a miracle that it’s happening,” said Rosana Miller, secretary and treasurer of the West Valley Eruv Society. “I went into this process with a good feeling. I saw it was going to happen. When? I don’t know. How much? I don’t know. But I was positive it was going to happen.”

An eruv defines a specific area by use of a fence, string or wire and allows observant Jews to carry items within its boundaries on Shabbat, in accordance with Jewish law. This includes synagogue-goers carrying books and prayer shawls, as well as parents wheeling strollers. Residents of communities within an eruv say that the structure opens up the community for greater social interaction. 

From left: Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, City Councilman Paul Koretz and Rabbi Dovid Horowitz.

“We noticed a lot of women here in the area cannot come to synagogue because the kids cannot come with carriages. Old men cannot come with a wheelchair or a walker,” said Miller of Encino. “It’s not a community if the husband can pray and the kids have to stay home. We have a lot of women complaining it’s like prison in the house.”

“You work all week and you want to go out and have a social life at the synagogue with your friends and your community,” added Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.With an eruv, an Orthodox community creates the wherewithal for mothers and young families to be released from the prison of a Shabbos home.”

The first phase of the West Valley Eruv will cover a stretch of Ventura Boulevard that extends west from the intersection of the 405 and 101 freeways to White Oak Avenue. Then it will snake south around the El Caballero Country Club, wind its way back north via power lines near Wilbur Avenue, banking west to Tampa Avenue and north to Victory Boulevard before zigzagging east along the Los Angeles River and eventually meeting up again with the 101.

The total cost of the project is approximately $300,000, according to Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz of the Kosher Information Bureau in Valley Village. Existing structures such as freeway off-ramps, sound walls and fences can serve as parts of the eruv, as can fishing wire strung between utility poles.

Subsequent phases of the eruv are expected to expand the territory to encompass areas south of Ventura Boulevard, according to Rabbi Dovid Horowitz of Makor HaChaim, which falls within the area of the first phase’s 15 square miles.

There already are existing eruvs in the city. The Los Angeles Community Eruv encompasses 80 square miles of communities including Hancock Park, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood and the Pico-Robertson area. The Valley Eruv — established in 1983 — is bounded by five freeways and covers a 27-square mile swath of the East Valley, including Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Van Nuys and North Hollywood areas.

Community leaders say that interest in an eruv to serve the West Valley — particularly the Encino and Tarzana regions — has been growing steadily since the early 1990s. Different organizers have tried to raise funds and rally the community behind the project without success. When Miller and her husband, Alon, volunteered to spearhead the effort, they said that many had given up hope that it would ever come to fruition. 

The Millers gained the support of 5th District Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz and 30th District Rep. Brad Sherman. Joseph Bernstein of Rosenheim of Associates was hired as a consultant to help secure permits from seven agencies ranging from the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Wiesenthal Center’s May, who had extensive lobbying experience in Sacramento, was called in to help secure final permitting approval from the California Department of Transportation.

Once the eruv has been launched, a rabbi must check every segment of the structure on a weekly basis before Shabbat to make sure that all of the boundary elements are intact. Eidlitz has been consulting on the project for more than five years and has been overseeing the eruv’s spiritual requirements, just as he does with the East Valley eruv.

Eidlitz emphasized that the community will need to continue to support the development and maintenance of the West Valley eruv once it is launched, just as they have done to bring it about.

“I’m inspired by Mrs. Miller. She was a one-person machine of putting their money and desire into this project and moving forward no matter what happened,” he said. “That is a strong  message of what each of us can do.”

The community is invited to the launch of the West Valley Eruv, Dec. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Eretz Cultural Center, 6170 Wilbur Ave., Tarzana. Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of the Agudath Israel in Baltimore will preside.

At Halloween, kosher candy rings the bell

This Saturday night, after waiting for three stars to become visible in the sky and observing Havdalah, the departing of Shabbat, with candle, wine and spice box, I will prepare to perform another ritual: I will pour gobs of candy into a large bowl to hand out to the sporadic stream of trick-or-treaters who will ring my doorbell.

Call me “orthodox” in my observance of this not-so-Jewish day, but this Halloween, I wanted to make certain that the treats we were handing out to the assorted ghosts, princesses and living dead who rang our bell were kosher.

Why? Kosher creatures are we, and I didn’t want anything unkosher — horror of horrors! — treifing up the house. I also wanted to show our undying (but not unhallowed) support for the companies that produce treats for the $2 billion Halloween candy market that were taking that extra step of making their products accessible to kosher consumers like me.

But during a late-night trip to the supermarket, I was surprised to find that there were almost too many hechshered treats from which to choose: M&M’s, Butterfingers, Dum Dums, Nestle Crunch, Baby Ruth and AirHeads all were kosher certified. Snickers, Three Musketeers, Twizzlers and even my favorite, Almond Joy (which my wife won’t eat because her dietary laws don’t include coconut. Pity; more for me.), were all deemed munchable by a higher source.

