State of the Heart

March 26, 2020

Vijeta Uniyal ● Jerusalem Post

New book tells the unsung story of Israel’s humanitarianism

‘State of the Heart: Stories of a Humanitarian Israel’ puts focus on individual inspirational stories.

With anti-Israel activism sweeping Western educational institutions, and antisemitism raising its head again – this time cloaked as hostility toward Israel – there was never a better time to reacquaint one’s self with the benevolence and altruism that have propelled the Jewish state into a humanitarian superpower. Be it the tiny Caribbean islands devastated by a hurricane, or giant India hit by an earthquake, Israelis and the Jewish state are among the world’s first responders. Fortunately, a newly published book by Israeli educator and entrepreneur David Kramer tells us this very story. State of the Heart: Stories of a Humanitarian Israel is a collection of more than 50 stories, each celebrating the unsung Israeli heroes that today’s busy news cycle seldom cares to note. Written in short-story format, State of the Heart introduces readers to the selfless and courageous men and women behind Israeli non-profit organizations, charities and voluntary groups who are making a difference at home and abroad.

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Open Orthodoxy founder tells story…

March 23, 2020

Yonah Jeremy Bob ● Jerusalem Post

Rabbi Avi Weiss has been running one campaign or another for decades.

Journey to Open Orthodoxy is likely his ultimate work, not only summarizing many of the issues where he has made a mark as the founder of open Orthodoxy, a spin-off of Modern Orthodoxy, but also showing his personal evolution along the way.

In this book, which traces his development from earlier writings, Weiss hits a veritable checklist of hot-button issues that virtually all Jewish denominations are struggling with in one way or another, but also seeks to present a unifying vision for his approach.

“My understanding of Open Orthodoxy goes well beyond such controversial issues as women and Halacha, interdenominational and interfaith relations and LGBT+ inclusion,” he writes.

He continues, “For me, Open Orthodoxy is holistic, all-encompassing, embracing the whole of Jewish spiritual, religious, halachic and national life.”

Walking a tightrope, Weiss said that he professes “an unequivocal commitment to the truth, validity and eternal applicability of the halachic system,” but that he disagrees with the Orthodox Right who view chemistry, language, medicine” and other areas of study as profane.

Rather, he says that “all disciplines are potentially aspects of the Torah. In a word, there is nothing in the world devoid of God’s imprint.”

Regarding gender issues, he explains that “Open Orthodoxy parts with the non-Orthodox community, as Halacha is not fully egalitarian.

However, he also pushes the envelope from his right flank, defending his ordaining of women with the title “rabba” (a feminine variation of rabbi).

This goes even farther than the title “maharat” (an invented title that gave women leaders recognition, but avoided called them rabbi), which is slightly less controversial in Orthodox circles, where women have traditionally not served as clergy. He states that the “rabba” title maintains female clergy within the role that Halacha permits them, but denotes “more dignity and respect” than other female clergy titles.

Fleshing out the difference between an Orthodox rabba and a non-Orthodox female rabbi, he writes: “In Conservative and Reform Judaism, a woman’s role is identical to a man’s role. In Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90% of areas, but there are distinctions.He explains that a rabba can conduct a wedding ceremony, including the reading of the ketubah (a form of a prenuptual agreement), but cannot sign the ketubah (which only men can do.) Moreover, he says that women can manage religious services in
ways permitted by Halacha, but do not count for the quorum of 10 required for a prayer service.

Another area where Weiss engages in a difficult balancing act is in addressing the homosexual community. On one hand, he does not conduct gay weddings. On the other hand, he writes that “to demand that gay people not have a life partner is, for many, akin to a death sentence,” stating that “we must do all we can to find a way for Halacha to help guide gay couples to live in loving partnerships.”

His vision of inclusivity is always broader than a specific issue. In the book, he says: “At its core, inclusivity sets Open Orthodoxy apart. This means interfacing with the nonaffiliated, other streams of Judaism and other faith communities… the elderly, and the physically and mentally challenged.”
Entering this minefield of pushing the envelope on so many contemporary issues, Weiss writes defensively at times as one who has already been attacked and is anticipating being criticized further.

Anticipating his critics, he says: “Open Orthodoxy is not simply about promoting particular views on cutting-edge issues; it also seeks out ways to achieve greater spiritual heights.”

