It’s Chabad vs. a congregation near you

Many times in recent years, I’ve heard rabbis or synagogue officials express concern over the growth of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect in the northern suburbs.

The concern is always the same: Chabad offers cheap religious programming — holiday celebrations, schools for youngsters, etc. — that is very attractive to unaffiliated Jewish families that don’t want to pay pricey synagogue dues.

That don’t want to pay pricey synagogue dues.

That’s the key.

Something like half the Jews in Westchester don’t belong to synagogues. Therefore, synagogues are always plotting how to attract a small percentage of all those available families.

The biggest obstacle for many — not all, but many — is the dues. We’re talking several thousand dollars a year.

For many families that could go either way, then, Chabad presents an attractive and affordable alternative.

The Chabad movement, based in Crown Heights and located around the world, is committed — in an existential way — to bringing home Jews who have lost their way. In numerous New York communities, Chabad rabbis and their wives work fulltime to provide accessible programming for Jews who might otherwise stay home and watch Seinfeld reruns.

So I was fascinated to read a long piece in The Jewish Week that teases out one such showdown between Chabad and established Jewish congregations.

It’s in Oceanside, Long Island, where a weekly Chabad school for Jewish youngsters has taken a lot of kids away from more traditional synagogue programs.

The ironic part is that the synagogues say that Chabad offers a less intensive, less well-rounded Jewish education — just so it can get Jews through the doors.

One “competing” rabbi explains: “Chabad has led to a diminution of Jewish education in this community. I still have a two-day Hebrew school and I’m under attack from my members [to cut back to one day a week]. … I’m not blaming Chabad for everything bad in the community, but Chabad was a catalyst.”

Chabad Rabbi Levi Gurkov did not mince words: “When I came to Oceanside I placed a phone call to every rabbi here. Some were receptive; some were not because they felt I was coming to shake up the community. They had had a great run, and now someone new was coming and they couldn’t do their job and their sermons by rote anymore.”

Ouch. This could get ugly.

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.”

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Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve.

The high costs of Jewish day schools is not a NEW challenge

Since the onset of the Great Recession, there has been a tremendous amount of concern in the Jewish community about the debilitating costs of day schools.

But Shira Dicker, a well-known writer and publicist out of NYC, has written a very absorbing and persuasive column in The Jewish Week about the struggle that non-affluent Jews have long faced to pay day school tuition.

The problem is not new, she writes, even if many Jews did not notice before the recession. She writes, in part:

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But the problematic price tag of Jewish education was enabled by a culture of affluence that somehow got tangled up with American Jewish identity. My unscientific observation is that this culture took root in the early ‘80s and grew wildly in the intervening decades, subverting the teaching of the Ethics of the Fathers—“Who is successful?” The answer became “He who makes tons of money and has lots of stuff.”

Within this culture of affluence, there was a distinct shame associated with financial struggle, a belief that not having enough money indicated some kind of existential failure. After a brief eternity of being a have-not in a land of haves, it is startling for me to suddenly hear the phrase, “I cannot afford…”

For the last quarter century, those who were committed yet couldn’t afford the high price of being Jewish were bullied or shamed into silence or compliance. That reality changed, nearly overnight, and I view the defection of Jewish families from the day school system as an important wake-up call, a reaction to the myth that if Jewish education is a priority, families will always find a way to finance it.

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That’s what is called brutal honesty.

Jewish community now grappling with money-laundering headlines

Days after the news broke of the Syrian Jewish community’s alleged involvement in the New Jersey Corruption Sweep to end New Jersey Corruption Sweeps (for now), Jewish voices are addressing the ugliness of it all.

On Aish.com, an Orthodox site, Rabbi Yitz Greenman writes about the power of greed. He writes, in part:

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We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?

Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It’s all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it’s such a rarity? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to “have it all.” Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as “have-nots.” I don’t have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.

