Wow!!! Todah to Rabbi Mark B Greenspan's incisive "Marching Orders: A Tale of Order and Anarchy!" (click the title to read the post on the shefanetwork blog).
Shefa's Rabbi Blog List
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Wow!!! Todah to Rabbi Mark B Greenspan's incisive "Marching Orders: A Tale of Order and Anarchy!" (click the title to read the post on the shefanetwork blog).
An airliner was in-flight when its navigation equipment failed. Wanting to reassure his anxious passengers, the pilot made the following announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen: I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that we have plenty of gas, a great tail wind and we're making terrific time. The bad news is, we have no idea where we are heading!"
This story, it seems to me, captures this week's Torah portion in a nutshell. The Book of Numbers as a whole, todayâ€™s parashah in particular, contain a story of order and anarchy. Like the ill-fated flight in my story, it describes a nation that was well organized and ready to travel but not sure where they were going or if they even wanted to reach their destination.
The first several chapters of Numbers contain a description of military-like order and discipline. Every tribe, every clan and every family knew its place and designation in the camp of Israel. It had been a year since the Exodus and the people had faced their share of trials and tribulations. They also stood at Sinai, received the Torah, built the Tabernacle and ordered their military units to defend the nation and conquer the Promised Land. God now commands Moses to fashion two silver trumpets with which to call the people to assembly. At long last they are ready to travel to the land of Canaan.
But like a family leaving on vacation, five minutes into the trip the people of Israel begin whining: "Are we there yet? I'm thirsty!" All 'heck' breaks loose. The people begin complaining: about their food, water, about one another and even about their leaders. Moses throws his hands up in desperation. Even Aaron and Miriam complain about their brother, Moses, Israel's revered leader.
And then, if we look ahead to the following Torah portion, we discover that the people are not even sure they want to go to the Promised Land. "Itâ€™s a land that devours its inhabitants," their leaders tell them, "We cannot attack those people for they are stronger than us!" I believe all the discord in this week's Torah portion must be read in light of next week's story of the spies.
So what went wrong? How could a people move, in a single breath, from order to anarchy? How was it possible for a nation that heard the voice of God, witnessed God's presence in the Tabernacle, and received the Torah to fall apart so quickly?
I believe that the Israelites faced two serious problems on their journey through the wilderness. First, the people werenâ€™t sure where they were going. After all, the Promised Land was a pipe dream. The people had lived for generations as slaves in Egypt. No one could remember what the land was like. The Israelites were used to depending on others for all their basic needs. The Promised Land was just that - a promise but not reality.
And second, while they sort-of knew their destination, the people of Israel weren't really sure they wanted to get there. A successful journey must have a goal, but if the goal is not shared by the travelers, then order is going to break down and fail.
Sadly, contemporary synagogues tend to be a lot like my ill-fated flight and the people of Israel. They are not sure where we're going and they are not even sure that they want to get there. But theyâ€™re 're making great time!
This is especially true of Conservative congregations today. For generations American Jews successfully built synagogues and communities on Long Island. Every town had its own congregation, each with a Rabbi and Cantor, a vibrant religious school, and a beautiful sanctuary. In many cases the synagogue had a caterer who brought opulence and elegance to the building.
As long as there was a regular stream of people moving from the New York City to the Island there was no problem - new members would replace the ones that dropped out as soon as the youngest child finished his or her Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. If you donâ€™t believe me, consider a statistic our president made me aware of: the average membership of a family that drops out of our synagogue is about 15 years - the amount of time from shortly after the birth of their first child through their last child's rite of passage.
In recent years, however, we have faced a serious crisis like many synagogues. The stream of new members turned to a trickle, but the flow of people out of our synagogues has continued. In the sixteen years I have been the rabbi of OJC, our membership has dropped from over 600 to 360 families. When I came our religious school had 250 children; today we have about 70.
Congregational leaders and professionals wring their hands and ask, "What went wrong?" "Why donâ€™t people support their local synagogues anymore?" The truth is, they never did.
The answer to these questions is actually quite simple. While we've been great at creating Conservative synagogues, we've been less than successful at inspiring people to become Conservative Jews - real Conservative Jews. Our destination, "our goal," should never have been to build large institutions; it should have been - to inspire people to make Jewish tradition, learning and community part of their lives. I am sad to say that rabbis and leaders of synagogues have failed. Those few congregants who become more committed to Jewish tradition tend to go elsewhere in search of a shared community, committed to Shabbat and Kashrut. The graduates of Camp Ramah and Conservative Days schools find more meaning in attending independent minyanim rather than affiliating with Conservative synagogues.
