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An open letter to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

 
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Dear Rabbi Boteach,

I am disturbed and offended by your campaign to purchase the Libyan mission’s property adjacent to your home in Englewood. While I join you in support of your condemnation of the Libyan government, its policies toward Israel, and its failure to take moral responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Americans, I fail to understand why you refuse to abide by the talmudic principle “Dina Malchuta Dina,” the law of the land in which we live must be observed by Jews. As Rep. Steve Rothman explained in a very detailed statement in response to your initial demand that the Libyans be forced to leave the property they own in Englewood, the issue of the legitimacy of their purchase and continued ownership has been adjudicated. Whether we like it or not, the United States courts have determined that they have the right to own that property.

My questions to you are:

1. Why did you choose to buy a home next to the Libyan property if you find living there so painful and distasteful? Would you really want neighbors of every embassy and consulate in our nation to have the right to pick and choose whether that nation has the right to house its ministers and offices in our nation? If a Muslim-American bought property next to the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, should that person have the right to force Israel to sell its residence? If you want Libya to pay property taxes to your town, do you want Israel to also pay property taxes to all the communities where there are Israeli diplomatic residences throughout America?

2. You keep making references in your attacks upon Rep. Rothman to the issue of public aid for private religious schools. Again, Rabbi Boteach, this is an issue that has been extensively debated in our American court system. As a parent who paid day school tuition for two children pre-kindergarten through grade 12, I am grateful that we have the right of school choice for our children and believe that with that right comes the responsibility to support a public education system that is open to all children. My question to you is: How can you square the circle of desiring to maintain a Jewish parochial school and demanding government money? Would you be willing to have your tax dollars equally support Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh, Protestant, Catholic, Jain, and Buddhist school systems in northern New Jersey? We are a multicultural, religiously pluralistic community. Can you somehow justify why Jewish schools should get public funds without presenting a plan for how we could afford to have local options for every ethnic and religious group in our community?

3. Will your Jewish think tank be open to all Jews of all religious streams? This is no small matter, since your appeal for funds and support is being made to the entire Jewish community but you have no track record of inclusiveness and recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, cantors, or academics. As a Reform rabbi who has lived and served in this community for 22 years, I want to invite you to come to the next meeting of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis at noon on Monday, Feb. 8, at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and open a discussion on your vision. We can then share with you the exciting progress that we are making through the Kehillah Partnership toward creating a cross-denominational Jewish day camp and retreat center that will serve the full spectrum of Jewish life in our community and that will be located on a property that is being legally and non-coercively acquired by the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township for the use of the whole Jewish community. We can also hear from you how you plan to attract Jewish sociologists, theologians, psychologists, social workers, and rabbis of all religious streams to your new center. I am confident that, if your vision is truly inclusive, working together we can find physical space for your think tank that I would hope would be more than just a “Jewish equivalent of the politically conservative Heritage Foundation,” but perhaps an American version of the Shalom Hartman Institute where Jews of all religious and political views come together.

According to the Midrash, all Jews stood together at Sinai. Rabbi Boteach, on this Shabbat of Parshat Yitro, I ask you to consider standing together rather than seeking ways to divide the Jews of northern New Jersey.

Temple Sholom, River Edge, Reform
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

We need to ask new questions

I have survey fatigue.

It seems that every other year a new survey about the Jewish population is published. When it is, we have the inevitable hand-wringing from many corners of the Jewish world about the statistics and trends present in the survey. Indeed, the last Pew Study on the American Jewish Population, which was released last fall, has caused the usual spike in anxiety.

What is interesting about this particular Pew survey, though, is that is can be read in two completely different ways, one positive and one negative. More ink has been spilled on the seemingly negative statistics that came out of the survey. Twenty-two percent of Jews identify as cultural Jews, or as the survey calls them, “Jews of no religion.” These Jews are more likely to intermarry and move away from the Jewish community entirely. Two thirds of the Jews of no religion are not raising their children as Jews. Intermarriage rates also are rising; the study says that six in 10 Jews who have gotten married since 2000 have married a non-Jew. Observance levels across the board are also declining; when compared to the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, slightly fewer Jews are attending Passover seders and observing Yom Kippur. And when people change denominations there is a trend toward becoming less observant — or more liberal. Reform Judaism is now being the largest Jewish denomination, and people leave Reform to become “Jews of no religion.”

 

 

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Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

 

 

Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.

 

 
 
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