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The Rabbinical  Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, released this statement today:

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The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its deep dismay over the recent charges brought by the United States Attorney General against numerous individuals, including several prominent rabbis. We are appalled at the allegations which, if true, violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, decency, good citizenship, and the norms of our great society.

Jewish Law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared wellbeing. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox Community have been particularly affected by these allegations, and the stereotypes that have arisen as a result in recent days.The RCA wishes to extend its support to the Syrian Jewish community and its rabbis. They are an honorable, pious, and charitable community, led by many distinguished rabbis. The alleged misdeeds of the few should not be used against the innocent many. We join with our brethren in the Syrian community and with our fellow Jews in praying that the community find the strength to weather this storm, and that they restore themselves to function as the great community they have always been.

We are committed as rabbinic leaders for ourselves and our communities to serve as positive role models for all of our fellow Americans. We pledge to do our best in the days ahead so that the entire Jewish community can continue to be a model for all of our fellow Americans as law-abiding and ethically responsible citizens, striving to live in accordance with the highest religious and civic standards of justice and morality.

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And the Jewish Week has extensive coverage of the whole affair, including anger in the Orthodox community at the Jewish informant whose cooperation was key to authorities bringing down the alleged money-laundering scheme.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network and an Orthodox Jew, writes a column in which he offers harsh criticisms of some within his own community: “Is it possible that there is something in the Orthodox community in general and the haredi community in particular that creates fertile ground for this type of fraud? I’ve too often witnessed, here and in Israel, a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flout the laws of man. That the seriousness with which we hold halacha (Jewish law) forces us to view state law as trite, flawed — unimportant at best, a nuisance at worst.”

Harsh.

And Jewish Week boss Gary Rosenblatt writes about what the news means for relations within the Jewish world. He says, in part:

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Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

Clarifying Conservative Judaism’s position on intermarriage and conversion

I mentioned yesterday a Jewish Week article about strains within Conservative Judaism over whether to seek the conversion of non-Jews married to Jews.

Today, the leaders of the Conservative rabbinate issued a statement saying that they are quite united on the issue.

The statement says: “…it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.”

In other words, Conservative rabbis want to welcome non-Jewish spouses without any strings or pressures — but will happily work with anyone who is thinking about the whole Jewish thing.

The statement is signed by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (that’s her), the new chief executive of the RA. I recently profiled Schonfeld (whose official title is executive VP) and noted that she wants the Conservative movement to have a higher profile and be more “vigorous” in its response to public debates and media coverage.

This would be an example of being vigorous.

The statement goes on to say:

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We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

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Here is the entire statement, if you’re interested: Continue reading

Gaza: So far away, but not really

It’s hard to know what to say about the situation in Gaza.

First off, I’m here. I’m not there. But there is tremendous interest locally in what’s happening in the Middle East. The news in Gaza is of immediate concern to many New Yorkers, for all sorts of reasons.

We all know this.

Over the years, I’ve written many “local reaction” stories about the Middle East — you know, calling Jews, Muslims/Arabs, maybe some others, to get their feelings about the latest bad news. It’s a trying exercise because everyone always says exactly what you expect them to say.

Nothing every changes. It often feels pointless.

In a way, it’s like writing about abortion. The two sides have entrenched positions. They demonize each other. Nothing really changes.

But the abortion debate is important. People care. And the war of words continues.

As far as Gaza goes, I’ve come across a few revealing points of view. Among them:

Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt captures well the internal debate that many American Jews are probably having about Gaza — and worries about a growing divide between Israel and the diaspora. He writes:

I suspect that the majority of American Jews are somewhere in the middle, supportive of Israel’s effort to protect its citizens, but uncomfortable with the IDF campaign, and the painful images they see of the results of the bombings. “Can’t you find another way?” they might be asking of Israel, as if the government and people had not endured years of attacks and provocation before striking back?

“We’d love to, but this is the Mideast, not the Midwest,” would come the reply.

Muslim scholar Hussein Rashid, a native New Yorker, writes about how difficult it can be for a peace-seeking, mainstream Muslim American to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. He asks:

What home now for the Muslim who believes that religion does not divide, but is a force for peace?

And Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori makes the case that Israel’s attacks are “disproportionate” to Hamas’ shelling of southern Israel (certainly a popular position in the mainline world):

We are deeply saddened by the first-hand reports we are receiving from Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza about the casualties they are treating under the most horrific circumstances. Not only do they lack basic medical supplies, but with windows blown out they are even struggling to keep patients warm. The high number of civilian deaths and injuries, which continue to include noncombatants, women, and children, will only prolong the violence years into the future. Israel’s disproportionate response to the rockets being fired into its cities may well encourage violence beyond Gaza and Israel. The first steps toward peace will only come if all parties unite behind an immediate ceasefire. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the world that “an eye for an eye soon leaves the whole world blind.” May we seek to end this blinding violence.

Jew vs. Jew in the Hamptons

A few years ago, Samuel Freedman wrote a well-received book, Jew vs. Jew, in which he explored the battles between and among Jews from different traditions over the meaning and future of Jewish identity in America.

In recent years, these battles have often pitted Orthodox Jews against other Jews, particularly when non-Orthodox Jews fear that their more observant brethren may somehow change the “character” of a neighborhood.

This type of scenario is unfolding in ritzy Westhampton Beach on Long Island, where some Jews and non-Jews are opposing a proposed eruv for the Orthodox community, the Jewish Week reports.

What is an eruv? It can be a difficult concept to grasp for the uninitiated.

Many observant Jews believe that during the Sabbath, they are not allowed to carry certain things from private property onto public property. So an eruv can be set up as a symbolic demarcation of an expanded private area. The area is not defined with actual walls, but can be defined with wires crossing over pre-existing fences, utility poles, etc.

In Westhampton Beach, an Orthodox synagogue and its very prominent rabbi, Marc Schneier, asked village officials for permission to erect an eruv.

And the trouble started.

A group called Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv insists that an eruv would support only a few families in the community and that Orthodox Jews should “honor the customs of those in the area in which you live.”

But the president of the synagogue proposing the eruv says: “They don’t want this to be another Orthodox Jewish enclave.”

A ‘Michelangelo Code?’

I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like a new book, “The Sistine Secrets,” is aiming to be a Da Vinci Code II.

But the fact that it was co-written by an Orthodox rabbi is not going to go over well with a lot of people.

518h-4ng5l_sl500_aa240_.jpgThe book apparently contends that Michelangelo included secret Jewish codes in his painting of the Sistine Chapel — not to mention insults aimed at Pope Julius II.

The Jewish Week reports that art historians have big problems with the conclusions reached by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and his co-author, Roy Doliner, a docent and guide at the Vatican.

ABC News has given the book a lot of play.

Blech is a respected Talmudic scholar at Yeshiva University (I interviewed him for my book about natural disasters). He says that his new book should be seen as a “bridge between Judaism and Christianity.”

We’ll see about that.

A prominent rabbi’s off-the-cuff statement faces examination

When a prominent Talmudic scholar at Yeshiva University in NYC makes a terribly controversial statement — off the cuff and possibly in jest — what should happen to him?

thumb_hershel_schachter_o1.jpgThat’s the question raised in the Jewish Week about Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a leading figure at Yeshiva’s rabbinical school for decades. He apparently said in Israel last week that the Israeli prime minister should be shot if he “gives away” Jerusalem.

Schachter issued a statement through Yeshiva, the intellectual center of modern Orthodox Judaism:

Statements I made informally have been publicly excerpted this week. I deeply regret such statements and apologize for them. They were uttered spontaneously, off the cuff, and were not meant seriously. And, they do not, God forbid, represent my views. Jewish law demands respect for representatives of the Jewish government and the state of Israel.

Some think that Schachter should be disciplined — considering that a former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was in fact shot and killed. According to the Jewish Week: “His defenders say he is naïve, not mean-spirited, in part because he has little dealing with the community at large, cloistered within the study halls of Yeshiva.”