It's not that we donâ€™t care about these values - we do. The problem is that we havenâ€™t been willing or able to make these values our first priority - our goal and destination as a congregation. We continue to talk about affiliation rather than Jewish commitment. Part of the problem, of course, is cultural and social. American Jews consider words like commitment and obligation, dirty words. But there is an argument to be made for how making a commitment to Jewish tradition can enrich one's life.
I am sad to say but the recent discussion in United Synagogue has only furthered this failure. Today United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is saying that its primary goal as a religious movement is to create kehillot, communities. It seems to me that our primary goal should be to create Yehudim, religiously observant and committed Jews. But we either donâ€™t know how to reach that goal, or we simply donâ€™t believe that it is doable.
I believe that OJC will solve its financial problems. We are still a vibrant congregation with a healthy nursery and religious school, many young families, a continuing daily minyan, and meaningful Shabbat and holiday services. The real question is whether we will address the spiritual problems we are facing as American Jews. Our challenge is whether we will put all our energies into saving a building or saving Judaism. What is our ultimate destination?
In recent weeks, we have been given marching orders. We have begun a discussion about the future of our congregation. Now it is up to us to ask: where does Judaism fit into our lives? How can we deepen our commitment to God, to Torah and to Israel? Are we Conservative Jews because we are affiliated with a Conservative synagogue or are we Conservative Jews because Conservative Judaism represents our aspirations as individuals?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have good news for you. First, OJC is not going away. Second: Do you know where you wish your synagogue to take you?
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
An Open Letter to Conservative Rabbis Regarding The Recent Transition at the Conservative Yeshiva
Dear Rabbis of the Conservative Movement,
I am sure that you have all heard of the transition taking place at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. If you have not, then it is my sad duty to inform you that the Fuchsberg Center has decided to eliminate the position of Rosh Yeshiva, and Dr. Rabbi Richard (Shmuel) Lewis will no longer be employed. As the letter from the USCJ administration on the subject notes, “With no doubt, his scholarship and many gifts will be missed.”
While the USCJ and Fuchsberg Center have been juggling budgetary constraints for some time, this decision has come as a shock to many of the staff (who were not involved in the decision) and 1800 alumni who have had the good fortune to study at the Yeshiva. I am sure that this decision was painstaking, but it is disappointing that the process behind it was so secretive, especially when the result will fundamentally change the experience of learning at the Yeshiva. If the discussion had been more open, perhaps an alternative solution could have been found.
I am writing to you because I know that this is an important issue to the RA. Only last year, at the Rabbinical Assembly Plenum, you declared “that the Rabbinical Assembly and its members recognize the leading role that the Conservative Yeshiva plays in the area of intensive text study by lay people as a central goal and value of Conservative Judaism.” I ask you now, is the Conservative Yeshiva a stronger, more capable institution without a Rosh Yeshiva?
If you ascribe to the RA’s Resolution in Support of the Conservative Yeshiva, I ask that you take it upon yourself to make your voice heard on this issue. If you share in my grief regarding the decision and my outrage regarding the process, I ask that you take a stand. What’s more, I ask that you share your feelings with your students and congregants and empower them to engage with the USCJ on this matter.
We live in an age where the voice of the many has never been stronger and in a country where a community organizer is President. I call on you, our leaders in both spirit and practice, to follow the rich tradition of Conservative rabbis who were willing to take a public stand for what they felt was right. As the Conservative Movement yearns for greater communal engagement, use this as an opportunity to educate others about Jewish values like derech eretz and Torah Lishmah and to loudly declare that a Jewish institution is not stronger but weaker when we remove its religious and spiritual backbone.
I urge you to stand with me in asking the powers that be at USCJ (including those who authored the letter explaining the removal of the Rosh Yeshiva: Rabbi Loren Sykes, Rabbi Steven Wernick, Richard Skolnik and Marty Werber) to reconsider their decision and open this conversation to the greater community of Conservative Jews in the hopes of finding a solution more befitting the values of the Conservative Movement.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
PRESS RELEASE: RABBIS FOR WOMEN OF THE WALL ISSUE STATEMENT SUPPORTING NETANYAHU, SHARANKSY AND JERUSALEM DISTRICT COURT DECISION
RABBIS FOR WOMEN OF THE WALL ISSUE STATEMENT SUPPORTING
NETANYAHU, SHARANKSY AND JERUSALEM DISTRICT COURT DECISION
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - May 8, 2013
Rabbi Pamela Frydman 415-261-3404 (from outside U.S. 001-415-261-3404), firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbis for Women of the Wall has expanded its core to over eighty rabbis and a growing group of cantors from across the streams of the Jewish people. These leaders have issued a statement calling on the Israeli government to adhere to the April 24, 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling, by permitting and protecting Women of the Wall as they pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem while wearing tallitot and reading from a Torah scroll. The statement goes on to praise the efforts of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Prime Minister Netanyahu for appointing Sharansky to come up with an inclusive plan for the Kotel area. The statement concludes with points that signatories hope will be taken into consideration as the Sharansky Plan is implemented.