Not that I was kvetching, but I wondered: Why was so much of the Halloween candy kosher? After all, most Orthodox Jews, who do keep kosher, don’t celebrate Halloween. That’s because, according to an essay that appears on the Orthodox Union website, its origins are “a combination of Celtic, Roman and Christian holidays. All three are distinctly non-Jewish.”

For me, I see it more as an American holiday, one that I grew up with and enjoyed, and have chosen to integrate it into my Jewish life. But I was never sure if I was in the majority for doing that.

So why the kosher Halloween candy? Was there some religious shift of traditional Jews afoot unknown even to Pew? Were people who kept kosher quietly stocking up on low-priced Halloween candy for use on Hanukkah, or even Purim? Or was it an odd outcome of Halloween falling in the Jewish month of Cheshvan, sometimes called “mar [bitter] Cheshvan” because there are no Jewish holidays, and Jewish folks just needed something sweet to nosh on to keep up their spirits?

Still pondering this imponderable while studying the ingredients printed on a giant bag of Hot Tamales, I felt something staring at me. Looking slowly left, I found the culprit: a bag of candy called Creepy Peepers — round chocolates, each wrapped in a cartoonishly bloodshot eyeball foil wrapper. My own eyes widened as I realized they were kosher.

As I was to discover, all of the Halloween offerings produced by the R.M. Palmer Company of West Reading, Pennsylvania — from their fudge-filled “Mummy Munchies” to my favorite, “Dr. Scab’s Monster Lab Chocolate Body Parts,” a bag of fingers, ears, eyeballs and mouths — are kosher. (Better yet, the “body parts” are dairy.) In fact, Palmer’s entire line of chocolates, including Easter bunnies, are kosher.

From corresponding with the company’s marketing director, John Kerr, I learned that kosher certification is very common in the candy business. Palmer’s O.U. certification, which “requires additional inspections and standards for product quality,” provided “independent reassurance to consumers and retailers” that their “confections are high quality,” an email read.

I bought a bag, and after sampling a few eyeballs, I had to agree.

Another manufacturer, the Madelaine Chocolate Company, whose Halloween candy I found online, also offered crunchy chocolate eyeballs as well as caramel-filled ghouls — all kosher. Madelaine also makes chocolate coins for Hanukkah, chocolate turkeys for Thanksgiving and chocolate eggs for Easter — again, all kosher.

Speaking with Jorge Farber, the president and CEO of the company, I learned that Madelaine, based in Far Rockaway in the Queens borough of New York City, was established in 1949 by Holocaust survivors. Though gearing up for the busy holiday season, Madelaine was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which reportedly had destroyed its equipment and inventory.

After nearly closing in 2014, the company received $13.2 million in government recovery funds in January. At that time, only about a quarter of its peak season workforce of about 450 had been hired back. Today, as Madelaine brings its new equipment online, Farber said the chocolate maker is hiring more employees.

When I asked why their products were kosher, Farber — whose products are available at “higher quality” candy stores — explained: “There’s sort of a cache about being kosher.”

My basket of kosher candy was quickly filling up, but like a kid out trick or treating, I wondered if I should dare knock on one more door.

The Equal Exchange fair-trade organization sells a Halloween kit that consists of 150 individually wrapped, bite-size milk or dark chocolate bars and an equal number of illustrated information cards. Headlined “Chocolate Can Be Scary,” the cards presented the reasons for choosing fair-trade products: We “pay farmers a fair price for their cacao,” as well as “make improvements in their communities, and help protect the environment.”

“Faith-based groups get our message,” Susan Sklar, Equal Exchange’s interfaith manager, told me.

With “a Jewish audience in mind, many of our products are kosher,” she added.

Sklar noted that some of what Equal Exchange sells is also distributed additionally through two Jewish organizations: Fair Trade Judaica and T’rua, a human rights organization whose members are rabbis and cantors of all denominations.

Pointing out that most of the chocolate sold in the U.S. is the product of West African “young boys who are used as slave labor,” Sklar, who is Jewish, thought it was important for “Jews to support fair trade,” she said.

As for me, at this last stop for kosher trick-or-treating trail, I had found a Halloween candy that reached a different level of kashrut: It was not only pure in production, but in spirit as well.

Two Jews shot with BB guns in Orthodox section of NYC in past 10 days

Two Jews were shot with BB guns in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood of New York City.

City Councilman Rory Lancman said that the victims, neither of whom was seriously injured, were shot over the past 10 days in the Kew Gardens Hills section of Queens, the Queens Chronicle reported Monday.

The New York Police Department is investigating the incidents as potential anti-Semitic hate crimes.

A spokeswoman for Lancman told the paper that the first incident was approximately 10 days ago, but she was not sure of the precise date. The second incident occurred on Friday.

