Yeshiva U listens to stories of ‘Being Gay’

There was a tremendous amount of media coverage in 2006 when Conservative Judaism opened its doors to gay rabbis and gay marriage.

Reform Judaism had already done so. Orthodoxy never would.

The move by the Conservative world was seen as a small but meaningful social shift (in a much larger religious and social drama that continues).

But the Jewish Week has a fascinating story about an event at Yeshiva University that shows that even some elements of the modern Orthodox world are grappling with how to face the unsettling question of homosexuality in the modern culture.

Which is not to say that there is any talk of accepting gay rabbis or gay marriage or gay anything.

But a gay rabbi and several gay students and alumni were given an opportunity to speak about their lives and the unique challenges they face as Orthodox Jews. The program was called “Being  Gay in the Modern Orthodox World.”

One student said: “Hashem made me gay. My test is not that Hashem made me gay and that I have to become straight, but my test is to live with it.”

Some 600-800 people attended. “The crowd was respectful, listening quietly to the speakers’ remarks, interrupting only for applause, and laughter at the men’s humorous remarks,” according to the JW.

The Jewish Week notes: “Separate statements issued by President Richard Joel, and by leading members of the rabbinical school’s Talmudic faculty, distanced themselves from the event while not outright condemning it.”

I can’t seem to get to the Jewish Week website today, but a cache version is HERE.

So what now?

A statement from top leaders at Yeshiva said this: “Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.”


Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve.

Religion story of the decade, anyone?

I mentioned recently that the Religion Newswriters Association had voted for the top religion stories of 2009 (featuring Obama in Cairo).

But I haven’t seen anyone weigh in on the top religion story of the decade.

Until now.

Religion scholar Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford. And he’s editor of “Religion in the News,” an excellent thrice-yearly journal about media coverage of religion.

img07On his blog, SpiritualPolitics, Silk (that’s him) names what is clearly — to my mind, at least — the religion story of this unnamed decade:


What was the biggest religion story of the decade? Unquestionably, the story of how American Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by civil authorities and mental health professionals, had systematically covered up the abuse of children by priests. This was big news locally in every Catholic diocese in the country. It became, because the USCCB was forced to confront it, a major national story. And it sparked rolling international coverage that, as this year’s revelations in Ireland attest, continues to play out. Given the breadth and depth of the coverage, I’m prepared to make the case that there has never been as big a religion story in the history of modern journalism–and that given the parlous state of journalism today, we may never see anything on its scale again.


A simple, powerful case.

To my mind, the sex-abuse scandal was one of the most most talked-about stories of the last decade, behind only 9/11, the ongoing war on terror, and the recession.

In 2002 and 2003, people wanted to talk about it wherever I went.

To this day, it comes up in conversation all the time.

Why? Because people can’t believe that it happened, that bishops allowed it to happen.

Silk makes the case that the scandal has been largely forgotten and that the church is anxious to put the whole nasty matter behind it:


But somehow, the entire thing has faded from national consciousness. There was not a peep about it in the NYT’s year-by-year wrap-up of the decade in the Week in Review last Sunday: Nor did Phillip Niemeyer’s Op-Chart, “Picturing the Past 10 Years,” so much as allude to the scandal. When Pope Benedict met with victims of abuse during his visit in 2007, there was appreciation yes, but also a sense that the county was so over that story. A lot more attention was paid to what the pope was wearing–Prada or no Prada? Pedophile priests? Been there, done that.

That’s certainly the vibe coming from the Catholic bishops, who recovered their mojo in the health care debate this year. With the help of a forgetful public, reminders of the late unpleasantness are brushed aside as so much finished business.


Even Silk doesn’t mention the surest proof that the scandal has faded from public consciousness: the lack of media coverage given the demise of the Legionaries of Christ.

tjndc5-5scjixfmdmsrdd37exx_layoutIn a small nutshell: Pope John Paul II was enamored with the Legionaries, a fast-growing, very traditional Catholic order of priests that was founded in 1941 in Mexico by Marcial Maciel. The pope ignored allegations by about a dozen former seminarians that Maciel had sexually abused them.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI publicaly retired Maciel from ministry, without saying why. But it was obvious.

This past February, the Legion itself disclosed that Maciel had fathered children and lived a “double life.” The Vatican is now investigating the order.

The whole story is set out in journalist Jason Berry’s video “Vows of Silence.”

One can argue that the tale of Maciel and the Legionaries is a microcosm of the larger sex-abuse scandal. Allegations of abuse were made and the church — in this case, the POPE — either looked the other way or ignored the evidence. What did he know? When did he know it?

I keep wondering whether the Maciel case will affect John Paul’s otherwise glowing reputation as the late pontiff zooms toward sainthood. It sure seems to be a dark stain on his pontificate. But hardly anyone knows about it.

The religion story of the decade still inspires curiosity, but no more.

A New Square mystery

What happened in New Square on Sunday night?

Don’t ask me.

