American Jews heavily ‘just Jewish,’ Democrat and pessimistic on peace

The American Jewish Committee’s Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion is out.

Here’s how American Jews ID themselves Jewishly: “Just Jewish,” 36%: Reform, 27%; Conservative, 24%; Orthodox, 9%; Reconstructionist, 2%; “not sure” (you always have them), 1%.

You have to figure that those Just Jewish folks make up a large part of the 50% of American Jews who do not belong to synagogues.

On the question of “How important would you say being Jewish is in your own life?,” the responses broke down like this: Very, 51%; Fairly, 33%; Not Very, 15%; and Not Sure, 1%.

How close do American Jews feel to Israel?: Very close, 28%; Fairly close, 41%; Fairly distant, 22%; Very distant, 8%; Not sure, 1%.

And how do the Jews break down politically:? Democrat, 53%; Independent, 30%; Republican, 16%; Not sure, 1%.

And on the Middle East…

“Do you think there will or will not come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace?”

Will, 43%; Will not, 51%, Not sure, 6%.

And get this:

“Would you support or oppose Israel taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?”

Support, 66%; Oppose, 28%; Not sure, 5%.

Christmas trees in September?

A few tidbits for a Tuesday:

1. In a Village Voice report on how much New Yorkers make, we learn that Archbishop Dolan’s official salary is $23,500. I always wondered what an archbishop makes (but not enough to remember to ask).

2. When I watched a bit of the Detroit Lions winning their first game in a very, very long time on Sunday, I found myself wondering if new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz might be Jewish. Apparently, he’s not.

3. I heard that there are Christmas trees up in Macy’s and other department stores. It’s September, one month removed from August. So much for the War on Christmas.

4. I came across a short piece that Father Thomas Reese, the oft-quoted Jesuit, wrote about, of all things, the Roman Polanski case. He writes:


Imagine if the Knight of Columbus decided to give an award to a pedophile priest who had fled the country to avoid prison. The outcry would be universal. Victim groups would demand the award be withdrawn and that the organization apologize. Religion reporters would be on the case with the encouragement of their editors. Editorial writers and columnist would denounce the knights as another example of the insensitivity of the Catholic Church to sexual abuse.

And they would all be correct. And I would join them.

But why is there not similar outrage directed at the film industry for giving an award to Roman Polanski, who not only confessed to statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl but fled the country prior to sentencing? Why have film critics and the rest of the media ignored this case for 31 years? He even received an Academy award in 2003. Are the high priests of the entertainment industry immune to criticism?


Fine point, Father Reese.

5. Check out this artful AP photo (by Biswaranjan Rout) at a Hindu festival in India, where believers dress like the gods Ram and Hanuman:

APTOPIX India Hindu Festival

A liberal Episcopal bishop on civility

I had a story on LoHud/The Journal News a few days back about whether there is less civility in the public square these days.

My hooks were Kanye West, Rep. Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, the health-care debate.

It was what we call a “talker.” People are talking about it. Reflect the conversation.

One person I called was Bishop Catherine Roskam, the assistant bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. I called her because she is always thoughtful about social trends and because I know that she has been engaged in a sometimes-civil, sometimes-uncivil debate within the Anglican world on gay issues.

tjndc5-5btp4n07l14k44srp1j_layoutRoskam is liberal on theology and politics and a strong supporter of gay rights.

She told me what she thought. But her remarks got cut out of my story, along with some others, because of a lack of space.

So here’s what she said. Liberals will agree. Conservatives won’t.


I think we’re in a much less civil culture than when I was a child. We were taught good manners and taught that freedom of speech meant not shouting each other down.

I think some of it is politics. The politics of the right have actually moved us in a less civil direction through a politics of ridicule and disparagement that we find on talk radio with people such as Rush Limbaugh. They promulgate the idea that if you think in a certain way, you are American, and if you think a different way, you’re un-American — which is probably the most un-American way there is. It’s one-way or the highway. People are reluctant to say this, because people will say “You’re very partisan.” For me, it doesn’t have to do with ideas held by the right, it has to do with the methods.

