Time to Revitalize Judaism: A Respectful Challenge to the Jewish Establishment

By Prof. Richard H. Schwartz

As author of Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, I was immediately intrigued by the title of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s new book, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. The idea that Jews should not blindly accept the status quo, but should use Jewish law as a source for rebelling against complacency, denial, injustice, oppression and more, with the courage to apply Jewish teachings to help promote a better world, excited me. [Read more…]

Three Weddings and a Statement

In the historic sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, prominent rabbis representing Judaism’s non-Orthodox movements will wed three Israeli couples who are deprived of the right to marry in Israel because they are either gay, not considered Jewish by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or unwilling to accept the Rabbinate’s rigid control over Jewish marriage and divorce. The public is invited to support these couples and the cause of religious freedom and equal rights in Israel.

Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center and Director and Founding Member of Women of the Wall.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)
Rabbi Uri Regev, President and CEO of Hiddush

The event is a partnership of 92Y, Central Synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, The Israel Religious Action Center, Park Avenue Synagogue and Sutton Place Synagogue.

It’s a Triple Wedding — and You’re Invited

In many ways, Israel is a culturally diverse, largely secular, modern society — but not in the context of Jewish marriage. To be legally valid, an Israeli Jewish marriage requires the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which means Orthodox law determines who can marry, and Orthodox tradition governs the wedding ceremony. [Read more…]

Smartphone Addiction Inspires New Maccabeats’ Shabbat Video

“I wish there was a thing like Shabbat … a worldwide day where we’re not on our phones … an actual day of real rest.” This quote comes from a rather unexpected source: Katy Perry, in an interview with Cosmopolitan. The quote also appears in the opening shot of a new music video — not a video by Katy Perry, but one by the Jewish a cappella group the Maccabeats.

This video was produced by the organization Jew in the City. According to its website, the group’s mission is to “break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism,” which the group describes as being “just as relevant today as it ever was.” The Maccabeats’ video demonstrates this point by juxtaposing the quiet isolation a of a cell-phone-obsessed society with the robust joy and interconnectedness of Shabbat.

In the video, our technologically imposed solitude is aptly played out against the backdrop of the Maccabeats’ rendition of the 1960’s Simon & Garfunkel classic The Sound of Silence. Some of the lyrics are so spot-on that it is shocking to think they were composed over 50 years ago. For example, “People talking without speaking” is a perfect description of texting or communicating via social media. And, “the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made” conveys our dependence on our devices.

In contrast, the joy of Shabbat is depicted in the video during the singing of Lecha Dodi — “Come, My Beloved,” which is the traditional song for welcoming Shabbat. During this part of the video, every sound is audible, from birds chirping to children laughing to glasses clinking. Alluding to the mitzvah of intimacy on Shabbat, the song ends with a tender moment between husband and wife and the tagline “Turn off the Sound of Silence. Turn on the Sound of Shabbat.”

This video was shared by Rabbi David Levin, the Radmal, on his Jewish Relationships Initiative blog. The video is covered by the Standard YouTube License.

Film Chat: “The Wedding Plan”

Promoted during the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia, the film The Wedding Plan finally opened for American audiences, after having received three Ophir Awards, or Israeli Oscars. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the film was written and directed by Rama Burshtein, an Orthodox Israeli, and the creator of the award-winning 2012 film Fill the Void.

In “The Wedding Plan,” protagonist Michal is a 32-year-old religiously observant woman, who runs a mobile petting zoo. Excitedly planning for her upcoming wedding, she is shocked when her fiancé reluctantly admits that he doesn’t love her. Nevertheless, she decides to move forward with her wedding preparations, trusting that if God wants her to be married, He will find a husband for her. The wedding is scheduled for the last night of Hanukkah, leaving exactly one month for a new groom to materialize. Her family is doubtful, and even her rabbi wonders what will happen to Michal’s faith if she doesn’t find a groom under the chuppah.

An American director would have made this film into a romantic comedy, but Burshtein aimed for something deeper, more poignant. Her debut film, “Fill the Void,” is about a religious woman who must make a decision about whether or not to marry her late sister’s husband. Burshtein writes and directs stories set in the religious Jewish world, but which illuminate human emotions common to us all.

The Rabbi walked out on the Shiva

The Minyan by Nancy Schon

“The Minyan” by sculptor Nancy Schon

I recently went to pay a Shiva call. Among the small group was an orthodox rabbi. We chatted and waited for a minyan to arrive. We made a couple of phone calls as the minyan was not materializing. To the surprise of some people in the room, the rabbi announced he was leaving.