About 500 Hasidic Jews held what police called an “unorganized protest about a conflict within the community,” according to my colleague Akiko Matsuda.

Someone put 8 minutes of video up on YouTube. But watching it sheds little light (at least for me) about what was going on.

At one point, the crowd (or part of the crowd) seems to be chanting: “Stop the terror now.”

What is the terror? Who knows?

According to some commentary on the YouTube post and the comments that followed, the conflict had to do with a certain faction(s) trying to force someone out of the community for following the advice of the wrong rebbe.

So there.

UPDATE: But wait, there’s more.

Apparently, some 800 people came out last night for another protest in New Square.

According to my colleague Steve Lieberman: “Ramapo police were still looking into the cause, but they believe the protests centered on who can worship at a synagogue at 91 Washington Ave. and other conflicts involving two factions within the Hasidic Jewish community.”

It’s no wonder, really, that these protests mean little to the outside world.

You have one group (or more) of Hasidic Jews trying to send a message to another group (or more). They’re not interested in providing play-by-play for curious onlookers.

Should health care reform include prayer?

Many Christian Scientists think so.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Scientists are lobbying to include a provision in reform legislation that would ban discrimination against religious and spiritual health care.

They would also like private insurers to be encouraged to cover prayer as a treatment option.

The idea has some support in Washington, but many people who are not Christian Scientists will have to be encouraged to see prayer as health care.

I wrote about Christian Science is 2008 after a Christian Science practitioner pointed out to me that prayer was not being considered in the growing national debate over health care.

At the time, I chose to focus on how Christian Science families in the pediatrician-heavy Burbs raise their children without medicine.

The Chronicle article notes:


(Christian Scientists) recognize they’re facing an uphill battle, with the debate centering on such hot-button issues as restrictions on abortion coverage and whether a final bill should include a public option or a Medicare buy-in. But Christian Scientists say they see the acknowledgment of spiritual healing in a health overhaul bill as important to their religion and to others who may turn to prayer or other nontraditional healing methods as an alternative to medical care. These could include followers of some American Indian religions or those who seek care at holistic healing centers.


A CS spokesman is quoted as saying: “It’s our intention that the health care bill recognizes the fact that medical care is not the only form of health care. We are advocates, not just for Christian Scientists, but for the public at large.”

UPDATE: The NYTimes also wrote about this issue.

And an interesting Christian Science blog notes how the issue has been covered in the media.

New York not among the most religious states

You can’t be surprised.

Sure, there are tons of churches and synagogues in New York and lots of religious people to fill them.

imagesBut New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley — make that downstate to upstaters — is home to plenty of non-believers, free-thinkers and a lot of people whose faith is not a top priority in their lives.


According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, New York is the 39th most religious state. The ranking is based on New Yorkers’ answer to one, key question: Whether religion is “very important” in their lives.

Only 46% said yes.

The national average is 56%. Mississippi came in first at 82% — way ahead of Alabama and Arkansas at 74%.

Yes, the top 10 is dominated by the South. Just like college football.

And the least religious state?

I would have guessed Washington state, which came in 36th in religious-ness.

Last place was a tie between neighbors New Hampshire and Vermont, where only 36 percent say religion is very important in their New England lives.

What would the Puritans say?

Muslim Americans on Times Square screen

At a time when Muslim Americans want to stress their American-ness…

The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has unveiled a public service announcement on the CBS Super Screen in Times Square.

The theme is: “I am Muslim, I am American.”

It features an NYPD sergeant, a Little League all-star, a human rights activist, a doctoral candidate, and an attorney. All Muslims.

The 15-second announcement will air every hour for 18 hours each day through January 16. The Super Screen is a 26-foot by 20-foot full-motion screen.

The Fort Hood massacre and the recent arrests of five young American Muslims in Pakistan have the American Muslim community trying to thwart concerns about Muslim extremism in this country.

CAIR-NY Community Affairs Director Faiza N. Ali says: “This public service advertisement features ordinary American Muslims whose everyday lives are dedicated to building community and serving country. This initiative is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that a fair and accurate portrayal of Islam and Muslims is presented to the American public.”

Influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Monsey caught in sex scandal

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community likes to keep to itself, but you may hear a very loud sigh coming from Monsey and NYC these days.

An ugly scandal is unfolding regarding one Rabbi Leib Tropper, a Monsey-based fellow who has headed a prominent group called the Eternal Jewish Family. The EJF’s mission has been to oversee the conversion of non-Jews married to Jewish spouses — according to the most strict standards for Jewish conversion.

leibBut Tropper has resigned in recent days over a Tigger Woods-ish scandal.

Apparently, he was taped speaking to a woman seeking conversion about highly un-rabbinic things.

The blog, which chronicles the failings of the Orthodox Jewish community, spoke to the woman and reported this:

The woman told Tropper was “holding things over me.” Tropper can be heard on one of the tapes asking the woman to have sex or phone sex with other men. She said Tropper would tell her, “If you fulfill my needs, I’ll fulfill yours – and you need a conversion.”

