In-depth Intro to Judaism Class Starts This Week

Carrying the Torah scroll.

Carrying the Torah scroll.

By Charles B.

I’m the product of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. While my father had a bar mitzvah ceremony, and I was brought up in a primarily Jewish neighborhood, I had no formal religious upbringing or training. What I learned about Judaism, I learned from my friends who were b’nei mitzvah, and my neighbors who observed the Jewish holidays and attended synagogue. When I was 18, I left home for college, and for the next 40 years was totally divorced from any religious affiliation or practice.

While I have had a successful career, married a wonderful woman, have two grown children that I am very proud of, and have good friends, I have expressed the feeling over the last several years that there was still something missing in my life. My wife, a Presbyterian, encouraged me to explore and take the first steps to rediscover the “faith and rituals” I had experienced as a child living in a Jewish community.

Lighting Shabbat Candles

Mother and daughter lighting Sabbath candles.

I decided to take a course in introductory Judaism and Hebrew sponsored by the Conservative movement and taught by local Conservative rabbis. It is a 30-week course that is taught annually at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Many of the students who took the course were there to convert from the outset (mostly because of marriage commitments). I did not make the decision to convert until I had almost completed the course. What I learned from this course was that the beliefs and principles that took me almost 60 years to formulate, are the tenets and practices, and the moral and spiritual compass that Judaism provides.

As importantly, this course provided me with the tools and foundation to move forward on my journey. I am now studying with a rabbi, attending services regularly, and incorporating the lessons learned from this course into daily practice. The overall experience from this course has been transforming, both intellectually and spiritually. The practice of Judaism nurtures me, and provides me with the fulfillment and guidance I have searched for.

Editor’s Note: Charles has successfully completed the Introduction to Judaism class, and will soon be taking the step of formally converting.

The Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy is a 30-week “Introduction to Judaism” course sponsored by rabbis of the Conservative movement in the Philadelphia region. The next cohort will begin on Wednesday, September 14, 2016. The course is designed for Jews and non-Jews, singles and couples to learn more about Judaism (history, language, culture). Interested students have the opportunity to convert to Judaism under Conservative auspices following successful completion of the course.

The Reform movement also has an Introduction to Judaism class.

A Modest Proposal to Prevent the Jewish People From Dwindling

Steven M. Cohen and Kerry Olitzky published a great suggestion in the latest issue of the Jewish Exponent, “Conversion Shouldn’t Be the Only Path to Joining the Jewish People”. The only fault I can find in their proposal is failing to having the vision to move more swiftly and embrace the ultimate solution to the falling Jewish population.

Cohen and Olitzky show how we can boost the Jewish population by eliminating the conversion requirement. In this way, those who are “atheists, agnostic, secular, or even committed to another faith tradition” can become members of the tribe. Instead,

Candidates would be encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization – such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel and texts – and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life.

For those who come to desire official recognition, there could be a public ceremony and a certificate of membership in the Jewish people. Jewish cultural experts … would constitute boards that would oversee the program and would attest to the validity of the affirmation.

More after the jump.
Nevertheless, forcing prospective members of the tribe to watch numerous Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg movies and having a board convene to certify them one at a time is a tedious process. It might take decades to even double the Jewish population at that rate.

Instead I have stumbled on a simply but ingenious proposal: Eliminate the superfluous requirement to appreciate Jewish humor and Jewish food. (After all, there are some fine humorless, gluten challenged, or even hard-of-herring Jews and no one is proposing kicking them out!) At that point, we no longer need to have this board of “Jewish cultural expert” and can process the affirmations more “Swiftly”.

In fact, let’s eliminate the need to have prospect members of the tribe affirm their desire to be Jewish. If Mormons can posthumously convert anyone without their permission then why can’t Jews convert living people without waiting for an “affirmation” of their desire to join the tribe.

So by the power invested in me by no one in particular, I hereby declare that all of humanity alive today is part of the Jewish people, and is hereby officially “encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization – such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel and texts – and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life”.

Congratulation. In one fellow swoop the Jewish population has gone up from  about 14 million to over 7 billion. This solves not only the problem at hand but many others:

  • Intermarriage is no longer a problem since there are no longer any non-Jews to marry.
  • There will no longer be any need for a “two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Since all Palestinians are now Jewish, there can be one state which will be 100% Jewish.
  • Iranian Ali Khamenei will now be Jewish, so presumably he will enjoy a bagel shmear instead of calling for the destruction of Israel.

The list goes on and on, although to be honest I’ll miss have shabbos goys around to turn on lights for me.

Reclaiming the Anusim: the Sephardic Perspective

— by Carlos Zarur

According to an article in eSefarad ,”A decision by the ultra-orthodox rabbi Nissim Karelitz recognizes that the Chuetas of Mallorca, who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and remained a distinct group within Mallorcan society until the 1970s, had the right to call themselves Jews.” How do Sephardic Jews view this?