Someone demanded to know how that rabbi could do something so outrageous; so disrespectful. Just who does he think he is anyway?

On the contrary, I answered. The rabbi is acting with respect for the mourners. How can you say that? Because I continued, the rabbi cannot share certain prayers absent a minyan and he cannot be counted in a minyan unless it includes only men. We will only have a minyan if we count the women, so the rabbi did the only thing he thought he could do under the circumstances, he left and essentially gave us permission to proceed. It might seem strange to some, but he was being respectful of his beliefs and the beliefs of those who were in mourning. In that moment, he found a way to uphold both.

minyanThere is room here to reflect on whether the decision was the correct one. Could not the rabbi have permitted himself to be counted for our purposes, never considering for himself that he has fulfilled his obligation? Wouldn’t the comfort of his presence as a close family friend override his interpretation of his obligation to his particular personal practice?

The important point is he found a workaround that in his mind upheld his competing duties as he understood them. Then it was up to me to be respectful of the decision whether I agreed or not. Here was a moment that could have created separation as easily as it could create community. It required both “sides” of the conversation to decide which one it was.

A Different Kind of Orthodox High School for Girls

— by Nancy Norton

IMG_3866 My husband and I carefully chose a school for our daughter Chana. It was important to us that in our daughter’s school, setting the principles of ahavat yisroel, love of Israel; giving others the benefit of the doubt; and tikkun olam, repairing the world, would be woven into every aspect of the learning.

These values are reflected in the diversity of Orthodox families who attend The Binah School. Located in Sharon, MA, it has a one-of-a-kind curriculum that is hand-crafted around social justice Torah themes, and the atmosphere of inclusivity among the student body.

The co-founders of this new school ran a pilot program before opening a year later as a full-time school in 2012. They were successful at gaining the interest of one of the most notable Jewish philanthropies in America and Israel, the AVI CHAI Foundation, to fund their early years of operation.

From Day One the school exceeded our admittedly high expectations and we knew we were in for something special. Partway into her first semester at Binah, Chana asked if we could have some family friends over for a Melava Malka to show them what she learned about Fibonacci number sequences and movie making editing software she just mastered.

Chana’s Torah learning grew in depth and sophistication. Chana was challenged to think deeper and explain her ideas more fully in both her kodesh and secular classes. At our Shabbos table, Chana discussed what she and her classmates explored in their year-long theme and described how her school projects link Torah concepts and the halacha of hunger, leket and peah, to present day concerns of local and global food insecurity, hunger and the modern day gleaning movement.

“What’s my impact?” is the quintessential question at The Binah School. Students work on independent and group projects in secular and Judaic classes and are continually asked to question, “What’s my impact on my work, on my school, on my community and on the world?”

The heart of the Binah curriculum is a project-based learning (PBL) approach to teaching. Students are given an extended period of time to investigate a complex problem and to present solutions to challenges. Problem solving, critical thinking skills, collaboration and communication strategies become as essential to the learning as the content itself. PBL allows students to guide their own learning with their teachers’ guidance. Final work is always shared with an audience outside the school community, a known motivator pushing students to strive for excellence.

Unlike other PBL schools around the country, The Binah School has created a Torah-centered approach to PBL which places Torah values central to students’ yearlong inquiry. In Binah’s second year, the students’ project based learning centered around the Torah concept of areyvut, or mutual responsibility for the other. Students connected text learning about areyvut with the issue of inclusivity for people with disabilities.

Students met community members with disabilities, and learned about the American Disabilities Act. They held a Skype interview with one of the founders of the Disability Rights Movement, studied universal design and adaptive technologies, and received sensitivity training to learn how to work with people with disabilities from the New England director of Yachad.

Quickly gaining interest from other national supporters, The Binah School received an arts and social justice grant from the prestigious Covenant Foundation. This gave Binah students the opportunity to learn from a professional muralist and install the first piece of public art in the town of Sharon, that drew from the students’ Judaic studies and spread the message that inclusion is the key to our growth as a people and is essential to being part of a community.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills addresses the current gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and those needed in today’s local and global workforces. Today’s students must gain mastery in the “four Cs”: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.

Observing The Binah School in action throughout the year, it is evident the students use these essential “four Cs” in real-life meaningful ways. The skills and knowledge they master in their project-based learning and dual curriculum of academic and Judaic studies is preparing young women to attend seminary and college, join the Israeli army, and enter the global marketplace.