Every Jew is invited to lend his or her name to the statement at http://www.rabbisupportpluralism.org/ which is being emailed to the government officials named in it and to other Members of Knesset.
Among Rabbis for WOW leaders are Rabbis Susan Silverman, Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Debra Cantor and Valerie Stessin, who have experienced being arrested and detained with Women of the Wall for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall. Also included are Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL). Honorary Co-Chairs and Vice Chairs include Richard Skolnik, International President of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Ruth Messinger, Elana Sztokman and Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman, an Israeli of American descent who was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel. Hallel and her mother, Rabbi Susan Silverman, are related to comedienne Sarah Silverman.
Rabbis for Women of the Wall was founded on October 18, 2010 by twenty-eight rabbis issuing a joint statement. Within two weeks, the 2010 statement garnered the support of 400 rabbis and 500 others and gained coverage in the Jerusalem Post. <http://tinyurl.com/bpfmp8l> By January 2011, Rabbis for WOW encompassed over 700 rabbis, 80 cantors, 80 organization heads and 1200 others, and held meetings with Israeli government officials. <http://tinyurl.com/cs2eka9>
On the eve of the May 2013 launch, Rabbi David Kalb, International Co-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall stated: "Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel's decision reflects a real change for the betterment of Israel and world Jewry and represents the beginning of true respect for different points of view in Israel with regard to Judaism. This approach to diversity has the potential to bring Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish people) together to create a greater commitment for every Jew to Torat Yisrael (the Torah of Israel), Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
International Co-Chair Rabbi Pamela Frydman added: "In the Jewish state, there is no separation between synagogue and state. A divorcing couple may choose between religious court and civil court to adjudicate matters of property, support and custody. We firmly believe that within this model, minhag ha-makom (the custom of the place) includes the determinations of the civil court, as well as the religious court and the religious functionary (mara d'atra) in defining and implementing minhagei ha-makom in congregations, communities, and districts. We firmly believe that Judge Sobel's ruling will continue to clear the way for women to be allowed to pray with tallit and Torah reading at the Kotel, regardless of whether it is paired with the 2003 Supreme Court ruling or the 1981 amendments to the Holy Sites Law or any law relating to holy sites and minhagei ha-makom (customs of the place) at the Western Wall."
Rabbi Kalb concludes: "We are more committed than ever in our support of Women of the Wall and religious freedom in Israel. May pluralism in the cause of Jewish unity be victorious in our time."
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
For first time, police say won't stop Women of Wall from praying with prayer shawls, phylacteries this Friday. Jewish Agency chairman submits request for building permits around Western Wall plaza ahead of implementation of his program for mixed public praying at site
Published: 05.07.13, 15:27 / Israel Jewish Scene - http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4377285,00.html
This coming Friday, members of the Women of the Wall organization will be able, for the first time, to pray at the Western Wall plaza wearing a prayer shawl and phylacteries, and even to recite the Kaddish and Kedushah prayers, which they have been banned from doing until now.
The police have clarified, however, that they would not allow Torah scrolls into the women's section.
The attorney general and state prosecutor decided Monday not to petition the Supreme Court against theJerusalem District Court's ruling, which says women may pray with prayer shawls and phylacteries, and instead to emphasize a strict rather than ambiguous interpretation of the regulations defining the holy site.
The Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women convened Tuesday for a special discussion initiated by Committee Chairwoman Aliza Lavi (Yesh Atid), in the presence of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who presented his outlinefor solving the situation at the Western Wall.
Sharansky: Move materializing
The Jewish Agency chairman, who came up with the outline for equality at the Western Wall, said he had submitted a request for building permits around the site as part of the efforts to implement the plan. He said a dialogue was being held with the archeologists, some of whom are against works in the area for religious reasons.
Another obstacle Sharansky pointed to was the Muslim Waqf's objection, which has not been voiced so far but could be aroused by certain elements. He said he believed the government would fund the project on its own, but that the world Jewry would chip in if needed.
Sharansky declared, however, that the creation of an equal plaza could begin within a month and that the first stage could be completed within 10 months. He referred to the move as highly significant, saying it would provide a response to most of the existing problems. He added that the mentioned obstacles would not delay its implementation, but only the final stage whose implementation would take another two years.