Both victims were wearing clothing traditionally worn by Orthodox Jews. The gender of the first victim was not specified, but the second one was male.

New York State Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz issued a statement saying, “I am deeply saddened to hear about the recent incident that betrays an unfortunate prejudice alive in our neighborhood. We live in a community that should celebrate and be proud of our diversity. Acts of bigotry will not be tolerated or go unpunished. I am confident that all perpetrators will be brought to justice, ending a recent string of shameful crimes.”

Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs, is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States. Kew Gardens Hills, which is home to Lander College for Men and various yeshivas, has a large haredi Orthodox population.

Israel must confront the fundamentalists within

This past month, as our attention was focused on watching the developing Iran deal, the situation in Israel has taken a deeply troubling turn.

First, a woman wearing a kippah was detained by the police for attempting to worship at the Western Wall. Then David Azoulay, the haredi Orthodox minister of religious affairs from the Shas political party, called the largest movement in Judaism, Reform Judaism, “a disaster for the State of Israel.” He then followed up with an even more disturbing diatribe, saying he couldn’t even call adherents of Reform Judaism Jewish.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admonished him publicly for such comments, his government also decided to restore Orthodox control of conversion and kashrut in a series of decisions that undid decades of progress toward religious equality. President Reuven Rivlin responded with a constructive symbolic gathering of Jews from diverse streams at his residence in Jerusalem, but even such valiant acts cannot change the effective reality that is now developing.

Just this week, my students in Jerusalem were horrified to watch as a deranged haredi Orthodox repeat offender stabbed six peaceful marchers in the annual Jerusalem gay pride parade. Hours later, an arson attack in the West Bank took the life of a Palestinian toddler.

Extremist Jewish fundamentalists are now more emboldened than ever as Israel is increasingly held hostage by a hostile, intolerant approach to diversity. In recent years, I had witnessed hopeful incremental changes that appeared to be cracks in the ice of Israel’s state-sanctioned religious intolerance. I saw increased police protection for Women of the Wall, which advocates for the right of women to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. I had conversations with Knesset members and other officials who were ever so slightly more open to Reform and Conservative Judaism, and watched with enthusiasm the sharp rise in the percentage of Israelis who participate in progressive synagogues and marry their partners with the officiation of progressive clergy. I celebrated the growing number of Israelis excited to build the burgeoning Israeli Reform movement.

Last November, I was moved when President Rivlin met with the leaders of the Reform movement’s global seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and declared, “We are one family, and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel.”

But now I am afraid that too many Israelis have forgotten the extraordinary role that Reform Jews played and continue to play in the story of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. A Reform rabbi and scholar, Judah Magnes, immigrated to Jerusalem in 1922, helped found the Hebrew University, and served as its first chancellor and president. Magnes built this prestigious institution of higher education into a university that educates Jews, Muslims and Christians in an atmosphere of respect and equality.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, a close confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, influenced the American leader to support the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain said it favored a Jewish national home in Palestine. In 1947, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver captured the world’s attention as he addressed the U.N. General Assembly and made the case for Jewish statehood just months before the historic vote that approved partition and helped establish the State of Israel.

Dr. Nelson Glueck established the Israeli campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1963 with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s full support, educating thousands of Reform Jewish leaders in the heart of Jerusalem. Countless Reform Jews founded kibbutzim and other communities, built synagogues and schools, fought in the Israeli army and made aliyah to the Jewish state. Millions of other Reform Jews have offered their constant support from afar for over a century. And thousands upon thousands of native Israelis now proudly affiliate with the homegrown Israeli Reform movement in congregations that span the length and breadth of the State of Israel.

Israel was founded to be a homeland for all Jews and a place respectful of all its people. Its 1948 declaration of independence defines it as a state that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” one that “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

The government of the Jewish state must always walk a fine line in preserving both its Jewishness and the fundamental freedoms that inhere in any democracy. Granted, this is not simple, especially in a polarized political system where small parties in coalitions can exert undue influence. Nonetheless, what Israel’s citizens and friends abroad should expect from any Israeli government is straightforward: vigorous protection of the religious freedom of all its citizens so that they may pray, marry their partners, bury their dead, welcome new adherents, study their traditions and observe their beliefs without harassment. When one religious group limits, attacks or abuses another, the government is responsible for intervening to curb such toxic and dangerous activity. These commitments lie at the very core of democracy.

The latest studies show that the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements represent approximately 12 percent of the Jewish population of Israel, larger than the haredi Orthodox population (now at 9 percent). With more than 45 growing Reform congregations and more than 100 active Reform rabbis around Israel, it is long past time for the government of Israel to secure them the same freedoms guaranteed anyone else living in a democracy. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that Reform and Conservative rabbis enjoy less state recognition in Israel than almost anywhere else in the world.