Some in the Sephardic community ask themselves, “who is this Ashkenazi rabbi to make that decision?” They believe that the Chuetas of Mallorca never stopped being Jews.  Even if they did not practice Judaism, they preserved the Jewish identity by avoiding intermarriage at all. Mallorcan Secret Jews (Xuetas) are halachically Jewish, since they did not intermarry for centuries.

More after the jump.
Since medieval times, the Sephardic sages ruled that Ashkenazi Rabbis do not have powers of decision regarding Sephardic matters, and vice versa. Halachic Sephardic sources say it very clearly: Crypto-Jews, Anusim, or Conversos are Jews, as well as their children, if they have hazzaqqa (force of tradition of being Jews), endogamy (marrying only other anusim or other Jews), Jewish genealogy, and the proven historic practice of Jewish customs.

Sadly, there are not too many scholars, anthropologists, or rabbis qualified to determine who is who in the Crypto-Jewish world. Modern day rabbis, even those who are Sephardic, are not aware of how the Halacha sees these people. They are not trained to research the Crypto-Jewish phenomenon, since they are not anthropologists, or trained in anthropological research.

Ashkenazi and Sephardic hakhamim (learned scholars) disagree on Halachic matters on how to deal with the Crypto, or “secret” Jews. Sephardic rabbis have always helped secret Jews to return to the open Jewish practice, without any kind of conversion. Ashkenazi rabbis always asked for re-conversion, which makes sense, since Ashkenazi rabbis were not part of the Sephardic world and were not aware of the phenomena.

For a secret Jew, it is very insulting to be asked for a conversion (an approach supported by many mainstream Sephardic Jews, anthropologist, and some rabbis). These conversions are pasul (invalid) and totally non-Halachic. Of course, each case should be individually analyzed by knowledgeable people, using very strict criteria. After all, there are several cases of fake Crypto-Jews.

Carlos Zarur holds Masters’ Degrees in Jewish studies in the areas of Comparative Religious Studies, Sephardic Studies, Marranism Studies (Crypto Judaism), Peripheral Jewish Communities, Culture and Customs of Oriental (Mizrahi) Jewries, and Western and Eastern Sephardic Culture and Customs. He also has done field research in Crypto-Judaism in several countries in Europe and the American Continent, Syrian Jews, and the Jews of India. As a Professor, he has taught at the University of Colorado in the Anthropology Department and The Jewish Studies Program.

Conversion Bill Should Not Diminish Support For Israel

— Rabbi Mark S. Golub

The campaign of the Conservative and Reform Movements to generate American opposition to the Rotem Conversion Bill in Israel was remarkably successful. The bill has been tabled for six months and may never see the light of day again. Unfortunately, however, the campaign overstated the threat the bill posed to non-Orthodox American Jewry and unnecessarily angered large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which actually does not address them at all.

Photo: MK David Rotem, author of the controversial conversion bill.
The campaign of the Conservative and Reform Movements to generate American opposition to the Rotem Conversion Bill in Israel was remarkably successful. The bill has been tabled for six months and may never see the light of day again. Unfortunately, however, the campaign overstated the threat the bill posed to non-Orthodox American Jewry and unnecessarily angered large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which actually does not address them at all.

The Anglo Jewish media joined in the chorus warning of dire consequences were the bill to become law, while failing to separate fact from hysteria for their readers. Jewish headlines in newspapers and blogs echoed the erroneous notion that the bill resurrected the “Who is a Jew?” question and was an assault by the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel on Israel’s Law of Return, on non-Orthodox conversions in America, and on the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Judaism.

The most disturbing aspect of the campaign, however, was the subtle suggestion that the bill would jeopardize the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel and would therefore threaten the security and future of the Jewish State.

The Union of Reform Congregations ran a headline in its weekly briefing, “Take Action Now! Attack on Pluralism Threatens Israeli-Diaspora Relations.” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movements Rabbinical Assembly, and one of the most articulate and passionate proponents of Jewish pluralism in Israel, also described the bill as a blow to Israel-Diaspora relations that would be “damaging to Israel’s security” because “the great majority of American Jews” will consider themselves “second-class citizens officially in the eyes of the Jewish State.”

A newspaper headline warned of a “conversion crisis” that could “threaten pro-Israel efforts” in America (Jewish Week, July 23, 2010), and described how the Rotem Bill is “alienating Israel’s friends” (Forward, July 23, 2010). Articles declared that the bill threatens to contribute to “a seismic shift in the base of the pro-Israel movement in America.”