He goes on to connect some of his trailblazing views to the Torah, remarking that, “like the Torah from which it emerges, Halacha is an eitz hayyim, a tree of life, and a living organism,” which is never afraid to confront “the needs of the day.”


He says that these institutions have “stepped into the breach. While many were convinced we could not succeed, we’ve exceeded expectations.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Weiss effused about his successors who have taken over the above institutions as well as the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where he conducted services for decades.

At some point, Weiss swivels to controversial issues in Israel where he has staked out strong positions.

Though he said that his father revered the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, he criticizes it for “consolidation of rabbinic authority and use of coercive powers” which have “alienated much of Israel’s citizenry.”
More specifically, he rebukes the rabbinate for a situation where, “of the 300,000 Soviet émigrés to Israel who are not halachically Jewish, only 20,000 have been converted over the past 30 years.”

He accuses the Rabbinical Council of America of capitulating to what he calls the Israeli rabbinate’s unnecessarily onerous process.Weiss advocates easing the path to become Jewish and notes that the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which he founded, is a practical arm for implementing his more open approach to conversion.

Showing his character as a maverick, Weiss intersperses discussing down-to-earth controversies with a call to focus all efforts on soaring spiritually by embracing song and dance in prayer and an open-minded outlook emphasizing broader values like holiness and embracing other Jews as part of a person’s wide family.

Weiss’s book also has sections about religious Zionism, problems in the area of Jewish divorce, the Holocaust, Israel’s plight during the 2014 Gaza war and a variety of other issues he has dedicated himself to over the years.

One tension in the book is his explanation of his evolution.

For example, he says that he became more liberal on certain women’s issues after being confronted years later by a former student. The student shocked him with her explanation of why his earlier apologetics to convince her to accept parts of the prayer service which conflicted with her female identity had failed.

The arguments made by the woman were not new ones, so it appears that what changed Weiss’s view was hearing the human frustration of his former student, whom he respected.

It is not 100% clear from Weiss about where such emotional encounters should trump previously built intellectual foundations and how an open Orthodox person knows when to turn Right or Left.

But he did tell the Post that an open Orthodox approach to Jewish law serves as a bridge between past and present. It must be grounded seriously in tradition, but how a question is asked, addressing human pain and sizing up the sincerity of who is asking the question have a role to play.

In addition, to the extent there is no mathematical answer, this could also be because no one, in Jewish denominations or other faiths, really has a completely systematic answer for how to approach all of the many shocking and diverse new issues that modernity throws out at religion.

In any case, this book will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of modern and open Orthodoxy and one of its trailblazers in recent and future decades.


Integration of American Jews Through Journalism

March 9, 2020

Neville Teller ● Jerusalem Post

Ron Rubin is an avid collector of American newspapers stretching right back to the early 18th century. A professor of political science at the University of New York for more than 50 years, Rubin retired in 2016 and devised the idea of telling the story of America’s Jews through what appeared in the newspapers of the time. In Strangers and Natives he brings the concept to brilliant realization, hence his book’s subtitle: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869.

Turning the pages of this book is a continuous delight to the eye, for throughout the volume, the selected news items and articles are illustrated by reproductions of the originals. So as a by-product of the history, we also see how American journalism developed over the centuries. This triumph of book design is the work of the highly experienced Peri Devaney, who is rightfully credited on the cover.

Strangers and Natives tackles the development of the Jewish community in America from a variety of angles, starting back in 1734, some 60 years before the Declaration of Independence. On March 25 of that year, The New York Weekly Journal carried an advertisement urging anyone who believed they were owed anything by the late Benjamin Elias to come forward. Elias had been a merchant as well as a Hebrew teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that was the first Jewish congregation in North America.

Rubin ends his story, except for an additional item or two, with The Alexandria Gazette’s account of the first Rosh Hashanah after the end of the Civil War in 1865 – the Jewish New Year of 5626. Jews featured prominently on both sides of that conflict. The secretary of state of the Confederate States of America – the 11 breakaway states opposed to ending slavery – was Judah P Benjamin. In February 1865, with the South fast crumbling and already thinking of suing for peace, The Baltimore Clipper carried a front-page account of a speech by Benjamin advocating what must have seemed a radical proposal to the South generally. He proposed freeing African American slaves as a way of enhancing the manpower of the Confederate Army. Such a move, he said, would add 680,000 additional troops.