Many Binah students live locally, but its boarding program is growing quickly. Tucked away in a naturally beautiful small New England town, with distance from the cramped lifestyle and influences of the urban city, The Binah School is a gem of a place for out of town families to consider. We are overjoyed to have found this treasure and to be part of its growing success.

The Binah School is sure to become a national model, reminding us of the importance of supporting teens to develop as whole people — intellectually, emotionally, socially and spiritually — as they discover their own pathways of becoming successful Orthodox women and Jewish leaders of tomorrow.

The Binah School will hold an open house with the co-founders of the school at a private home in Wynnewood on March 10, at 8:00 PM. If you would like to attend, please email Michal Oshman at [email protected] to sign up and receive more information.

Agudath Israel Interacts with State Department & White House

Encouraging words about Israel, Foreign and Domestic Issues, from Obama Administration.
— Rabbi Avi Shafran

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 150 men and women took a day from their regular responsibilities to be part of an Agudath Israel of America delegation that arrived in Washington early last Thursday morning, July 29, for a day that saw nonstop meetings with members of Congress as well as both State Department and White House officials.  What the participants in the National Leadership Mission to Washington heard from the Administration on the two most important issues on their minds – America’s commitment to Israel’s security and federal education aid to nonpublic schools – was, in the words of one delegate, “clearly positive.”

The day began with Shacharis, of course, either on a bus headed south from the New York area or at the hotel where some participants had spent the previous night.  But it wasn’t long before all the Agudath Israel activists had gathered at the U.S. State Department, where they were addressed by Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Hannah Rosenthal, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; and Douglas Davidson, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel Washington Office director and counsel, who organized the National Leadership Mission and facilitated the day’s meetings, offered greetings, and the proceedings were then turned over to Agudath Israel chairman of the board, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, who chaired the session and introduced the morning’s speakers.  

Mr. Feltman was the first to address the delegation.  He repeated the United States’ endorsement of a “two state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian situation.  At the same time, he took pains to state clearly and forcefully that the U.S.’s commitment to Israel is “unbreakable and unwavering,” citing “common interests” both countries share and “common threats” both countries face.  Mr. Feltman also addressed the situations in Iraq and Yemen, and responded to questions from delegates on Turkey’s recent actions and the incorrigibility of Hamas.

The next presenter was Ms. Rosenthal.  The Special Envoy spoke of her “personal roots” as a Jew and how her background informs her current official responsibility.  Referring to 2009 as “not a good year for either human rights or Jews,” Ms. Rosenthal identified several contemporary trends in anti-Semitism:  “old fashioned” hatred-fueled vandalism and blood libels, Holocaust denial, Holocaust “relativism” (comparisons that “diminish the scale and scope” of the Shoah), Holocaust glorification (rife in the Islamic world), anti-Israel stances tainted with anti-Jewish attitudes (the disgraced journalist Helen Thomas’ unguarded statement of several weeks ago, the Special Envoy said, was “a gift to us” in having exposed and example of such ill will) and anti-Semitism born of a general disdain of “the other,” particularly in Europe.

Ms. Rosenthal spoke of the tools her office uses to identify and combat anti-Jewish attitudes and acts, and took questions from delegates about the United Nations Human Rights Council and the sorry state of hate-filled Palestinian textbooks.

Mr. Davidson, the final State Department official to address the delegates, spoke about the misappropriation of Jewish-owned property and valuables during and after the Holocaust, as well as the desecration of Jewish holy sites (such as synagogues and cemeteries).  He outlined the efforts of his office to do what can be done to right such wrongs.  The results, he admitted, can never be more than (referencing the title of Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat’s 2004 book) “imperfect justice,” but what restitution and restoration can be had, he insisted, must be had.

Early afternoon found the group on Capitol Hill for a luncheon that was attended or visited by a veritable bi-partisan parade of Senators and Congressmen, each of whom briefly welcomed and addressed the delegation.  The Senators, who were warmly introduced by the luncheon session chairman, Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, included Scott Brown (R – MA), Benjamin Cardin (D – MD), Saxby Chambliss (R – GA), Johnny Isakson (R – GA), Joseph I. Lieberman (ID – CT), Robert Menendez (D – NJ), Charles E. Schumer (D – NY) and Debbie Stabenow (D – MI).

The Representatives who addressed the assemblage were: William “Bill” Cassidy of Louisiana, Steven Rothman of New Jersey, John P. Sarbanes of Maryland and Anthony D. Weiner of New York.  In addition, Representatives Yvette Clarke of New York and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey joined the lunch gathering as well.