I love the State of Israel and have spent decades working to strengthen its security and democracy. That is what makes me so concerned. At this time of intense international criticism, vitriol and isolation, Israel cannot afford to spurn the millions of ardent, committed Jews worldwide who, consonant with longstanding tenets of our faith, embrace an authentic balance between the demands of tradition and contemporary realities.

The State of Israel faces a significant choice right now. It can become a haven for fundamentalists intent on attacking those who differ, or it can step into a profound role of Jewish leadership as a country that embraces ideological difference as an essential strength. Israel is a leader in technology, education, health care and more. It should now strive to become a leader in religious pluralism and to embrace Reform Judaism as ardently as Reform Jews embrace Israel.

(Rabbi Aaron Panken is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.)

Ultra-Orthodox women open new businesses

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Hilary Faverman, dressed in a modest long skirt, is trolling for business at a conference for ultra-Orthodox women. She describes herself as “totally secular” but has dressed carefully for this conference in a Jerusalem hotel, and offers help with digital marketing, branding and social media.

In some sectors of the ultra-Orthodox world, the internet is seen as a potentially corrupting influence, and many families do not have TV or internet at home. In many cases, the women are the primary breadwinners, as the husbands spend most of their time studying Jewish texts like the Talmud. While ultra-Orthodox women have always worked, they are now opening businesses in larger numbers, and becoming a market for business services.

“Many women in this community are not comfortable with the internet,” Faverman told The Media Line. “I am here to empower women and help them identify their voice, determine a target market, and figure out how to get your message across effectively.”

More than 600 women attended the day-long conference sponsored by Temech, an organization that supports ultra-Orthodox businesswomen, and dozens of others were turned away. There were presentations, time for networking, and a Chinese auction. In the auction, women donated goods and services, and attendees placed their business cards in a box by objects they wanted to win. At the end of the day, one woman would win the gift, but the business owner has dozens of new leads to follow up on.

There was a lot of energy in the room, and the even women ignored repeated calls over the loudspeaker to go downstairs for lunch, a rare occurrence at a Jewish event, where food is often the centerpiece.

“Women are ready to step out more,” Shaindy Babad, the CEO of Temech told The Media Line. “If they were selling cakes from their home or doing something really small, they understand that they can grow that and take it out to new markets.”

Temech offers a business hub, where women can rent office space as well as classes in marketing. It has found jobs for more than 4000 ultra-Orthodox women. Ultra-Orthodox women also have large families, often with 10 or 12 children, and running their own businesses gives them flexibility.

“Family life is very important to these women and at the same time you want to give yourself to your business,” Shayna Poupko, a mother of six and grandmother of “more than 40” who runs a network of 50 life coaches told The Media Line. “You want to see your business grow but you don’t want to neglect your family. It’s an issue that Orthodox women deal with on a continuous basis.”

Poupko said she came to the conference to network toward her goal of opening a coaching clinic which would train new coaches. She said the whole profession of life coaching has taken off recently in Israel in general and in the ultra-Orthodox community in particular.

Sarah Michal, an ultra-Orthodox woman and mother of five, runs a business offering administrative services for small and medium-sized businesses, often run out of people’s homes.

“I help them with the load of running the business, billing their clients and following new leads for business,” she told The Media Line. “Nowadays the only things that can’t be done virtually are changing the printer paper and making a cup of coffee.”

She has four employees, and used to work out of her home, but recently moved to an office. She said many of her clients are not trained as businesswomen and find things like marketing and billing difficult. Women hire her to handle those tasks.

These women say their husbands support their business endeavors, as it enables them to continue their full-time study. The men also handle a significant chunk of responsibility for their young children, especially as their wives are starting their businesses.

One of the speakers was Idit Neudelfer, an actress and motivational speaker who offered what she called the “redhead technique”, named her long curly mane.

“You have to be a redhead, and bring yourself to the front in a good way,” she told The Media Line. “It’s a cocktail that combines the world of theater and the world of sales and marketing. By learning how to tell a story you can connect to the person in front of you, whether she is a client or a co-worker.”

She said the women listened eagerly to her talk. Like Faverman, she is secular, and spent a long time finding an outfit that the women here would find appropriate. She said that many women have difficulty putting themselves forward, and ultra-Orthodox women might have even more difficulty.

“There is something holding many of these women back,” she said. “They put themselves behind the men, behind the children. And I say bring yourself to the front. That’s a huge thing for them.”

These women are also having an effect on broader Israeli society as well. Since schools are separate, secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis rarely get a chance to meet.

Shaindy Babad of Temech says that when she started working in a high-tech area in Jerusalem twenty years ago, she was one of only two ultra-Orthodox women among hundreds of workers. Now, she say, there are dozens of ultra-Orthodox women there.

Orthodox groups file with Supreme Court in support of Muslim head scarfs

Seven national Orthodox Jewish groups filed a Supreme Court brief in favor of a Muslim woman’s right to wear a head scarf at work.

