Jews Help Community

Mitchell Shames, chairman of the Jewish Outreach Institute, wrote a terrific piece in eJewishPhilanthropy today about the perhaps unintended consequences that occur when Jewish communal organizations take a xenophobic approach to fundraising or community building. Attending a fundraiser of a local Jewish social agency, he had this experience:

In one form or another, the overwhelming message of the evening was [that] “Jews help Jews.” While the Jewish community has experienced unprecedented affluence there remain significant pockets of poverty and families in crisis all within the Jewish community. Therefore, “Jews must help Jews”.

My heart swelled with pride, but my brain cringed at the language. “Jews help Jews”. In 2014, this feels uncomfortable.

I wondered; “how many non-Jewish spouses are sitting in the audience?” “What do they hear when words such as these are spoken?” “How do they feel when they hear this message?”

As Shames says, we’ve got to broaden our beliefs and expand beyond our traditional, insular language to include Jews helping all community, repairing the world. Check out the rest of his article here.

Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

Continue reading here

Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris

The last week of November was Celebration Central for my husband and me. We flew to Paris for a cousin’s 80th birthday, celebrated one day before a personal trio: Thanksgiving, the second night of Hanukkah and my husband’s birthday.

For Shabbat-Hanukkah (the Sabbath that occurs during Hanukkah), we made the 3/4 hour trek via Paris Metro to a suburban neighborhood to visit the city’s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the “American synagogue of Paris.” We found many jewels hidden away in this unmarked Jewish haven on Rue Leon Cogniet.

It can be uncomfortable to attend services in an unfamiliar house of worship, regardless of one’s religious upbringing, affiliation, or knowledge base. I am especially tentative in these situations, yet my desire to celebrate Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris and my curiosity moved me to make the effort to join the community for one evening.

The Kehilat Gesher congregation is a highly diverse group of regulars and visitors, all gathered together to experience liberal Judaism in Paris. Rabbi Tom Cohen conducts a trilingual Shabbat service that is inclusive, warm and rich with the joy of the occasion. His enthusiasm for welcoming Shabbat into our hearts was overflowing and we effortlessly settled in for the experience of a lifetime.

Siddur

The Kehilat Gesher Siddur (prayer book) is quadrilingual. Each page has the prayers written in Hebrew, French, English, and the most fascinating transliteration using French accents! Rabbi Cohen has been leading services there since 1993 and is a master at making sure that the service is accessible to all. We took turns doing the readings in the language of our choice. We heard myriad accents in multiple languages: Hebrew with French, English with Russian, French with Hebrew, and some that I did not recognize.

After the service, we gathered for the blessings over the wine and bread and shared a special treat of traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried foods) in the form of yummy jelly doughnuts. We had many warm and welcoming conversations with members and Rabbi Cohen made an extra effort to introduce himself and to genuinely engage with us about who we are and why we decided to attend services at Kehilat Gesher.

What made the experience so memorable was the recognition that even far away from home I can find a friendly connection at a liberal synagogue. As I sat in that small uncomfortable seat, listening to the opening song, a slightly non-traditional rendition of “Shabbat Shalom,” I truly understood that I was part of something unique and special. The amazing part was that nobody seemed to care if we were Jewish, or intermarried or, in our case, intra-faith (Reform and Orthodox).

At Kehilat Gesher Paris they say Shabbat Shalom with an international accent!

Rabbis Faceoff in Israel

I just blogged about gender, prayer, and the conflicts that arise in Israel due to the Orthodox rabbinate's control. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait… Back? Great. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, just shared Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Moshe Amar's open letter to Reform and Conservative rabbis. (See image, below.)

It's in Hebrew, but the RA nicely included a translation. In short, Amar claims that these so-called rabbis who are not Orthodox are ruining Judaism ("trampling" the Torah! horrendously destroying Judaism!) all over the world and now, gasp!, they're starting to be officially recognized as rabbis in Israel and, obviously, this horribleness must be stopped!