With the decline of public education, you have a decline in analytic thinking. It has become easier to sway people with emotion rather than rational argument. I don’t think we have the same social expectation of civility that we used to. It’s okay to get heated up while making an argument. But shutting other people down is bullying. Bullying has a kind of currency that it never had before.


I asked Roskam about civility in the Anglican world. She said: “I think the debate in the Anglican Communion was very much shaped by the American political debate. Again, it is the far right in the church that took a page out of the book of the far right in American politics. Their tactics are a kind of ecclesiastical terrorism.”

Still a charmer after all these months

I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me links to New York magazine’s profile of Archbishop Dolan in the current issue.

I read it a few days ago, but don’t really know what to say about it.

It’s a fine piece, well written and researched. But it pretty much covers the same ground that everyone covered a few months ago when the big guy showed up in town.

The headline is “The Archbishop of Charm.” Well, yeah.

Robert Kolker writes:


His entire career, Dolan, 59, has approached the job of being a priest not as a daunting paterfamilias but as that heckuva-nice-guy you meet at some wedding who turns out to be a priest. He is what other priests call a “lifer,” someone who found his calling early and steered a course to the seminary right after grammar school (last spring, his first-grade teacher flew in to do the reading at his installation in Manhattan). He grew up in Ballwin, Missouri, the oldest of five children. His mother still lives in the St. Louis area, but his father, an aircraft engineer, died of a heart attack, in 1977—just nine months after Dolan was ordained. “He doesn’t have to put on any kind of show,” says Monsignor Michael Curran, a Brooklyn priest who has known Dolan for two decades. “He’s very comfortable with who he is and what he’s been called to be. And he uses his personality, his human gifts, to communicate a very powerful spiritual message. Maybe a psychologist could put it better, but I think there’s probably not a trace of an identity crisis in the man.”


Yeah, that’s Dolan alright.

The most interesting aspect of the profile, it seems to me, is how to shows Dolan’s ambivalence about the Great Gay Debate. Of course, he opposes gay marriage. He is Roman Catholic archbishop, after all.

But I get the feeling that Dolan would really rather talk about other things.

When I interviewed Dolan shortly after his arrival, I asked if he believed that homosexuality was inborn. He said that he didn’t know and would leave it up to the experts.

He tells Kolker:

“If you have been gay your whole life and feel that that’s the way God made you, God bless you. But I would still say that that doesn’t mean you should act on that. I would happen to say, for instance, that God made me with a pretty short temper. Now, I still think God loves me, but I can’t act on that. I would think that God made me with a particular soft spot in my heart for a martini. Now, I’d better be careful about that.”

The many controversies concerning chicken twirling

It’s chicken twirling season.

With Yom Kippur days away, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Rockland County have initiated their annual practice of Kapparot — the circling of chickens above their heads (three times) and the subsequent slaughtering of the fowl for charity.

The very, very old tradition holds that one’s sins are transferred — symbolically? — to the chickens.

bildeIt is an extremely controversial practice, here and in Israel, for several reasons. For outsiders, there are health and safety concerns. Within the Jewish world, many believe that the practice has pagan roots and should have been discontinued long ago.

In Rockland, my colleague Laura Incalcaterra reports that county health inspectors this week found health violations after visiting a makeshift chicken pen: “…including a strong, bad odor; a small amount of chicken feces and feathers on the ground; trash on the ground; and a trash bin without a cover…”

A letter from Thomas Micelli, the county’s director of environmental health, outlined seven steps for organizers to follow, including “…providing a trash bin to be replaced as it filled up; sawdust to make the cleanup of feces and liquids easier; disposable tarps to avoid the need for excessive cleaning; platforms so chickens in bottom cages don’t drown if it rains heavily; 30-inch-high wire fences for a secondary enclosure to help avoid chicken escapes; and daily cleanup.”

There are also all kind of ethical questions about how the chickens are slaughtered and whether the practice even conforms to Jewish law.

An Israeli court ruled in 2007 that the ritual may violate animal slaughter regulations. An Orthodox official worried that if people used blades that were not perfectly sharp, they were violating kosher laws.

This year, Israel’s small Conservative Jewish movement is aligning with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to oppose the ritual. “I’ll be telling people at the market that there is an alternative to the kapparot custom that does not involve cruelty to animals,” a Conservative rabbi said.

