Orthodox rabbis to discuss role of women, US/Israel relations at local conference

Hundreds of Orthodox rabbis will gather at Young Israel of Scarsdale synagogue on Sunday for a three-day conference that will tackle some high-profile issues.

The occasion will be the national conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents rabbis who come from the world of what’s known as “modern Orthodox” Judaism. The RCA is sort of the rabbinical wing of the Orthodox Union.

tjndc5-5jkqaekps2a10xpg7gda_layoutIt is certain to be a bittersweet gathering in many ways, since Young Israel’s late leader, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, was a former president of the RCA. Rubenstein, a prominent figure in the modern Orthodox community, and his wife, Deborah, died in a house fire in 2008.

According to the Jewish Week, the rabbis are expected to adopt some sort of statement on the role of women in modern Orthodox congregations.

Orthodox Judaism does not currently ordain female rabbis, although some would like to see this tradition change. It’s not going to.

But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition calling on the RCA to “enable women in positions of communal religious leadership.” There could be some change in this area, but many traditionalists would prefer for things to stay as they are — with synagogue life run by men.

“I believe there is a reservoir of goodwill among our members, and people will be pleasantly impressed with the outcome,” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., who is expected to be re-elected first vice president, tells the JW.

A recent RCA statement about the role of women included this:


The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah of the Jewish people.


MHsmallIn addition, at a time when many Jews are concerned about President Obama’s tougher than usual stance with Israel on housing/settlement issues, the conference’s featured speaker will be Malcolm Hoenlein, the longtime head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He will speak about “Israel and America: The Defining Challenges, and the Role of the Orthodox Rabbinate.”

Another recent RCA statement included this:


But none of that can explain the disproportionate, extraordinary, and unwarranted response by some spokesmen of the Obama administration in excoriating, condemning, and publicly lashing out at the duly elected representatives of the sovereign State of Israel.

There is no justification, neither on moral nor on diplomatic grounds, for escalating this policy disagreement into what some in the administration have called (to quote just one such phrase) “an affront to America.”

The Jewish future needs leadership

A new study on what the Jewish community might look like in 20 years warns that the Jewish community suffers from a lack of leadership, especially young leadership.

The study was prepared by an Israeli think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, the Jewish Week and other media are reporting.

The finding on leadership kind of surprises me since there are a million Jewish organizations out there, most run by pretty competent professionals.

Or so I thought.

A section on leadership in the report includes this:


The Jewish People is facing a serious paucity of high quality leadership – spiritual, political and organizational – with no clear trend of improvement. Current leadership, both in Israel and in Jewish institutions, with few individual exceptions, appears to lack the capacity to meet the challenges facing the Jewish People and a deep understanding of changing realities and new ideas for coping with them that are able to assure, as much as possible, the long-term sustainable thriving of Jewish communities around the world and the thriving of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, which add up  synergistically to the thriving of the Jewish People as a whole. Jewish leadership positions in Israel and in other Jewish communities do not attract the best and brightest – with some notable exceptions. Efforts to attract and prepare the best and the brightest for leadership are inadequate, and despite some beginnings, including on the Jewish civic society level, the entry of younger persons into leadership positions is very slow. There is also a very pronounced lack of spiritual leaders acceptable as such by major parts of the Jewish People.


Synergistically, huh?

The report misses the mark, according to Steven Bayme, national director of the William Petschek Department of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, who told the JW that the study does not address the significance of the growing Orthodox population in the U.S. and Israel.

I’ve heard others say that this is one of the most important issues facing American Judaism. The Orthodox world — including Hasidic Jews — is growing fast, while the non-Orthodox community is stagnant or shrinking.

Many of the most visible Jewish groups in the U.S. have long had a Conservative or Reform or secular perspective. But this may change.

Bayme told the JW:


In America, there is a specter of a deep divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The 2000 Jewish population survey said the Orthodox in the United States numbered 8 percent. But if you look at Jews under 35, the Orthodox were 17 percent of the population. And if you looked at children under 18 in affiliated Jewish homes, the number was 38 percent. And more than one-third of the children in affiliated homes are in Orthodox families. So we are witnessing a tilt in the Orthodox demographic and it will grow in the years ahead.

Inside stuff from Obama/Jewish meeting

The Jewish Week talked to several Jewish leaders who took part in last week’s meeting with Obama.