The brief was filed by attorney Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin, LLP of Washington D.C. for a case that is expected to be heard in February or March of next year on whether an applicant’s failure to give explicit notice that she is a practicing Muslim who wears a head scarf at work allowed clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch to reject her application, saying it was in violation of the company dress code.

In the brief, Lewin recounted how his application to a New York City law firm was turned down because the firm didn’t want to be inconvenienced by making accommodations for his religious observance.

The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, Agudas Harabbanim, Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America joined the friend of the court brief.

 

In new Israeli elections, security issues returning to fore

This government was supposed to be different.

During the last election campaign in 2012, Israelis seemed to tire of the existential issues that have plagued the country for decades. Barely anyone talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Long-simmering social tensions over the rising cost of living and the economic burdens of the underemployed haredi Orthodox community were going to finally get their due.

The Knesset’s arrivistes — former television personality Yair Lapid and technology millionaire Naftali Bennett — swept into government by championing middle-class concerns. As members of the coalition, Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid worked on a number of social and economic initiatives, including efforts to lower dairy prices and curb growing housing costs.

Though Jewish Home vehemently opposed Palestinian statehood and Yesh Atid supported it, both agreed that haredi Orthodox men should be drafted into the army and integrated into the workforce.

Less than two years later, the partnership has broken up over the very issues that the parties had downplayed. Bickering over peace talks began in the spring and the shouts grew only louder after this summer’s war with Hamas. The recent crisis in American-Israeli relations further fanned the flames.

The rifts came to a head last week with the Cabinet’s adoption of the so-called nation-state law —  a measure to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character into law. Bennett supported the bill, while Lapid, the finance minister, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were opposed.

In announcing Tuesday that the coalition had faltered, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited three areas of disagreement: building in eastern Jerusalem, demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character and maintaining a strong stance against Iran.

Netanyahu also singled out Lapid and Livni for their criticism of government policy after firing them from their Cabinet posts. The next government, the prime minister vowed, would be like the previous one — a stable coalition of hawkish, conservative parties.

Following the collapse of peace negotiations, the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers in June, the 50-day war in Gaza over the summer and the recent violence in Jerusalem — including the killing of four Jewish worshippers and a Druze policeman at a Jerusalem synagogue last month — politicians are focusing again on the issues that have always preoccupied them. After elections, now scheduled for March 17, everything old will become new again.

“The 2013 campaign was after relatively quiet years,” said Tal Schneider, author of the respected political website Plog. “Israel is not used to having such a length of time without any terror attacks. We’re back to normal, [but] last time it wasn’t on the agenda.”

Recent polls predict the elections will be good for parties on tיe far left and right that have made the Palestinian conflict their principal issue. Surveys show Jewish Home jumping from 12 to 16 seats, even 19, and the far-left Meretz, which went from three to six seats in the last election, rising to nine. Every survey shows Yesh Atid losing seats.

Meanwhile, Likud’s historic chief rival, the left-wing Labor party, has returned to its dovish roots, electing as chairman Isaac Herzog, a former corporate lawyer who strongly supports peace talks with the Palestinians. Herzog replaced Shelly Yachimovich, an assertive former journalist who stayed all but silent on the Palestinian issue in the 2013 elections.

And that shared agenda of integrating haredim into the army and workforce? The realities of parliamentary politics will almost definitely make that a thing of the past.

If he wins again in March, Netanyahu has vowed to ally again with haredi parties who seek to roll back the law passed earlier this year requiring some haredi men to serve in the army. Even a left-wing government would likely need haredi support to form a parliamentary majority.

Israelis, of course, still care about housing prices that have soared 80 percent since 2007 and growing income inequality. An as yet unnamed party founded to address those concerns, headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is expected to draw plenty of votes.

But Israelis aren’t pitching tents on the street to protest economic policy as they did in 2011. This year, they have massed to support soldiers fighting in Gaza, pray for the kidnapped teens, oppose the nation-state law and protest the torching of a Jewish-Arab school.

“People vote by security,” Schneider said. “They may say in the polls that they’re more into the housing crisis, but it’s really never about the economy.”

Orthodox yeshiva leader arguing for greater privacy in women’s conversions

In the wake of voyeurism allegations against a prominent Orthodox rabbi, the head of an Orthodox yeshiva for women is arguing that male rabbis need not be present for a female convert’s ritual immersion.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, is preparing a teshuvah, or Jewish legal opinion, saying that Jewish law does not require a male rabbi to be in the room of the ritual bath, or even for the door to be ajar, to witness the immersion of a female convert. Fox expects to publish the teshuvah within the next week through Yeshivat Maharat, which focuses on training and ordaining women as Orthodox clergy.

The issue of privacy for female converts has taken on new urgency in the wake of allegations that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a high-profile Washington rabbi, used hidden cameras to watch female conversion candidates as they immersed themselves in the mikvah.