Highlights of the luncheon included a current of strong statements of support for Israel’s right to defend herself, Senator Isakson’s recall of his response to a Georgia hinterlands talk-show caller who warily asked if he was a Jew (“No, but I’d be very proud if I was”), Senator Brown’s statement that the Obama Administration “needs to be more public about” the fact that “Israel is our strongest ally in the region,” Senator Menendez’ discovery (having been so informed by Senator Lieberman) that his surname is on a list of common Spanish Jewish names, Congressman Weiner’s strong words concerning the “injustice going on” in the Rubashkin case and Senator Lieberman’s heartfelt words about how legislators’ and American citizens’ acceptance and even appreciation of his Shabbos observance says much about America – a “different place” for Jews, he stressed, historically speaking.

After the luncheon, the Agudath Israel delegation proceeded to the White House.  

Before the session began, it was noted that Rabbi Zwiebel had missed one of his son’s and new daughter-in-law’s Sheva Brachos the previous night because of the Washington Mission, and that he would be leaving a bit before the program was over to join that night’s Sheva Brachos seudah in Brooklyn.  A spontaneous chorus of “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov” ensued, perhaps a first for the White House.

Rabbi Cohen chaired the White House session, and outlined some of the issues that would be discussed, explaining their pertinence to the Orthodox community’s interests and describing Agudath Israel’s deep involvement in promoting those issues and advancing those interests.

The delegates were greeted by Susan Sher, a key Administration liaison to the Jewish community and the First Lady’s chief of staff.  Ms. Sher spoke briefly to the delegates about her responsibilities regarding Jewish outreach and about the projects undertaken by Mrs. Obama, and recounted a story about the media-noted White House seder this past Pesach.  She was, however, tight-lipped about who found the afikoman and what was received as reward for the successful hunt.

Less entertaining but more substantive was the address that followed, by Roberto J. Rodríguez, who serves in the White House Domestic Policy Council as Special Assistant to President Obama for Education.  Mr. Rodriguez addressed a number of educational issues, including early childhood programs and standards reform.  The Administration, he said, embraced the goals of the “No Child Left Behind” law, an initiative of the George W. Bush administration, and, impressed his listeners by insisting that “we’re committed to preserving” the equitability of private and public schools with regard to the law’s implementation.  During the presidential campaign, there was much speculation about whether an Obama administration would be sympathetic to the needs of the nonpublic school community.

Agudath Israel delegates and staff  posed challenging questions to the Administration official, who responded thoughtfully, welcoming the input and challenges, and extending an offer to follow up and “work together” to address the needs of religious schools and how the government might better help such schools survive and thrive.  While Agudath Israel’s Washington Office has been actively involved with the White House and Department of Education on these issues on an ongoing basis, this public (and, later, private) interaction with Mr. Rodriguez allowed parents and professionals to share their unique perspectives “from the field” – a vantage point in which he seemed very interested.

Next to speak with the Agudath Israel delegation was Mara Vanderslice, Deputy Director for the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  She cited the contributions of the nation’s faith-based communities to addressing societal ills and declared the Obama Administration’s commitment to the importance of equity for religious institutions – not only in the awarding of federal social service funding but also in the administration of such programs.  “While we want to respect the separation of church and state,” she said, “we are committed to religious groups being able to maintain their religious beliefs even as they participate in faith-based grants.” As Agudath Israel’s long-standing and prominent advocacy on this issue has heavily stressed the religious liberty of program participants, this was welcome reassurance.

The final two Administration officials to meet with the Agudath Israel delegation were, first, Dan Shapiro, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Middle East and North Africa, and the White House’s point man on Israel; and Dennis Ross, the NSC’s Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, and the Administration’s chief advisor on the Iranian situation.  This segment of the session was “closed door” and reporters and delegates were asked to turn off any recording devices.

Both officials went into some detail that is beyond the scope of what can be published, but in general, Mr. Shapiro spoke of the Administration’s ongoing interaction with Israeli officials, and of President Obama’s request of Congress to allocate $205 million for the Iron Dome missile-interception system Israel is developing.  He also noted that the threats to Israel include not only terrorism and military attack but the delegitimizing of the country itself.  Mr. Shapiro declared the Administration’s determination to join Israel in that battle, too, noting its walk-out at Durban II, its efforts to prevent the Goldstone Report from advancing and its opposition to the United Nation’s condemnation of Israel over the “Turkish flotilla” affair.