Perhaps the most pernicious diatribe against the bill was Alana Newhouse’s op ed piece in the New York Times (July 15, 2010). Her article misstated the real issue; inaccurately described the actions of the Talmudic sage Hillel (he “accepted” rather than “converted” a person for conversion on the spot); and, in an aside worthy of a supermarket rag, slandered the entire ultra-Orthodox rabbinate by citing the sins of one lone rabbi (I do assume Ms. Newhouse knows there are sinners within the Conservative and Reform rabbinates as well.)

Still, the Newhouse piece, however flawed, ran dead center on the New York Times op ed page and brought the issue to the attention of a legion of American Jews who normally are uninterested in such details of Israeli life but who, as a result of the Times piece, suddenly felt personally insulted and threatened. Ms. Newhouse announced to all of America that in the Rotem Conversion Bill Israel is telling “85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”

In point of fact, the Rotem Conversion Bill says nothing of the kind. Despite what American Jews might believe after reading Ms. Newhouse’s editorial and receiving emergency e-mails, the Rotem Conversion Bill does not address any aspect of American Judaism at all.

The bill never mentions the Law of Return and would have no impact on the way it would apply to any Diaspora Jew. If the bill were to become law, it would do nothing to change the current process by which Conservative and Reform conversions in America are accepted as valid for Jews seeking Israeli citizenship.

The Rotem Conversion Bill does indeed propose changes on the Israeli scene. To facilitate more opportunities for conversion in Israel, especially for thousands of Russian immigrants who now serve in the Israeli army and who wish to become part of the Jewish people, the Rotem bill would give local city rabbis the right to perform conversions. Most people approve of this goal of the bill.

The bill’s author, K’nesset Member and Law Committee Chair David Rotem (Yisrael Bieteinu Party), added that the bill would formalize Orthodox control of conversions in Israel by placing them under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and by stipulating that converts would have to commit to living a life of Halakhah (traditional Jewish Law).

For Israelis, there is nothing really new or dramatic in the Rotem bill. In contrast to what many American Jews might assume from the outcry among their leadership, the bill would do very little to change the current de facto ultra-Orthodox control of the conversion process.

The real issue, then, is not “who is a Jew” or the Law of Return. The real issue is the way the Rotem Conversion Bill might obstruct the future of Jewish pluralism in Israel.

It is perfectly understandable for the leaders of non-Orthodox institutions to be angered by the Rotem Conversion Bill. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have been working tirelessly to bring Jewish pluralism to Israel, and their leaders describe with justifiable pride their significant progress. Were the Rotem Bill to become Israeli law, it would be a setback in their struggle.

Speaking on Shalom TV, Jerry Silverman, the brilliant and charismatic new leader of the federation movement of North America, put his finger on the only real danger posed by the Rotem Conversion Bill: it paves the way toward a “slippery slope.” While there is nothing in the bill either critical of or relevant to American Jewry today, passage of the bill could embolden the Chief Rabbinate to try, at a future time, to extend their power in Israel and even seek to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora for the Law of Return.

This warrants opposition to the bill, but not with the sense of calamity that characterized the American response. Moreover, it is virtually inconceivable to believe the Israeli K’nesset would ever enact a law that would truly alienate the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry. It may be fun for media pundits to suggest that Israelis are that “stupid;” but they are not suicidal. They well understand, and have just been given an object lesson in, how powerful and effective the Diaspora lobby can be when it wants to mobilize American Jewish support.

I, like the vast majority of American and Diaspora Jews, would love to see Israel adopt a pluralistic view of Judaism so that Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would have equal legal standing with Orthodox rabbis to preside at marriages, divorces, burials, and conversions. There is something sadly ironic that the only place on earth where a Jew cannot be married with a rabbi of choice is the State of Israel.

But it is crucial for American Jews to understand that the overwhelming number of Israelis do not share this perspective. The notion does not interest them. For most Israelis, simply living “ba-Aretz” (in the Land of Israel) is all the Jewish identity or Jewish “observance” they need.

Even the most secular of Israelis feel that their entire existence is immersed in Jewishness. Hebrew is their native language; Jewish holidays are celebrated nationally; the Israeli flag is patterned on the tallit; the IDF is a Jewish army; and the soil they walk upon is the very soil that gave the birth of the Jewish people and links them to their Jewish ancestors. While there are those in Israel who are seriously concerned that Israelis take their Jewishness for granted, have self-identities as “Israelis” rather than as “Jews,” and know far too little about their Jewish heritage, most Israelis feel they are more Jewish than Diaspora Jews even if they rarely engage in Jewish observance.

The typical Israeli response to American styles of Jewish pluralism, then, is to dismiss it out of hand. The Israeli attitude is: “I don’t want to be Orthodox; but if I ever were to be ‘religious,’ I would be Orthodox because Orthodoxy is the only authentic expression of Judaism.”