A rabbi who practices the ritual offers this: “Watching the slaughter of the chicken is supposed to make us think of our own mortality… A Jew is supposed to believe that if not for God’s compassion, his fate would be the same as the chicken’s.”

An explanation of the ritual on the website of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect concludes with this:


The origins of kapores are unclear, but it was probably developed as a substitute for sacrifices which were no longer possible with the destruction of the Temple. Animals that had been used for sacrifices in the Temple could no longer be used for similar purposes outside. Chickens are used in kapores because they were not acceptable as sacrifices in the Temple. Kapores was not intended as a sacrifice.

The influence of Kabbalah gave the custom much of its mystical aura. There is some opinion that kapores is related to the use of a scapegoat in Temple times on which the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) placed the sins of the Children of Israel before sending the goat out to its death.

The reality is that there is no magic in kapores which transfers a person’s sins to the chicken. Even in the days of the Temple, sins were not magically transferred to an animal. The entire purpose of kapores is to create an experience that inspires a person to teshuvah , that is to return to G-d and to repent. All the sacrifices — and chickens — in the world will not result in forgiveness, unless teshuvah takes place.

More big-time lectures coming to St. Theresa’s in Briarcliff

The terrific lecture series at St. Theresa’s Church in Briarcliff Manor gets going again in a few weeks.

It’s free. Open to all. 7:30 p.m. each time.

A nice, small church with plenty of parking. Get there 20 minutes early if you want to sit toward the front.

Here’s the line-up for the fall:

Thursday, Oct. 8, Donald Lopez, “Buddhism: What it is and isn’t?” Lopez is distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan and a translator for the Dalai Lama. He will explain why Buddhism appeals to so many Westerners these days.

Monday, Nov. 9, Father Robert Imbelli, “What is this pope up to? The theological vision of Benedict XVI.” Imbelli, a prof of theology at Boston College, will explain the vision behind the pope’s encyclicals, his book about Jesus and his changes in the liturgy.

Monday, Dec. 7, Jonathan Alter, “The Reality of Hope: Barack Obama’s first year.” The longtime political analyst will offer a preview of his new book detailing Year One for Obama.

Uncracking the Code (again and again)

The Da Vinci Code had been out for a few months before I became aware of it.

Someone asked me what I thought of the plot. Then I noticed piles of the book at Barnes & Noble. I started to hear chatter about whether the plot was “true.”

So I read it. And wrote about it. And wrote about it again. And again.

The Code, which came out way back in 2003, was a true phenomenon — a word that is often used when it doesn’t really apply.

This classic piece of fast-moving pulp fiction got a lot of people thinking about Christian history, often for the first time.

The fact that many people believed the story to be based in truth — the Vatican covered up Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene and the birth of their child — showed how little people know about Christian history.

Of the articles that I wrote, my favorite was about a fundamental flaw in the plot. The Code makes the case that the Vatican whipped up its conspiracy theories at the Council of Nicea in 325. But Rome had very little influence in the church at that point. Most of the bishops present were from the Greek-speaking Eastern churches.

So the Orthodox churches, not the Vatican, would have had to cover up the truth about the Christ household. The Orthodox churches, though, are not mentioned in the novel.

But, hey, it is a novel, not a history text. Dan Brown, the Code’s author, has been very vague about all of it.

“I’ve always said there’s room for different opinions,” Brown told USA TODAY recently. “Controversy is a good thing when it gets people thinking and talking.”

Okay, the new Dan Brown novel, out a couple of days ago, is “The Lost Symbol.” This book focuses, from what I’ve read, on the Freemasons, already a very mysterious group.

Get ready for a lot of new looks at the Freemasons.

Including from me, I hope. I plan to talk to some Masons from these parts about who they are, why they joined and why the Masons have been so controversial for so long.

Maybe the Masons will get an image update, like Opus Dei did after tons of Code-related attention.

USA TODAY’S Bob Minzesheimer writes:


Brown, 45, has been intrigued by the Masons since his childhood in Exeter, N.H., where his father taught at Phillips Exeter prep school: “Their lodge was above the theater, and the shades were always drawn.”