At this stage, he told Ynet, the only thing delaying the start of the work was the need to wait for the building permits, which he said were expected to be received within a relatively short period of time.
The Jewish Agency chairman added that the Western Wall was a unique site, raising national and religious interest worldwide, and that every Jew in Israel and abroad had a special connection to the place.
"There's a natural interest for every Jew in the world to be able to come and express solidarity with his people and religion," he said. "The solution will not be in court or in Knesset legislation, but in a very wide agreement between all parts of the Jewish people. We must find a solution for everyone.
Sharansky noted that the parties were still at odds over the balance between the current Western Wall plaza's national and religious character (for example, in holding state ceremonies), and that he supported the Reform demand to add representatives to the foundation running the site.
"What will happen this Friday can contribute to the move and can destroy the move," he said. "I appeal to both side. The government has made an unprecedented decision in regards to the Women of the Wall's prayer, allowing them to pray their way. But even if they cannot do it with Torah scrolls, it's very important to keep calm."
Police: Torah scroll banned
The police representative clarified during the discussion that the police would not act against the District Court ruling on Friday. "We will not prevent the Women of the Wall from praying their way – at least in terms of a prayer shawl, phylacteries, Kaddish and Kedushah," he said.
He clarified, however, that they won't be allowed to bring in a Torah scroll due to a regulation of a Western Wall rabbi which bans the entry of an external Torah scroll.
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said during the discussion that no one, including himself, was satisfied with the suggested solution, and that perhaps that was proof that the Sharansky outline was the right one.
The rabbi added that he was uncertain that the outline could be fully implemented, but that it was necessary to reach a wide agreement and recognition by all sides of the Western Wall as a uniting place – out of national responsibility.
"Without that, there is no use to start working and reach a political and possible diplomatic conflict. What for?"
He slammed the Women of the Wall, which he said were seeking to create a provocation, by quoting a statement made by the group's chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, that she and her friends wanted "to see and be seen." He said it proved that they were seeking to "injure Orthodox people's heart."
Knesset Member Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) attacked the women as well, saying that "they are getting money for it. They are not here to pray. They want to lead to bloodshed in this holy place… Will the Waqf will let them wear a prayer shawl on the Temple Mount?"
In response, Sharansky invited Eichler to solve the problem, saying: "Come negotiate with them. I don't have the mandate to do it."
'Prevent violence during Friday prayer'
"We should read the writing on the wall," said MK Lavi, who convened the meeting. "Leaving the situation vague, when it's unclear what is permitted and what is forbidden, may lead to different consequences on Friday. During tomorrow's discussion we'll try to create a dialogue between all relevant parties, and reach agreements which will prevent violence during the Friday prayer."
About two weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court said that the wearing by women of traditional male prayer accessories was not a violation of "local custom" or a "provocation," the legal reasoning that allows police to act. The ruling also said that women were not obligated to pray at the alternative Robinson's Arch site.
The attorney general said Monday that he had decided not to appeal the District Court ruling for fear that the Supreme Court would choose a more lenient interpretation of the law as well. Instead, he took the easier way of changing the regulations, which are under the exclusive authority of the religious affairs minister.
Monday, May 6, 2013
NYJewish Week: "An Israeli in Manhattan finds that her friends don't want to hear what she has to say about Jews and Arabs."
An Israeli in Manhattan finds that her friends don't want to hear what she has to say about Jews and Arabs.
Israeli food! Israeli music! Israeli arts and crafts! Blue-and-white flags!
Adorable tots with glittery Magen Davids painted on their cheeks, eating falafel with the tahini trickling down their blue and white T-shirts declaring: "AMERICA DON'T WORRY, ISRAEL IS BEHIND YOU!" It was a beautiful day to celebrate Israel's 65th anniversary, and the Upper West Side was awash with unequivocal love.
At the JCC in Manhattan, the Israel Forum — a new signature program of the center — gathered for a more substantive discussion, titled "Zionism and Liberalism: Conflicting Values, or Complementary Identities?" The moderator explained: "We're going to talk about Israel as a Jewish state, Israel as a democracy, and then discuss whether or not these two things are compatible."
I started getting interested in Israeli politics only here, in New York. Back in Israel, in the interest of self-preservation, I steered clear. It was the time of the second intifada, in the early 2000's, places in Jerusalem were exploding, the air was ripe with fear and anger; in this atmosphere, discussing politics was like talking about sex in the safety of a dorm room. In Israel, my friends and I had been happy to stick to topics like art, spirituality and recreational drugs.