Israelis may resent the fact that the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the Israeli army, are often supported by the State, and have taken more than their share of the national education dollar (weakening Israel’s public school system); but when it comes to matters of religious observance, Israelis by and large do not get worked up over the fact that the ultra Orthodox are in sole control of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, and the Jewish holy places in Israel.

That is why most Israelis are oblivious to the general struggle for Jewish pluralism in their country or to specific issues such as women’s fight for rights at the Western Wall. This is also why the enormous uproar within American Jewry over the Rotem Conversion Bill has not been duplicated in Israel. Conservative Rabbi Josh Hammerman, writing his blog from Israel, bemoans that he has seen “disturbingly little coverage on this matter in the Hebrew media here.”

For American Jewish leaders, their real problem is with the Israeli people, not with the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

I once asked Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat (formerly the rabbi of Lincoln Square synagogue in Manhattan), whether he wanted Israel to be “a Torah state.” Riskin’s reply articulates the quintessential Jewish answer: “I would love nothing more than for Israel to be a Torah state; but only when the overwhelming majority of Israelis would like it to be.”

One could easily apply Shlomo Riskin’s answer to those who are working fervently to implement Jewish pluralism in Israel: “There would be nothing better than for Israel to be a pluralistic state; but only when the overwhelming majority of Israelis would like it to be.”

The challenge facing the Reform and Conservative movements is to create pluralistic models of Jewish life in Israel that will, one day, be so attractive to Israelis that the implementation of Jewish pluralism becomes the will of the Israeli people. There are Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders who believe they are well on the way towards this goal and are correct in saying that passage of the Rotem Conversion Bill would be a bump in the road.

But the reality is that the Orthodox control of family law touches on a very small slice of Israeli life. Most American Jews who visit Israel rarely confront a problem as a result of Orthodox control of marriage and conversion. Non-Orthodox Jews travel throughout Israel and never feel like second class citizens. I have yet to hear an American Jew return from Israel and complain about their not being able to practice Judaism. They often attend Reform or Masorti (Conservative) synagogues with their friends and have a lovely time.

That is why American Jews can indeed be mobilized to protest a perceived attempt by the Orthodox establishment in Israel to delegitimize them; it is much more difficult to arouse their passions over threats to Jewish pluralism in Israel. This may explain the exaggerated way in which the Rotem Conversion Bill was portrayed as an assault on non-Orthodox American Jewry.

But as wonderful as it would be for Jewish pluralism to flourish in Israel, it is irresponsible for anyone to imply that Israel might, or should, receive less support from American Jewry because of the Rotem Conversion Bill.

Rabbi Mark S. Golub is the President of Shalom TV.

Efforts to Delegitimize non-Ultra Orthodox Conversions Intensify

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

We were dismayed to learn this afternoon of the decision by MK David Rotem to put forward a version of the Conversion Law to be presented to the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee tomorrow morning. MK Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months. We write on behalf of the many Diaspora organizations listed below
We have been involved in regular and constructive conversations with various ministers and members of Knesset on this issue. Working together with the many Diaspora organizations and with representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, we were encouraged by your request to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to resolve this matter by finding a formula acceptable to all parties.

For this reason, we are deeply disappointed to hear that the bill will now be presented in a new and even more problematic format. These new developments have transpired without any input from Mr. Sharansky or Diaspora communities. All of the discussions, understandings and efforts in which we have been engaged appear to have disappeared overnight.

From the very beginning, Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel and the Diaspora have shared our concerns on the impact of this bill on the conversion process. Those portions of the bill that give responsibility for the process of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate constitute a dramatic change in the status quo, are an affront to millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, and are dangerous on every level to the principles of Klal Yisrael.

In addition, we strongly oppose those portions of the bill that would preclude conferring Citizenship Status on anyone who did not qualify for such status on a prior visit. This provision is not in keeping with the spirit and letter of a law meant to encourage the growth of our community and welcoming with open arms those that wish to join and support our people and our land. The concerns noted above are shared by a powerful majority of Jews world-wide. We know that you are aware of the sensitivities that exist on this matter and that you appreciate the significant damage that passage of such a bill could cause to ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, at precisely the time when we are all working so hard to strengthen these ties and to deal with other concerns – such as Israel’s security and the nuclear threat from Iran – that properly require our full attention. We ask for your assistance in delaying any consideration of this bill and in resolving this issue in a way that is acceptable to all of the religious streams.

The time for action is now and we call on you to act decisively to prevent the introduction of this bill.


Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President
Rabbinical Assembly

We are joined in this request by the following organizations:

Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbinical Assembly
Union for Reform Judaism
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
Masorti Israel
World Union for Progressive Judaism
Masorti Olami
ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America)
Mercaz USA
Mercaz Olam
ARZA Canada
Masorti Foundation