Challenged, and Disturbed

Keeping with Wednesday’s theme, I’d like to write about two very different recently published articles.

In Thursday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes about an organization that commits “the ultimate taboo”: teaching both Judaism and Christianity to the children of interfaith couples. Going to visit the Interfaith Community’s religious school in Long Island, she was skeptical, “expecting either Jews for Jesus or an all-religion-is-the-same, kumbaya-type gathering.” After all, by the orthodoxy of the progressive Jewish world, raising children in two religions is “naive,” “confusing to children” and “practically criminal.” But she came away from the experience “impressed by the group’s intelligence and seriousness.”

Carefully sidestepping endorsement of the group’s methods (Wiener does work for The Jewish Week after all), she acknowledges that the children weened in its school are better prepared for Jewish engagement than children raised with no religion at all.

In today’s Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Julie Gruenbaum Fax reports on Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz–AKA “Schwartzie”–an Orthodox rabbi who has made outreach to unaffiliated Jews his life mission and is by all accounts a warm, inviting and friendly man… and who also wrote bigoted, sexist and cruel emails to women who interdate. In emails sent to three different women who came to his home for Jewish events, he variously insults the converted Jewish mother of one, accuses another of “trying 2 exterminate Jews” and tells another “U came dressed like a cheap SLUT W/a low cut dress.” Even in an in-person interview with Gruenbaum Fax, he relays this message for non-Jewish women who date Jewish men: “You are a f—ing Nazi. You are killing a Jew and I hate you for that and I’ll piss on your grave. You are not going to kill my Jews.”

And yet, despite this deplorable rhetoric, nobody questions the decades of contributions Rabbi Schwartz has made to engaging Jews with Judaism. His Chai Center in Mar Vista attracts 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a year, he offers free High Holiday services for 3,000 and every Friday night hosts “Dinner for 60 Strangers” in his home.

His son Mendel, who is being groomed to take over the center, makes no excuses for his father’s language, but explains his behavior through his personal history. He lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust. Now, he is extraordinarily sensitive to anything that he perceives to threaten the future of the Jewish people–even though intermarriage and extermination have nothing to do with each other.

More than anything, it’s just a sad story–sad for the women who were threatened and insulted, sad for an organization that does much good and sad for a rabbi whose heart is so filled with hate.

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4 thoughts on “Challenged, and Disturbed

  1. wow….shocking words from Rabbi Schwartz.

    there are plenty of people who oppose intermarriage, but to say such things as what was mentioned in those emails is just beyond disturbing. and yes, it does border on bigotry (Schwartz refers to some of the women are Nazis), racism (in the case of Jamie Katz, whose mother was Japanese but converted to Judaism), and sexism (all the targets were women- Jewish or Gentile). Rabbi Schwartz is not the only outreach professional whose “sensitivity” about saving the Jewish people has been viewed as somewhat bigoted. i once went to hear Rebbitzin Esther Jungreis speak at her center in New York. she described those who intermarry as those who “give birth to dead children.” even though she wants to provide an antidote for the declining population, her words were poisonous and vile. everytime her name is mentioned, i cringe because i think back to what she said and it makes me sick that someone who cares so much for Jews would disregard a large portion of the population, many of whose partners are supportive of creating a Jewish homelife even if conversion is not in the immediate future or at all.

    many Orthodox outreach professionals do begin with good intentions as they attempt to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. but then things get skewed when someone brings a non-Jewish partner to the events or mentions they are interdating, or that their partner is converting via a Reform or Conservative conversion. many also utilize their matchmaking abilities in the hopes that they can create more Jewish couples from their events. Rabbi Schwartz is said to have set up nearly 700 couples in his career. his efforts should be lauded, but his methods of interacting with the young women in those emails should by all means be criticized. if he’s not careful, they may even damage his reputation. people will stop going to his events, especially those who grew up interfaith or without religion and are exploring their Jewish roots for the first time as adults.

    the only Orthodox outreach that does not discriminate is Chabad. sure, they disapprove of intermarriage. but it’s their mission to be welcoming to all and to retain those who Rabbi Schwartz and Esther Jungreis consider “evil.” it is Chabad that truly cares for Jews, while the aforementioned merely care about who these Jews marry.

  2. What he is doing, pure and simple is verbal abuse, constituting psychological violence, and its almost like he is seeking out the situations to heap it on these women. None of his ‘efforts’ outweigh the horrendous abusive actions he takes; he is in a place of spiritual leadership and guidance, and no matchmaking or outreach – to those he deems worthy – is more valuable than the spirit and esteem of these women he is crushing and rejecting, not to mention possibly sending running in the opposite direction, away from their religion. And not simply with a halachic response, but an abusive, spiteful, personal attack on the very core of these women and their parents and family? And the best explanation is, yes its unreasonable, but he’s traumatized from the Shoah, and hey, at least he is not embezzeling money? So pocketing some money is worse than crushing these women and their relationship with their religion? What he has done will stay with these women the rest of their lives, and quite possibly damage their religious identity for good. This type of abuse would not be acceptable for any teacher or counselor or community worker, no matter how much good they did with others; if he is emotionally traumatized and unstable in these situations, he has no business doing what he’s doing.

  3. Why are the Jewish spouses of these Gentiles bringing them to an Orthodox group? Do they think they will be welcomed?

    There’s a reason I don’t visit Mecca. Until you do you should be putting the blame where it really lies.

  4. I think what Rabbi Schawrtz did was appalling. However, Dave is right. The Orthodox community is not that welcoming to interfaith couples and probably won’t be for he forseeable future. Don’t expect a red carpet welcome.

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