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U.S. Jews join pluralism fight

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Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrollsat the Western Wall on Dec. 18. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

“People are saying enough is enough,” said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah, or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

“My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about,” Ellenson told JTA. “It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’” she said. “We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement.”

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israeli and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read “Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence,” “Jerusalem will not fall,” and “We are sick of [religious] coercion.”

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

“The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox,” the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. “We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was “led away” from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel comes at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York. Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel “is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not-religious Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel.”

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said. “The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts,” Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. “The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity,” he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing “humra” — the strict application of Jewish law. “In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael,” the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not by U.S. Jewish pressure.

“Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions,” he said. “Some of them impact on relations with diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

“The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it,” she said. “The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should.”

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died last month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.

JTA

 
 

Conservatives’ ethical seal nearing kosher marketplace

Counterintuitive as the need for that statement about kosher certification might sound, it was just one of the points about the Conservative movement’s planned ethical seal that the group responsible for the certification wanted to clarify at this week’s gathering of Conservative rabbis in New York.

The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission announced at this week’s Rabbinical Assembly convention that it had hired a social auditing firm to compile standards for what the seal will represent. The Magen Tzedek certification has been in development for three years following multiple scandals at the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant, Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa.

Beta testing with two companies will be finished by the end of 2010.

“Over the course of the next year we will be in the marketplace,” promised Rabbi Morris Allen, the Hekhsher Tzedek project director and spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Jacob in Minnesota.

Joe Regenstein, an adviser to the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission and professor of food science at Cornell University, said the new certification will cover five areas: wages and benefits; health and safety of workers; animal welfare; environment and sustainability; and a broad category of corporate responsibilities, such as nutritional labeling and good practices.

At the convention panel at which the certification was discussed — “Moving Magen Tzedek Into the Marketplace: How the Conservative Movement is Seating Itself at the Kosher Table,” the co-chairman of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, urged the dozens of rabbis in the room to make the commission’s projects known to their communities.

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The new certification seal by the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission: the Magen Tzedek, or Star of Justice. Hekhsher Tzedek Commission

The commission wants each synagogue to appoint one socially aware and active member to work directly with the commission for a year.

Siegel also urged the audience to make sure that their synagogues and Jewish organizations are in compliance with the ethical standards espoused by the seal, such as using fair labor practices for workers and ensuring that outside contractors, like catering companies, adhere to the standards.

“We have to set the right example in our own synagogues. It’s a serious issue,” he said. “This will be our Achilles’ heel if we don’t address it.”

The commission hired Social Accountability Accreditation Services (SAAS) for help in coming up with the standards a food company must meet in order to be approved for the Magen Tzedek, or star of justice. The commission posted draft standards at the Magen Tzedek Website for three months, inviting public comment, and the standards are being finalized.

“We think that social justice in the marketplace is something that we can make happen,” said Eileen Kaufman, executive director of Social Accountability International, which accredits and monitors organizations as being in compliance with social standards. “What we do at SAAS is take creditable standards and put them in a structure that enables them to be carried out and used as criteria for purchasing. That proves as incentive for organizations to follow them.”

At first the label will be targeted toward U.S. kosher food product companies, Regenstein said, estimating the number at about 10,000. It will include only products that already have been certified as kosher, including non-food items like detergents and aluminum foil, as well as products that do not require kosher certification, such as fruit and vegetables.

Even though some companies might adhere to the social justice practices enumerated, if they are not kosher, they cannot get the seal.

“We are a Conservative Jewish organization. We will not put a hechsher on pork sausages. That’s just not who we are,” Regenstein said. The Magen Tzedek is “tied to Jewish ethics and to Jewish law. The companies have to meet a minimum of Jewish law.”

Regenstein prefers to call the accreditation the Magen Tzedek rather than use the term hechsher.

“The word hechsher means kosher certification, and this program is not kosher certification,” he said. “This is a social justice program attached to previously recognized kosher certification.”

Regenstein added that the term hechsher made the Orthodox community nervous.

“They thought, and perhaps rightfully so, that we were going into the kosher certification business,” he said. “We are going into the ethical certification business.”

For now the seal will not apply to restaurants. Other organizations, like Uri L’Tzedek, certify kosher restaurants as ethical.

Eventually the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission hopes to certify catering companies.