Fox said that he and others at Yeshivat Maharat would also push to give highly trained women a greater role in preparing and shepherding women through the conversion process rather than leaving such preparation as the sole province of male rabbis.

While steering clear of the specific allegations against Freundel, Fox said that the accusations in the case highlight the unequal power dynamic between men and women in many areas of Jewish ritual and the potential for abuse raised by those imbalances.

“A power hierarchy exists,” Fox told JTA. “Our goal is to shift that hierarchy.”

Officials from Yeshivat Maharat and its sister institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a seminary to ordain male rabbis, will host a community meeting on Thursday to discuss “protecting sacred spaces, clergy boundaries and rabbinic authority.”

Orthodox, Reform groups differ on Supreme Court’s gay marriage call

Reform and Orthodox Jewish groups had opposite takes on the Supreme Court decision not to hear gay marriage cases, effectively extending the right to a majority of the states.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to leave in place lower court rulings that have the potential to bring marriage equality to more than half of the states is cause for celebration for those Americans who will now be able to marry the person they love, no matter their gender,” the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement said in a statement Tuesday after the court turned away five appeals of lower court rulings permitting gay marriage.

The effect of the denial was to increase from 19 to 30 the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group, said it remained committed to the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

“Agudath Israel of America remains committed to defending marriage as it has been understood since time immemorial: the sanctioned union of a man and a woman,” the group said in a statement. “We do not believe that the constitution demands an abandonment of history.”

 

Are Jewish neighborhoods a good thing?

I would like to offer a view on Jewish neighborhoods that is so contrary to accepted wisdom that I can only ask that people read this column with as open a mind as possible.

On balance, after a lifetime of thought, I don’t think that Jewish neighborhoods are always a good thing for Jews or, for that matter, for our fellow Americans who are not Jewish. In fact, committed Jews living among non-Jews often does more good — for Jews, for Judaism, for Kiddush HaShem and for relations with non-Jews.

Having lived much of my life in Jewish neighborhoods, I think I am well acquainted with the arguments for many Jews living in one area of a city. 

One argument is comfort: People prefer to be among “their own.” That is why there are black, Latin American, Chinese, Korean, Armenian and other ethnic neighborhoods. 

Another argument that appeals to Jews in particular is that Jewish neighborhoods help prevent Jews from assimilating.

And for Orthodox Jews, there is simply no choice. If you don’t live within walking distance of a synagogue, you simply cannot attend a synagogue on Shabbat or any of the other Torah holy days. And you will be very lonely on Shabbat, as there will be no one with whom to share Shabbat meals.

These are significant arguments. And in the case of Orthodox Jews, there is almost no alternative.

But there are also powerful arguments against Jews congregating in one area. 

One argument is that Jews (and any other ethnic group) often become better people when they live among those who are not members of their ethnic/religious group.

Most people grow — intellectually and morally — when they have to confront outsiders. There are, of course, wonderful people who never leave their communities. But they are the exception. Most people do not grow when they lead insular lives.

In my travels through the 50 states, my favorite Jews have disproportionately been those who live in small Jewish communities. 

Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn — having only Orthodox Jewish friends, and having attended Orthodox schools and Orthodox summer camps through high school — I know what insular ethnic/religious life is like. And I didn’t find it healthy. Among many other reasons, the non-Jew (and even the non-Orthodox Jew) wasn’t real.

I first seriously encountered Jewish alternatives to my insular upbringing in my early 20s, when I drove from New York to Texas with my dear friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Thanks to the “Jewish Traveler’s Guide,” we found the name of a Jewish doctor in Alexandria, La., who listed himself as providing a place for Jewish travelers in central Louisiana to have Shabbat meals and kosher food.

This man, the late great Dr. Bernard Kaplan, awakened my eyes to the good that a Jew living among non-Jews could do. He was Alexandria’s leading surgeon, and he was loved for his goodness by just about everyone in that town. He was, therefore, a living Kiddush HaShem. (And all his children grew up to be committed Jews.)

Kiddush HaShem is probably the greatest mitzvah a Jew can perform, and it usually concerns a Jew’s behavior in the eyes of non-Jews (that is, after all, the purpose of the chosen people — to be God’s representatives to the world). In that sense, it is obviously more likely that a Jew can serve as a Kiddush HaShem in Louisiana than in Borough Park, N.Y.

I suspect that Chabad rabbis who run a Chabad House outside of Jewish communities can attest to the power of a Jew living among non-Jews to be a Kiddush HaShem.

I also believe that they and most other identifying Jews who live among non-Jews can attest to its transformative nature. It makes you a better person and a better Jew.

Yes, it is comfortable to live among one’s own. But comfort in life rarely leads to personal growth. 

Or to Jewish growth.