On the other hand, in April 1865, one week after President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, The Pittsburgh Commercial ran an article praising the Jewish contribution to the Union cause. It set out the numbers of enlisted Jews from the different states of the Union, calculating that a total of 40,000 Jewish soldiers had, in its own words, “shown a full share of patriotism since the war began.”

Across 12 chapters, Rubin traces the saga of how Jews slowly became integrated into the American way of life. He covers the development of Jewish communal affairs, including the expansion of synagogues across the growing country, and the part played by Jews in the fields of education and literature, in journalism, business, politics and various other aspects of the rapidly growing nation. He does not omit the obstacles placed in their way from time to time.

For example, antisemitism reared its ugly head quite early on, and Rubin records instances in The New York Gazette in 1746, and The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751, of the offer of rewards following the vandalism of Jewish burial grounds. Against this, the philo-semitism of Benjamin Franklin is well documented. As The Pennsylvania Gazette records, well ahead of the British Parliament, Franklin’s so-called Jew Bill of 1753 proposed allowing foreign-born Jews to obtain English citizenship, bypassing the required oath of loyalty to the Church of England. To its credit, the Gazette was strongly in support if the bill, but it was a proposal well ahead of its time, and popular opposition proved too strong.

A century later, the American press followed the long and intense struggle within the British Parliament on the related issue of permitting a practicing Jew to sit in the House of Commons without swearing loyalty to the Church of England.

In 1847, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was elected to Parliament as an MP for the City of London. As The New York Herald reported, he refused to take his seat because he was required to take an oath to the Christian faith. When he was reelected in 1849, the paper noted that he had won “by an overwhelming majority,” and commented that “the event is regarded as an unmistakable sign of the determination of the citizens to secure what is termed full religious liberty.” In point of fact, the impasse continued, as Rothschild won his seat again in 1852 and then in 1857. It was not until 1858, after the provision of Christian affirmation was removed, that he finally entered the House of Commons.

Rothschild’s struggle, reported in the American press, was carefully followed by American Jews. It may well have played a part in ensuring the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, 10 years later, which finally removed religious restrictions on holding any political office in the United States.

Strangers and Natives provides a unique perspective on American-Jewish history – the first account to draw its material solely from contemporary newspapers. By doing so, and because of Peri Devaney’s fascinating design, which shows the actual items in print, we are able to see history unfold as it was happening. The book goes well beyond news stories. We see also advertisements, announcements, obituaries and accounts charting the changing pattern of Jewish life and achievement. It is highly recommended.


Life-changing work: Rabbi Leo Dee’s new book explains how the Torah can bring happiness to all

May 18, 2016

By Miriam Kates Lock transforming web001

When Leo Dee was a rabbi in a small village n the British county of Hertfordshire, he organized a question-and-answer session on one Yom Kippur afternoon. More than 400 Jews of all ages sat before him, and one young man – a science student at a British university – raised his hand to ask a question.

“Rabbi, isn’t the Torah just an ancient text that is out-of-date and irrelevant in our modern age?” he asked.

It was the most basic of all questions a rabbi could be asked.

Transforming the World is Dee’s answer.

Why is the Torah still relevant after thousands of years? What does the Torah offer to contemporary Jews living in today’s word? In Transforming the World Dee begins not with a discussion of history or faith, but instead with a reflection on the subject of happiness – what happiness means to people and the line between happiness and Judaism.

Transforming the World is not a scholarly volume intended for Jews with an extensive background in Jewish law and Jewish study. Instead, it is a straightforward book that addresses Jews who want to know what Judaism has to offer them personally. In today’s atmosphere of self-disclosure and openness, the pursuit of happiness is a subject examined and discussed frequently in the media, literature and popular culture. Dee presents Judaism in this novel way in order to bring his main point across to his readers: Judaism is worth investigating and absolutely has something to offer the modern Jew.

The rest of the review can be found in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.

 


The Silence Breakers

January 27, 2016

In an article in The Jerusalem Post on January 17, 2016 titled “The Silence Breakers,” Orit Afra writes:

In 2011, New York-based psychologist, researcher and author Dr. Michael Salamon came out with the book Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims (Urim Publications) to both community praise and “hate mail.” He felt compelled to write the book after his private practice in the Five Towns in New York received many victims of abuse from Jewish and Catholic communities alike.

Abuse in the Jewish Community

You can read the entire article on lifting the veil of silence over the issue of sexual abuse in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.