Background is that, recently, Israel said it would start recognizing Reform and Conservative rabbis and, like Orthodox rabbis, would fund their salaries. Unlike Orthodox rabbis, these rabbis (officially termed "rabbi of a non-Orthodox community") face restrictions:

The State held that the deal on Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be made via the religious council and will not be done via direct employment by the local authorities, rather via financial assistance. The Reform movement agreed to this. Financing will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.

The decision is currently limited to regional councils and farming communities, and does not extend to large cities. It was also written that those listed under the new title will not have any authority over religious and halakhic matters. So far, the State has committed to financially supporting 15 non-Orthodox rabbis. The Supreme Court is supposed to present a decision on the petition soon.

In a country that's supposed to be a home for all Jews, yet another example of one group's insistence that they're the only "right" way to do/be Jewish.

Click to see full size:

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

A Novel of Muslim Jewish Love

There is a new novel out that strikes me as significant. It is A New Song by Sarah Isaias. It is about an interfaith relationship between a Jewish doctor and a Muslim poet and it is a relationship not only of warmth and respect between those two individuals but of their two families.

Growing up in a Jewish enclave in Detroit and spending my adult life fully involved in the Jewish world, I knew next to nothing about the Koran and very little about the practice of Islam before reading this fast paced novel.

Sarah Isaias has written a story that held me through 400 pages taking me to the libraries of Cambridge, to Jews in Spain before the expulsion, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and through the steps of the Haj. As the characters explore the origins of a legend in both their Abrahamic traditions that tells of a poem that could redeem the world, they share passages in the Koran and contrast them to passages in the Hebrew bible.

Their quest isn’t only academic. As they travel the world together there are shadowy conspirators and extremists who intend to stop them at any cost.

This story is such a wonderful model of an interfaith relationship between two religions and cultures that are most often portrayed in the media as enemies. In a delicately portrayed love story with authentic Jewish and Moslem characters we can see how their openness to each other and to each other’s cultures helps them discover a truth that is powerfully simple and never more urgent.

In Other News…

Three stories of interest to readers of InterfaithFamily.com:

Kansas!

The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make “welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

“Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.


Speaking up for Jews by Choice

Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.


Chinese Jews

I was surprised to stumble across an article about the “who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!

Japan

If, like me, you’ve been watching the news coming out of Japan, I’m sure your thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people.

In looking for ways to help I did what many have done: I googled.

A JTA News Alert informed me that the Jewish community, largely based in Tokyo, was spared (due in large part to distance from the epicenter). 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would help in whatever way possible.

The Japanese consul in Israel, Mitoshiko Shinomya, told the Israeli news website Ynet that he was heartened by the Israeli government’s offer of assistance. “Israel officially offered its help an hour after the earthquake struck,” Shinomya said. “It is very heart-warming, but at this point we do not know exactly what the extent of the damage is, so it is difficult for us to say what can be done.”

The Jewish Federations of North America is setting up an emergency relief fund to help those in affected areas, a spokesman said, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a federation partner, opened a mailbox Friday for donations to be used for Japan/Pacific disaster relief. Donations can be made at https://jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx.

According to the JDC’s site,

JDC is now partnering with the Japanese Jewish community to provide funding to a local NGO for emergency needs including food, water, and shelter in the disaster region. JDC acquired substantial expertise in earthquake and tsunami-related response in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and India following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

The 8.9 earthquake, the most powerful to hit Japan in more than 100 years, has killed hundreds of people and caused untold damage through massive flooding. JDC worked in Japan before the American entrance into World War II, helping support Jewish refugees in Kobe, Japan who fled Hitler’s Europe. Today, several thousand Jews live and work in Japan.

Sadly, the number confirmed has now grown into the thousands, with the deaths estimated to be in the tens of thousands. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are now homeless, countless people are missing and entire towns washed away.

Please pitch in to the relief effort, as I have, if you’re able to.