It can’t be a coincidence that virtually every great Jewish religious work was composed outside of Israel, when Jews lived among non-Jews. We have, for example, two versions of the Talmud — the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. And it is the former that we study. Maimonides’ works were all written outside of Israel, sometimes in Arabic.

I cannot overstate how impressed I have been when meeting Orthodox Jews who live in small Jewish communities among non-Jews. I will never forget a black-hat Orthodox rabbi I met in the Midwest who founded a Jewish day school for the relatively few Jews in his city. He told me that he allowed non-Jewish students to attend his school. When I regained my composure, I asked him one question: Do your fellow frum Jews in New York City know about this? 

“No,” he responded.

What he did would be essentially impossible in New York.

My wife and I live in a non-Jewish suburb of Los Angeles — so non-Jewish that it doesn’t even have a Chabad House. The closest Chabad House, in Glendale (not a major Jewish metropolis either), is run by the inimitable Rabbi Simcha Backman. He has “appointed” me an honorary shaliach (Chabad emissary) in La Canada.

I think I build the only sukkah there, and when we opened our home one Sukkot, I recall the wide eyes of all the children of Jewish parents who had never seen a sukkah in their lives. Introducing Jews who have had little or no contact with Jewish life to Judaism is another mitzvah that a committed Jew living outside a Jewish neighborhood can engage in. 

I live in a cul-de-sac, and my immediate neighbors are an Arab-American couple, whom my wife and I adore. The other neighbor is Korean. My cul-de-sac is what America is supposed to be about. It’s still a good idea.


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).

Sucker punch: Brooklyn Jews targeted in ‘knockout’ attacks

Chava, a student at a Chabad seminary, has lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for six years, but it’s only in the past few days that she started carrying pepper spray in her handbag.

Her younger brother gave her the deterrent after news hit of a string of recent attacks against Orthodox Jews, seven of them in Crown Heights.

The assaults, believed to be part of a national wave of so-called “knockout game” attacks in which black teens punch random white strangers for sport, are unnerving Jews in the racially mixed neighborhood still haunted by the days of rioting there in 1991.

The latest attack came Monday, when a 72-year-old Russian-speaking Jewish woman was punched in the East New York neighborhood, according to the Daily News.

“I’ve definitely been more cautious since [the attacks] started,” Chava told JTA as she waited to pick up a hot drink at Chocolate, a kosher cafe inside the Jewish Children’s Museum. “I’ve been hearing about it, and I saw the footage. I’m looking around. I’m always aware of my surroundings.”

In other American cities, knockout victims have been non-Jewish whites. In New York, the victims of all nine punching attacks reported so far appear to be Jewish, and the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Unit is investigating.

It is unclear whether the attacks, none of which have involved robberies, are linked. A police spokesman interviewed last Friday declined to share details about the incidents but said that eight of the Brooklyn attacks fall into the hate crimes category.

For the time being, the NYPD has deployed more police officers to Crown Heights. On Monday, several police vans, a mobile command center, police cars and two officers on horseback were stationed near the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue, a bustling commercial street with bakeries, groceries and Judaica stores, and home to the world headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch and the Jewish Children’s Museum.

Inside the museum, Michael Harel, the manager of Chocolate and an Israeli who has lived in Crown Heights for 13 years, said there is plenty of tension between blacks and Jews in the neighborhood, some of it attributable to class resentment.

“Back in the days there were a lot of problems here,” he said. “Looks like it’s coming back.”

But Pinchas Woolstone, a cafe patron, said Crown Heights is “light years away” from the era of the riots. Although he has lived in Crown Heights for only six years, Woolstone  said he used to visit the neighborhood in the 1970s, when it resembled “a war zone.”

“No black person or Jewish person would speak to each other; they hardly looked at each other,” recalled the Australia native, who works for a commercial cleaning company. “The latest little flareup is not good, but we shouldn’t contemplate it’s anything like it used to be.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton publicly condemned the knockout attacks.

“There is nothing funny or even remotely entertaining about attacking innocents walking down the street,” he wrote in a column for the Huffington Post. “This is not a ‘game’; it is inhumane behavior that has no place in our country or the world.”

Zaki Tamir, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, said black and Jewish community leaders have enjoyed good relations in recent years, and the neighborhood has become safer over the past decade, in part due to gentrification. He acknowledged that the latest attacks are shattering the sense of security that had been built up.

“Suddenly this is reminiscent of old times and it makes everyone feel very vulnerable,” Tamir said.

Civilian patrols working in conjunction with the police have been stepped up to help escort children home from the train at night, as well as women and those considered easier targets, according to Tamir.

The community is “more organized than ever before in terms of preventing crime and keeping streets nonviolent,” he said. “People realize Crown Heights is not a haven for hoodlums anymore.”