Much of the pre-publication speculation about the novel assumed it would be critical of the Masons, in the way that many saw Da Vinci as an attack on the Catholic hierarchy.

But that’s not the case. “It’s a reverent look at their philosophy,” Brown says. “I’m more interested in what they believe than all their rituals and conspiracy theories about them. That’s in the novel, but it’s discredited.”


New York magazine had a fun package about Dan Brown last week, including a not-so-complementary explanation of his amazing popularity.

It starts with this: “The great unsolved mystery at the core of The Da Vinci Code is not whether Jesus had a child (of course!) or whether the Catholic Church is a deadly machine of transhistorical truth suppression (big time!) but something far more interesting: How did an artwork so objectively horrendous manage to conquer Planet Earth? What is the magically addictive spice in Dan Brown’s secret sauce? And is there any redeeming quality to Dan Brown’s work whatsoever?”

That’s mean.

From Rome to Yonkers

Robert Moynihan, founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, normally reports from Rome.

But he’s been visiting the U.S., and wound up recently in Yonkers.

He was intending to stay with someone in Brookly, but because of an illness, found his way to a friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a relatively young religious community that serves the poor primarily in NYC and Yonkers.

You’ve probably seen them in their gray robes and long beards.

He writes about attending evening prayer with the friars in their “small, wood-paneled chapel.” He starts like this:


The prayer for Tuesday, September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (photo of icon in the Friary chapel, left), was prayed by 12 friars, but it was shared by hundreds and thousands of others across this city, and this country. and this world.

Sometimes we forget how powerful prayer can be.

It is healing.

In a time when, in America, the sole topic of conversation is the president’s health care plan, it is astonishing how little mention is made of prayer.

Yet, in the silence of chapels and churches, of convents and monasteries, of college Newman centers and FOCUS gatherings, in homes and hospitals, a common evening prayer rises.

What is this prayer like? What is its purpose? What is its meaning?

This prayer is like a murmur, an appeal, a cry.

Its purpose is to “connect” this world, which presses upon us, and surrounds us, with another world, which is available to us only if we collect ourselves, and turn ourselves toward it — an eternal world.

Its meaning is to communicate the reality and life of that eternal world to the incomplete reality and life of this passing world.

At no time in history have our minds, all of our minds, been so over-run with slogans and images made by others and transmitted to us via technologies which can reach us almost everywhere at every time. These slogans and images distract, intrigue, fascinate, and enfold us.

A retreat to silence is a tactical decision in the battle for our souls.

And this is the spiritual wisdom of the Church.

United Methodist ‘Vision’ now online only

I’ve written some recently about pressures facing the newspaper industry and my transition from a full-time religion reporter to general assignments.

Interestingly (at least to me), the longtime newspaper of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church has just announced that it is suspending publication and moving entirely to the Web.

This is significant because so many dioceses and conferences have depended for so long on their weekly or monthly newspapers to get the word out. The United Methodist Church, at least in New York, gets virtually no coverage in the mainstream media (except from me, of course).

So what does it mean that “The Vision” is going online?

Certainly, a large proportion of United Methodists in New York are seniors. Many of them, you have to figure, are online at this point. But some are not. They will lose The Vision.

I should mention, though, that the online Vision is available in a large-type version for “pastors to download and print for their parishioners who have a harder time reading the paper.”

Good thinking, there.

Religious denominations have to become more tech-savvy if they are going to connect with younger folks. We all know that mainline Protestant denominations, in general, are struggling to do so in New York.

The Sept. 18 version of the online Vision, in fact, includes an article about getting the word out to youth. It says: “I’m here to confirm what you already suspect: kids don’t check their email. To them, email is old technology, only good for formal communications with teachers, bosses, and other adults. For high schoolers, it’s all about texting and Facebook.”

True. It’s probably a good sign that United Methodists realize this kind of stuff.

Otherwise, the online Vision has the same sort of content as you’ve seen in many religious publications: a calendar page, a piece about Bishop Jeremiah Park running to raise awareness for a charity, a couple of shorts about of church anniversaries, and notices of several retreats, including one to Oberammergau, Germany, for the famous Passion Play.

There’s a box about three upcoming lunches on Long Island to talk about the Great Immigration Debate. I hope The Vision reports on what people have to say.