After the SAAS criteria are finalized, the commission will conduct an economic feasibility study to determine the cost of accreditation, Regenstein said.

He noted that it might prove economically desirable for kosher companies to acquire the seal because it will widen the market for their foods to those who care about ethics even if they don’t keep kosher.

“By tying it to kosher products, you will have more Reform and Conservative Jews looking at products that are kosher,” Regenstein said. “They can reach the entire Jewish community and people outside the community looking for a framework to choose ethical products.”

The seal may even help people become kashrut-observant, he said.

“All of a sudden it’s not just people who keep kosher” who will be eating kosher products, Regenstein said, “but people who are interested in social justice.”

JTA

 
 

New Conservative machzor tries for accessibility, inspiration

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This page of the new Lev Shalem machzor displays the traditional Al Chet list of sins juxtaposed with an alternative meditation on sins against the earth penned by Jewish Theological Seminary Dean Daniel Nevins.

This Rosh HaShanah, worshippers in Conservative congregations across North America will find themselves using a new machzor.

More than 150,000 copies of the High Holidays prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, have been pre-sold, representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 affiliated congregations.

The strong interest might stem from “dissatisfaction with all previous machzors,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the committee that produced the prayer book.

Lev Shalem in one sense is a response to two oft-heard criticisms of the Conservative movement: that it is too elitist and too intellectual.

For starters, the entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and parts that might be said aloud are transliterated to allow those without Hebrew knowledge to participate in group call and response.

“It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative body that produced the book.

For experienced worshippers who want a Hebrew text unencumbered by directions indicating where one should stand and sit, subtle signals like the icon of a bowing man offer what Conservative leaders hope will be a rich, free-flowing davening experience.

Commentary and exposition fills the right side of each double-page spread. The left side is for poems, meditations, and alternative readings.

Ten rabbis and cantors spent 12 years putting together the machzor, meeting twice a month for more than a decade.

Each of 10 regular contributors took one or two assignments, and the entire group read and commented on one another’s work. Kelman wrote the commentaries for the evening and morning Sh’ma and its blessings, for example, while Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre outside Philadelphia wrote the commentary for Kol Nidrei and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

The groups also translated the Hebrew text into English and read it aloud to make sure it flowed, so those who cannot “feel” the meaning of the Hebrew can use the English for prayer.

Some who saw early versions of the machzor, which was tested in six congregations, say it answers a need articulated by Conservative laypeople as well as clergy.

“There is a cadre of congregants that is really looking for spiritual connection,” said one Conservative rabbi, Geoffrey Haber of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in a YouTube video that is being used in an unusual PR campaign to promote the prayer book. “Oftentimes our movement can be focused on the intellectual rather than the spiritual, and people are really thirsting for that. I think this machzor speaks to that.”

Along with the content modifications, Lev Shalem is aesthetically pleasing. It weighs less than two pounds, is printed on fine paper, and uses a typeface that has been specially designed and copyrighted.

Like the new daily and Shabbat prayer book released concurrently by the Israeli Masorti movement (see jstandard.com), Lev Shalem is being presented as a prayer book for all Jews rather than as a Conservative text.

“We’ve got everyone from [the late Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai to the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said committee chair Rabbi Edward Feld of Northampton, Mass., senior editor of the project. “It does not represent any single theological perspective.”

Feld spent weeks poring through the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, mining more than 60 old prayer books for long-forgotten piyyutim, or liturgical poems, to include along with modern meditations.

On one page is an 11th-century poem on the new year by Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain. On another is “For the Sin of Destroying God’s Creation,” JTS Dean Daniel Nevins’ environmentally sensitive version of the Al-Chet, the traditional confessional list of sins recited during Yom Kippur services.

The way the texts are put together is in keeping with Conservative values, Feld said.

“We include myriad Jewish voices, allowing them to be in conversation with each other,” Feld said. “In that sense it’s a deeply Conservative text because the movement at its best is about the conversations that can take place between tradition and a 21st-century sensibility.”

The entire traditional text is included, with a few modifications. The matriarchs are included as an option on the same page as the traditional Amidah prayer that refers only to the patriarchs. Kelman says that’s progress from the most recent Conservative prayer book, which relegates the matriarchs to a separate page.

The Conservative leadership hopes the new machzor will help worshippers deepen their synagogue experience. Those who produced it, however, have less lofty expectations of their first encounter with the book from the other side of the pulpit.