It sounds like nobody knew quite what to say to him about his statements concerning Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

One unnamed participant said: “I think many will still have concerns, but they’re not going to go to war because the president still has most of the Jewish electorate behind him. So far, he appears very adroit in handling the concerns of our community, and I think that’s a real dilemma for those who are most strongly opposed to what he is doing in the Middle East.”

Jason Isaacson, Washington director for the American Jewish Committee, told the JW: “He’s very confident. He brackets almost everything he says with concerns about Israel’s security. He talks about Israel having the tools to defend itself. And he seems to know where the limits are.”

“He knows how to push while he’s hugging,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, the new pro-peace effort lobbying group, said of the president.

And in the Jewish world…changing attitudes on gays?

And how is the Jewish community faring when it comes to the Great Gay Question?

A new survey of 1,221 Jewish leaders from 997 congregations across North America seems to show movement toward a very general “acceptance” of gays and lesbians.

According to the Jewish Week, the author of the study, Caryn Aviv, a prof at the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies, presented the findings last week in NYC.

Among the findings: Overall, 47 percent of rabbis said that their views toward gays and lesbians have “shifted favorably in the past 10 years.” (That’s 40 percent of Reform rabbis, 60 percent of Conservative, 43 percent of Orthodox.)

I can’t seem to find the actual study on the Web…yet.

Aviv, it’s worth noting, is the founder of a group called Jewish Mosaic, which promotes acceptance of gays and lesbians in Jewish life.

Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, tells the JW: “The organized Jewish community is moving from rejection to tolerance to embracing. I think that the Conservative movement is the most interesting to watch right now because they’re in the middle, and they’re struggling between embracing and tolerating.”

Another finding: 41 percent of rabbis whose congregations reach out to gay and lesbian Jews reported gaining members as a result. 2 percent reported losing members.

The dwindling survivors (including priests and nuns)

This Sunday (Nov. 9) will be the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Jewish pogrom in Germany that is generally regarded as the opening blow of the Holocaust.

These anniversaries lead to all sorts of reflection, especially as the survivors age and the realization grows that they will not be here forever.

I, myself, interviewed a Chappaqua resident days ago who was a young boy in Germany on the “Night of Broken Glass.” He’s now 80. I’m writing his story for Sunday’s Journal News/LoHud.com.

The Jewish Week has an absolutely fascinating story about an overlooked group of Holocaust survivors: those who survived by being taken in by Christians — and eventually became Christian clergy.

Priests. Ministers. Nuns. All Jewish born.

Here’s a segment:


Jews in Poland alone talk of several hundred contemporary priests — and a like number of nuns — who are Jewish.

“This is primarily a Polish story,” says Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum. That’s where the most Jews lived before the Holocaust, where the most Catholics honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles lived during World War II.

f4e1af05-65a4-4347-aa6a-ff0e88a9a992.JPGAnd outside of Holocaust history circles, it is largely an unknown story.

As a hidden cost of the Shoah, these members of the Christian clergy — many, raised as Christians, probably remain unaware of their Jewish roots — present a conundrum to Jews who honor the risks taken by Christians in occupied Europe to save Jewish lives, but condemn any attempt to take Jewish souls.

Uncounted thousands of Holocaust survivors owed their lives to Christians — lay believers and members of the clergy — who joined the ranks of wartime Righteous Gentiles.

“There is hardly a Jew who survived,” said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the late, Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris (left, in picture), “who did not, in one way or another, one day or another, receive help from a Catholic or a priest, or from a network connected with Catholicism or Protestantism.”

Local boy makes good down south

If a nice, Jewish boy from Westchester grows up and becomes a rabbi, you would think he would have plenty of pulpits close to home to choose from.

But Rabbi Arnold Belzer took a different path — to Savannah, Ga.

rabbibelzer.jpgFor the past two decades, he has led Congregation Mickve Israel, which happens to be the third-oldest Jewish congregation in the country.

The Jewish Week writes about the Reform congregation celebrating its 275th anniversary. Apparently, 43 Sephardic Jews arrived in 1733. For a while, they made up about one-third of the population in the new colony of Georgia.

It was the Torah Belt back then, I guess.

Today, Savannah is home to about 3,000 Jews, and the city’s Orthodox congregation is twice the size of Belzer’s congregation.

Belzer went to Iona College before becoming a rabbi and leading congregations in Ridgefield, Conn., and Bergen County, N.J.

Then he headed south.

“Every 25 years is a generation and we feel it’s important that the congregation celebrate and commemorate important events in its history,” Belzer says. “Telling our story is a very Jewish thing, it’s what we do.”