I was a senior in the Bezalel Academy of Arts, working on my big graduation project. Three years as an art major had not taught me how to bolt a screw into the wall (I conveniently leaned towards conceptual art), and I was having a rough time setting up the infrastructure. That's how I got to know Sally: a muscular, tough-looking Mizrachi guy, replete with skull and dagger tattoos on his forearms, who ran a falafel joint nearby. One day he told me he built the place by himself, with his own two hands, and I started batting my eyelashes at him. "I'm just so helpless with all the banging and screwing," I sighed. "I wish I had someone like you to help me."
With just a little prompting, Sally agreed to moonlight as my handyman, and for a fantastically low fee. "It's nothing," he waived off my gratitude, "If we don't take care of each other, who will?"
Sally worked in the falafel place during the day, and helped me in the campus workshops (open all night for seniors) at night. On the fourth night, chatting as we worked, I discovered the meaning of his unusual, effeminate nickname: "Sally" was a variation on the Arabic name "Salach." Turns out he wasn't a Mizrachi Jew, but an Arab; an Israeli Palestinian from the infamous east Jerusalem village of Issawiya.
So. I was alone, at night, on a half-deserted, isolated campus on Mount Hatzofim, in a time of war, with an Arab. An Arab who, if he so wished, could snap my neck like a twig.
My thoughts must have shown on my face, because Sally smiled and gently put down the electric drill. "Look, I get it," he said. "If you don't want to work with me anymore, I understand. I'll leave right now, with no hard feelings."
"No, of course not," I shook my head vehemently, turning a bright red. "What do you think I am, a racist?"
Back at the JCC, the moderator asked: How can Israel discriminate between its citizens, maintaining laws preferential to its Jewish subjects, and still be a democracy? Indeed, answered Israeli professor Moshe Halbertal, being a democracy involves "giving these minorities full equality in terms of land distribution, political rights, economic opportunities, etc. ... As for the law of return, if it becomes the exclusive channel to citizenship, it's actually discriminatory; our Arab citizens must have other ways of naturalizing."
"I'm not sure I like where this is going," the woman next to me whispered sharply to her neighbor. "But if I hear one more pro-Palestinian sentiment, I'm going to puke."
With Sally's help, my project began materializing at a miraculous pace. Word of the good, cheap, Arab labor that was driving it spread fast among my friends, and soon Sally was juggling more nighttime gigs than he could handle. His popularity had to do as much with his agreeable nature as it did with his prices; he had a way of treating all the new people he met as if they were his longtime friends, and they responded in kind. More often than not, nights that started with a mere repair would end as a social gathering, with the group of us sprawled around Sally, listening to his outlandish tales of life on the Arab side as we slowly got drunk together.
Friendships between Israelis and Palestinians are not a common thing — not back then, not today — but somehow this one lasted, and we became permanent parts of each other's lives. Through Sally, we got to know the other Jerusalem, the one we had no access to on our own: a rougher, poorer, wilder place that reminded us of the Israel of the pioneers, the one we knew of only from history books. We also got to know the darker side of our own Israel. We were all familiar with the term "second-rate citizens," but only now, as we observed Sally go through routine curfews, detainments and insulting little discriminations, did it become real for us. The law, the municipality, the security forces, the checkpoint guards, the Jewish neighbors, the black "Death to Arabs" graffiti sprayed on almost every corner; now that we could see for ourselves what kind of a life it amounted to, we were appalled.
Sally, on the other hand, took it all in stride. "What, you think we would be better off with a Palestinian government?" he chuckled. "I have a Hebrew accent in Arabic, and an Arabic accent in Hebrew. Either way, I'm screwed."
The moment you start seeing things from the point of view of people who are not your own is a very unfortunate one. From that moment on, you will feel chronically uncomfortable. When you hear about some victory your team gains at the expense of the other, you won't be able to cheer it. Seeing your flag flying high, your pride will be mixed with guilt, your love with frustration. Leaving the country won't help: your new American tribe will be celebrating the Jewish state just the same, often with a brighter conviction burning in their eyes. They won't always want to hear what needs fixing, and if you tell them anyway, they won't like you for it. Even the select crowd that chose to attend the JCC discussion was not entirely open to it.
After the panel was over, I met the woman who sat next to me in the cafeteria line. "You didn't puke," I noted. "I guess not," she laughed, and then asked: "Tell me, what did you think of it?"
"It was a thorough discussion," I answered curtly, trying to avoid a useless confrontation. When I didn't continue, she smiled and walked away. With a flash of regret, I realized it was I who put up the barrier. If Sally were there, he would talk to her, make her laugh, and — Palestinian or not — win her over. He was just that kind of guy.
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot Achronot America. Her column appears monthly.