Intermarriage Around the Reform/Progressive World

Our friend, and terrific journalist, Sue Fishkoff had a JTA story about the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism that missed what I think was a more important part of the convention.

The World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the association of Reform movements from all over the world. (Outside of the US, Reform Judaism is often called Progressive Judaism, hence the name of the association.) The WUPJ rarely holds its annual meeting in the US, but it did last week in San Francisco.

Sue’s story focuses on how Progressive Jews outside of the US have not adopted the American Reform Jewish movement’s doctrine of patrilineal descent which considers as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew. Sue attended a panel discussion on that subject, and reports that other than in the Liberal movement in England and in the former Soviet Union (and one congregation each in Ireland and Holland), no other Diaspora community recognizes patrilineal descent.

I wish Sue had been able to cover the panel discussion at which IFF’s Chief Education Officer, Karen Kushner, and our Advisory Board member, Rosanne Levitt, spoke about the importance of programming to welcome interfaith couples and families. And I wish she had been able to cover the evening session at which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spoke, because what he had to say presents a compelling case in favor of patrilineal descent and other measures to welcome and include interfaith couples and families in Jewish communities – and not just in the US.

Yes, full disclosure, Rabbi Kushner is Karen Kushner’s husband – but according to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, he is considered “one of the top leaders of  American Reform Jewry” along with Rabbis Eric Yoffie (head of the US Reform movement), David Ellenson (head of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary), and David Saperstein (head of the URJ’s Religious Action Center).

Rabbi Kushner was kind enough to share his remarks, What it Means to Me to Be a Reform Jew, with IFF’s readers. Some of my favorite quotes:

It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist. But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.
We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.
The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift.
[It is] the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.

We at IFF are glad that the Kushners and Rosanne Levitt put a positive response to intermarriage on the WUPJ agenda, and we hope the delegates from around the world took in their message and will bring it back to their communities.

Attitude Antennae

My “attitude antennae” were buzzing this week – because of several notable expressions of attitudes, both negative and positive, about intermarriage.

Neil Steinberg, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, took a cheap shot in a column about the Super Bowl TV ad for Groupon that has been widely criticized as insensitive to human rights violations in Tibet. What intermarriage has to do with that, I don’t know, but he does the usual equating intermarriage with assimilation: “Judaism is circling the drain, with Jews shrugging, intermarrying and forgetting to raise their children in the faith…”

That’s what we usually hear from Israel, and there was another example of that this week – a member of the Knesset sponsored “Jewish Identity Day” in which many of the Knesset committee meetings discussed issues relating to Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, and Jewish education. As reported in Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, one Knesset member equates Jewish women marrying Arab men as assimilation and says it can be prevented by intense education.

But this week I also read the most positive comments about intermarriage that I’ve ever seen coming out of Israel. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and her husband Dr. Elan Ezrachi, an educational consultant, wrote the following in Ha’aretz:

Over the past 30 years, several demographic studies of Jewry in the United States have been published. For many years the dominant line was that mixed marriages were a disaster that would lead to a decline in the number of Jews. There is, however, another view that sees connections between Jews and non-Jews as in fact a possibility for expanding the definitions of identity and enlarging the ranks.

Beyond the demographic hairsplitting, it appears there is a phenomenon of historic dimensions developing there: Instead of fleeing from Judaism, entering Judaism; instead of black and white definitions, “hybrid” definitions that enable surprising connections between Jews and non-Jews. These new definitions are expanding the boundaries of the tribe.

While Judaism in Israel is moving further to the margins and concentrating mainly on whom to push out of the fold – the convert, the foreigner, the half-Jew or the new immigrant serving in the Israel Defense Forces – in American Judaism a dynamic of acceptance, embrace and widening circles is developing. This is another measure of the growing gap between Israeli society and the largest Jewish community in the world.

Finally, Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week feels positive about some gatherings of young Jews in Europe. Acknowledging that the typical view of Europe is “an ageing demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation,” he writes that many of the new Jewish start-ups in Europe “deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.”

Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of  Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”