For his part, Mr. Ross also vigorously asserted the Obama Administration’s commitment to Israel, and addressed the vexing issue of Iran and its nuclear program.  In a detailed and wide ranging analysis, he made the case for the efficacy of economic sanctions, and contended that the recent intensification of economic pressure on Iran has already shown signs that it is having an effect.  
Both men’s addresses were, in the words of one delegate, “impressive, even encouraging.”

After the National Leadership Mission’s end, Rabbi Zwiebel had words of thanks for Rabbi Cohen, and the Agudath Israel Washington Office director offered thanks of his own to all the Senators, Representatives and Administration officials who had offered comments to the delegation.  He expressed special gratitude to Ms. Mary Pensabene and Ms. Eileen Place, of the State Department’s Office of Public Liaison; and to Ms. Sher and Ms. Danielle Borrin, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Special Assistant to the Vice President.  The efforts of those officials, Rabbi Cohen said, in facilitating, respectively, the State Department and White House interactions were “truly invaluable.”

Rabbi Cohen also stressed the importance of missions like Thursday’s, which “allow our community and government officials to directly interact and communicate our concerns on issues of importance to us.”  He emphasized as well how the participation of delegates from states across the nation provides crucial weight to Agudath Israel’s presence in the nation’s capital.  “National Leadership Missions like this one,” he said, “increase Agudath Israel’s stature in Washington, which in turn empowers us to accomplish the maximum we can for the community.”

What is a National Leadership Mission, Anyway?

For the past three decades, Agudath Israel of America has been organizing National Leadership Missions to Washington approximately every two years.  The purpose of the delegations, explains Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the organization’s executive vice president, is manifold.

“First and foremost,” he says, “the missions demonstrate to elected officials in a direct and impressive way the geographical and demographic diversity of the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States.  This year we had delegates from 16 states, and there was a particularly strong showing of younger askonim from many locales.

“Secondly, the makeup of the group provides members of Congress and Administration officials an accurate and impressive picture of the diversity of the frum community itself.  They see Chassidim alongside clean-shaven men who, aside from their hats or yarmulkes, might look like any other citizens; they see black coats alongside business suits.  And when they meet delegates, they come to realize they are meeting students, scholars, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers and other professionals.”

Rabbi Zwiebel adds that the impression made on government officials goes beyond educating them about the Orthodox community.  “It also lays the groundwork for the effectiveness of the work Agudath Israel – and especially our Washington Office – does the rest of the year.”  When such officials are approached about an issue or situation important to the community, he explains, “they have a memory – or can be reminded – of who we are.”

“These missions,” Rabbi Zwiebel adds, “also provide an important service by getting comments and commitments from government officials ‘on the record’.”  Elected and appointed officials can thereby be held accountable for anything they may have stated or pledged to the delegation.

What is more, the Agudath Israel leader notes, “there is a special chizuk provided all of us who are involved in ongoing shtadlonus with the government by the time and effort so freely and enthusiastically given by members of the community who participate in the missions.”

Chizuk is also provided to the delegates themselves, Rabbi Zwiebel asserts, by their fellow delegates.  “When Jews committed to the principles that underlay Agudath Israel come together from diverse communities and cites,” he explains, “there is a trading of notes and reports from their respective environments that allows all of the delegates to gain a better understanding of parts of the frum world they might otherwise have little or no knowledge about.  And the sharing of information, experiences and strategies, as one might imagine, often leads to more effective shtadlonus on all fronts.”

Rabbi Zwiebel takes pains to note that “True shtadlonus differs from what the larger world calls ‘lobbying’ or ‘advocacy.’  At Agudas Yisroel, we have been trained that the issues of the day, and our approach toward dealing with them, must be filtered through the prism of daas Torah and the guidance of our Gedolei Yisroel.

“Furthermore, we approach our mission with the essential realization that it is not our efforts themselves that can bear fruit, but rather that our summoning the effort and giving up time can merit Hashem’s intercession on behalf of Klal Yisroel.

That mindset was evident even the evening before this year’s mission, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Agudath Israel representatives from across the country delivered reports and briefings on their activities.  As a prefact to those reports, Rabbi Berel Weisbord, Mashgiach Ruchni of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, delivered divrei chizuk vi’his’orerus to the assembled, focusing on what it means to be “osek bitzorchei tzibbur be’emunah” – and why the reward for such faithful askonus is so great.

Says Rabbi Zwiebel: “We are blessed to live in a country where we have access to our government leaders.  Experience has shown that if we use that access well, and within the framework of an authentic Torah Judaism approach, bi’siyata di’Shmaya, we can often accomplish great things for Klal Yisroel.”