A host of Jewish courses/conferences coming to Westchester

Jewish programming galore:

1. First off, the Westchester Jewish Council (formerly the Westchester Jewish Conference) is now running the Westchester Adult Jewish Education Project — 10-week courses on Jewish topics that are offered around the county.

Three tri-mesters between now and next June will offer classes on subjects like “Survey of Jewish-German history,” “Women’s Inclusion in Modern Judaism,” “Jewish Short Stories,” “Leviticus,” “The Rise of Zionism,” “Introduction to Jewish Mysticism,” “Israel: Conflicts and Contradictions,” “Why We Pray What We Pray” and more.

Good stuff.

I can’t find a single listing for all the courses on the WJC website, but you can look them up individually on the website calendar or contact Nina Lubin at waje@wjcouncil.org.

2. On Saturday, Nov. 13, the WJC and the Westchester Board of Rabbis will offer 30 different courses taught by 30 different Westchester rabbis on ONE NIGHT at Temple Israel Center of White Plains. It’s the “Chevruta-Night of Jewish Learning and Celebration.”

According to a release: “After 2 rounds of 45 minute classes, we will gather for a “Beit Cafe/Coffee House” featuring the music of the “Moody Jews” accompanied by the best kosher Chinese food, sushi, and drink you can find.  The event will take place at Temple Israel Center of White Plains with registration beginning at 7:00 pm.  The cost is $20 per person before Oct 31 and $25 thereafter.  Registration details will be announced next week.  Stay tuned and plan on attending with your friends (adults only please).”

The Moody Jews!

If I get more details, I’ll pass them along.

3. Also at Temple Israel Center, UJA-Federation of New York’s Westchester branch will bring together congregational leaders next Sunday (Oct. 24) to talk about…sharing resources.

If government can do it (well, talk about it), why not synagogues? Times are tough for everyone.

The goal of the SYNERGY program is to maximize resources. It will be interesting to see what congregational leaders come up with.

4. Finally, the WJC is also sponsoring a program on Oct. 21 about how Jewish families can measure support for Israel (or lack thereof) on college campuses when going through the college selection process.

According to a release: “The workshop is not designed to steer students towards or away from any particular school nor will the workshop evaluate the Israel tone of any one school.  Rather it will help students and their parents learn how to evaluate the school’s position and general tone towards Israel as part of the increasingly complex college selection process.”

The workshop will be at 7 p.m. at at the Solomon Schechter School in Hartsdale. Details are HERE.

American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew — especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel — but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But — there’s always a but — it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate — the religious establishment — is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:


The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.


Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:


Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.

Jewish blogosphere debating article on American Jewish/Israeli divide

Most people don’t read the New York Review of Books and other pointy-headed journals, in which Ivy League-educated “intellectuals” argue with one another over the issues of the day.

You might want to know, however, about a growing debate (at least in the blogosphere) about a recent article in the lefty NYRB by Peter Beinart. It was called “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

The point of the article was that many — most? — American Jews feel a growing disconnect with Israel over Israel’s policies/behavior/attitude toward the Palestinians and that the American Jewish establishment, which defends Israel at every turn, is out of touch with what is happening.

Beinart, currently a writer at The Daily Beast, is former editor of The New Republic, the venerable liberal/centrist journal that has long been a strong defender of all things Israeli.

Beinart writes:


Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.


I was going to gather a sampling of opinion on Beinart’s strong words. But the Capital J blog of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has already done so today, putting a lot more time into the effort than I could have.

So I’m going to link to them HERE and offer a sampling of opinions that JTA collected.

The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier: “Beinart’s pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff. I stand with the anguish, and have said so many times in these pages. But liberal Zionism must be as much Zionism as liberalism, and I do not see that the depredations of the settlers and their political sponsors relieve one of the obligation to include Palestinian behavior prominently among the causes of the conflict…”

Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas: “American Jews will not “abandon” Israel per se, but their perceptions of Israel, the majority of which were forged after the watershed year of 1967, may very well impel them to a redefinition of relations.”

Conservative writer David Frum: “These liberals cannot understand why Israel would build a border fence, or invade Lebanon and Gaza, or lose interest in a peace deal with the Palestinians. They don’t know enough or care enough about Israel’s security predicaments to investigate the reasons for these Israeli actions. They are satisfied with the explanation that Israelis used to be nice people, but have now become not nice people.”

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “…the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it.”