At a press conference Monday at the Crown Heights Youth Collective, several Brooklyn elected officials, including Eric Adams, the incoming borough president, condemned the attacks, and  Tamir’s group offered a $1,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of perpetrators.

Nathan, a Chocolate cafe employee who did not want to give his last name, said news of the attacks prompted him to stop allowing his three children, the oldest of whom is 8, to play unattended outside the lobby of his apartment building.

On Saturday, Brooklyn resident Amrit Marajh was arraigned for an attack from the previous day in Borough Park. Police initially said Marajh was being charged with a hate crime but later told The New York Times he had been charged with assault, harassment and menacing.

Marajh, who apparently has a Jewish girlfriend and has never been arrested, denied the charges and was released on $750 bail.

Charedim acknowledge abuse

It was only when her sons came at her with knives that she realized keeping quiet was not going to work.

For nine years, her rabbis had told her not to speak up about her husband’s verbal, physical and sexual attacks. They assured her that the abuse would pass, that if she obeyed his every wish — folding his napkin just so or letting him do as he liked in bed — the attacks would end and he would stop telling their grown sons she was a bad mother.

But when her sons began to threaten her, she knew it was time to leave.

Taking her youngest children, she turned to Yad Sarah, a highly regarded Israeli charity founded by former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski. The organization mainly focuses on medical services, but it also runs a domestic abuse division geared toward Orthodox Jews. A professional there directed her to Bat Melech, a shelter for battered religious women.

“It was amazing,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “I was sure that I was not a normal person, and they were nice to me.”

The wall of silence surrounding sensitive domestic issues in the Charedi Orthodox community has long been seen as an impediment to successfully addressing them. Yad Sarah and Bat Melech have sought to change the situation — and their efforts appear to be bearing fruit.

A decade ago, Charedi community leaders rarely spoke openly about violence against women. Now leading rabbis are working with experts to fight abuse in the community.

“We’ve succeeded in that they talk about it publicly,” said Shlomit Lehman, a professor of social work who founded the Yad Sarah domestic abuse division. “There was always family violence, but they kept it secret. Our connection with the community and leadership is stronger. There’s discretion and professional care.”

Lehman started the division in 2000 with two therapists. Now there are 16 serving 150 patients a month, making Yad Sarah the second-most active domestic abuse center in Israel.

Bat Melech, founded in 1995, runs two shelters and is expanding its Beit Shemesh facility. The Crisis Center for Religious Women, which refers abuse victims to professional care, is organizing an international conference slated for December 2014 on preventing violence and abuse in the religious community.

Until recent years, experts say, Charedi rabbis would deal with cases of domestic abuse privately; only rarely would they make referrals to professionals or recommend divorce. Victims often were stigmatized, and their children had a harder time finding marriage partners.

“It’s easier to say that’s not in our community,” said Eitan Eisman, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who recommends Bat Melech’s services and advocates for its work. “That’s easier than looking at our sins. Some people deny reality, and some people think they can deal with the issues alone in the community. But more and more people are accepting this reality.”

Both Bat Melech and Yad Sarah have made rabbinic outreach a central part of their strategies. Yad Sarah launched a rabbinic committee with representatives of Israel’s major Charedi organizations. Those leaders in turn instructed communal rabbis to refer battered women to the two organizations.

Bat Melech founder Noach Korman says only a minority of Charedi rabbis still ignore domestic violence and most support his organization’s mission.

Still, discretion remains a paramount concern for Charedi rabbis, many of whom still refuse to advocate publicly for the two organizations. Leading Charedi newspapers will not run ads for Bat Melech and Yad Sarah, though online Charedi publications do cover them. Charedi schools also do not permit Yad Sarah to run seminars on domestic abuse for their students.

The culture of secrecy doesn’t bother Lehman, who sees an advantage in wielding the significant influence of Charedi rabbis.

“In the general population, public discourse is the way to deal with this,” Lehman said. “In the religious community it’s very different. The blessing comes from what’s hidden. It’s easier to deal with things in the Charedi community when you talk about it quietly.”

Charedi couples are more reluctant than their secular peers to choose divorce. Lehman considers a battered women’s shelter a last resort.

Instead, Yad Sarah encourages abusive husbands to seek therapy in parallel with their wives. Lehman says that for every 100 women who seek treatment, approximately 40 men come as well.

“The hierarchy between husband and wife in the Charedi world is a good excuse for the violence, but it doesn’t create the violence,” she said. Charedi communities “educate for respect in the family. The violence doesn’t start in the hierarchy or the biblical verse.”

Though growing numbers of women have sought treatment in recent years, Korman and Lehman say work remains to be done. Bat Melech at times has to turn women away — in part because of the high number of children that sometimes accompany them. The shelters have served 800 women and, Korman estimates, more than 3,000 children.

“People aren’t waiting,” Lehman said. “They come when they’re dating or in the first year of marriage, so there are more options. Their entire lives are ahead of them.”