Tropper can be heard on the tapes saying, “I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to…you own your body, I don’t own your body.”

The woman says Tropper asked her to role play certain sexual scenarios with these men, either capturing the encounter on tape or describing the encounter in detail to him afterward, but she refused. “He likes to see women raped,” the woman said. While sometimes Tropper suggested men for her to have encounters with, he encouraged her to find men on her own and then report back to him. “He wanted someone who would be very rough.”

She says other women were also recruited by Tropper to fulfill these fantasies.



Tropper is no minor figure in the Orthodox world. One Orthodox blogger writes that he gained the support of many ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. and Israel by focusing on an issue they care about: conversion standards.

He writes:


One of the biggest problems with EJF’s founder long before this sex scandal broke is that he somehow managed to commandeer and virtually control one of the most important aspects of Judaism: The ability of any sincere human being to convert and join the people of Israel.

Leib Tropper is not a stupid man. He managed to connive and cajole leading rabbinic figures both here and in Israel to come on board and endorse what he was doing. International meetings were held and attended by very prominent rabbinic figures or their representatives – traveling from all over the world to attend – as the above list from their website shows.

The names of those involved with EJF is mind boggling in its depth and Hashkafic scope. The above photo of some of them sitting on an EJF dais was taken from their website and is but a small sampling of those who attended and who supported Tropper and his EJF.


Even before this sex scandal broke, Tropper and the EJF were criticized — by some — for bring ultra-Orthodox conversion standards to the wider Jewish world and for using their clout to hurt people. wrote last year:


Times have changed. That’s because haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews like Leib Tropper, founder and director of Eternal Jewish Family—an organization dedicated to converting non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews—represent the most rapidly growing demographic in Judaism. Tropper also founded and runs a yeshiva in Monsey, New York, and travels regularly to Israel, where he frequents the halls of haredi power and hobnobs with its leaders. People like him are the Jewish future. They’re at the center of a seemingly irrevocable schism between Orthodoxy and every other denomination of Judaism. They’re determined to restrict and to monitor all Orthodox conversions as part of their spiritual war against non-haredi Judaism, and they want nothing less than ultimately to define who is a Jew.


Now the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents “modern” Orthodox rabbis but has increasingly tightened its conversion standards to comply with ultra-Orthodox dictates, has issued a statement on the scandal:


Dec 22, 2009 — We are deeply appalled, saddened and pained by reports that have reached us concerning alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of the chairman of the rabbinic committee of the Eternal Jewish Family, Rabbi Leib Tropper. We need to wait for more complete information before we can react fully.

Nonetheless, at this time, we would make the following points clear:

1. What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred.

2. We urge anyone who might have been victimized to seek appropriate counseling and we, at the Rabbinical Council of America, remain ready to refer anyone who needs such assistance to the appropriate professionals.

3. Anyone who may have any questions of Jewish Law regarding conversions should feel free to contact our Geirut administrator, Rabbi Michoel Zylberman, at 212-807-9000 ext. 3.

‘Will God be pleased with my current contribution to the church?’

Churches and synagogues, like everyone else, are hurting financially.

Giving is down. Services are being cut. I’ve heard that a few local churches are in real trouble.

I’m on a lot of church/synagogue mailing lists, and I recently received an appeal from one Protestant church in the LoHud (it really doesn’t matter which one).

The letter asks for congregants to provide extra support so the church can meet its budget.

It includes this:


It is never easy to ask for money, particularly during challenging economic times. The easiest way to do it is state the facts, present the needs, and ask each of you to respond according to your own willingness and ability. May our Living God help us share in carrying on the ministries of our church.

Before you fill in the pledge card for 2010 and bring it to church, please ask yourself the following questions:

What does xx Church mean to me?

Will God be pleased with my current contribution to the church?

Am I an obedient Christian according to biblical teachings?

Am I giving the best for my God’s church?

The Bible says when we sow bountifully, we reap bountifully. God honors an extravagant giver. God wants us to bring our tithes and offerings to His storehouse of ministries (Malachi 3:10).

New York Medical College to ‘convert’

New York Medical College in Valhalla has been a Catholic institution since 1978, run by the Archdiocese of New York.

But this is about to change.

The college is being taken over by Touro College, an Orthodox Jewish institution with several campuses, including in NYC.

The Journal News/LoHud wrote months ago that Touro was in serious talks to take over the medical school. The new issue of Catholic New York says the deal is done and that the transfer will take place in mid-2010.

The archdiocese gets $60 million — “approximately $30 million of which the Archdiocese will immediately contribute to a fund for NYMC’s business, operations and programs, with the remainder deposited in an endowment fund that will be used exclusively for the Archdiocese’s health care programs for those in need,” according to CNY.

The CNY story does not mention what will happen to NYMC’s Catholic mission. But we will ask today.

When we wrote about the possibility of the takeover, we heard from dozens of NYMC students who were not happy about the possibility. They viewed Touro as a step down in terms of quality. It remains to be seen how students and faculty react.