“In all likelihood,” Kelman said, “I’ll be looking for mistakes.”

JTA

 
 

Don’t believe gloomy forecasts on Conservative Judaism

 

At Conservative confab, it’s about the future

Listening to Conservative rabbis talk about their movement is like witnessing an intervention.

They talk of “saving” Conservative Judaism — and sometimes they blame the parents when things go wrong.

“Reform rabbis speak positively about their movement and less positively about their synagogue, while Conservative rabbis speak positively about their synagogue and less positively about their movement,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., paraphrasing a refrain he says he has heard often from Reform and Conservative colleagues.

News Analysis

Weinblatt was one of nearly 300 Conservative rabbis who came to Las Vegas this week for the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic group. On the agenda, as usual, was the future of Conservative Judaism — what it is, where it’s headed, and how rabbis can get that message out to the world.

“The Conservative movement belongs to us, and we’ll either fix it or bury it,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., during a panel Monday on what Conservative Judaism will look like in 20 years. “We’re the rabbis. We need to get together, stop the bulls—t, and get it done, or we’ll become a shrinking, dwindling, heteronomous movement with very little to say.”

At this gathering, there was little of the grumbling by key Conservative synagogue leaders that reportedly prompted the development and release last month of a new strategic plan to restructure the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Instead, there was energy, even a little bravado, at the Rabbinical Assembly conference, and criticism was tempered by concern for the Conservative movement’s future.

“We need a new financial model,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue and the man in charge of overseeing the restructuring of the congregational umbrella group. “Less edifice and more personnel. Multiple minyanim in the same building — the Hillel model.”

What will the new strategic plan, a year and a half in the making, mean to members of Conservative congregations? Not much, said Wernick — at least, not for a while. “It’s navigational. The implementation plan — how do we get there — is what we’re working on now.”

At any rate, institutions do not a movement make, rabbis at this convention reiterated. That’s particularly the case in the Conservative movement, whose three main institutions — the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the United Synagogue — are modeled on the separation of powers within the U.S. government rather than on anyone’s notion of the most effective way to deliver religious services and build Jewish community. Those are two of the main interests on rabbis’ minds today.

“The Conservative movement is not these institutions,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “These institutions are more than 100 years old and in urgent need of rethinking.”

The ideas and values of Conservative Judaism, on the other hand, are as relevant and compelling today as ever, she said.

“People get hung up on the Conservative institutions — are they good or bad. That’s beside the point,” she said. “They’re only good or bad in terms of how they help us get out our message of building a sustainable, joyful community that finds meaning in Jewish tradition and is committed to making the world a better place.”

The convention featured formal discussions among the United Synagogue leadership and key figures among a group of about 50 rabbis who have been pushing for completely overhauling United Synagogue. They call themselves Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism. Those discussions took place behind closed doors, but their message is no secret, nor is the rabbis’ dissatisfaction with the new strategic plan.

“The clock has started moving faster, and it’s up to the chancellor and the R.A. to determine the fate of the North American Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., a leader of Hayom. Creditor helped craft the strategic plan, which, he says, “left some of the most dissatisfied communities dissatisfied,” despite his and his colleagues’ best efforts.

Some of the Hayom congregations, including Netivot Shalom, have refused to pay the full dues assessed them by the United Synagogue. Those dues can run upward of $80,000 a year for the largest shuls. It doesn’t pay, said one rabbi who preferred to remain anonymous, “because we don’t get anything for that money.”

That’s what Wernick is trying to deal with by rebuilding his board, bringing together educators, rabbis, and lay leaders in a new leadership development program, and re-imagining the old synagogue model of dues-paying membership. The changes won’t come quickly or easily, he said.

But this was a rabbinic conference, not a United Synagogue gathering, which meant less interest in strategic plans and more intellectualizing about what Conservative Judaism is supposed to be — and how its rabbis can best serve their congregations.

“I’m not sure the organizational structure matters to people in my pews,” said Rabbi Howard Lifshitz of Cong. Beth Judea in Long Grove, Ill. “The institutions of the Conservative movement are unknown to them. Most people who come into my synagogue want to know how their participation will touch them, what it will add to their lives.”

At Monday’s morning plenary, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed in Manhattan locked horns with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles over solutions to the movement’s malaise.

Kalmanofsky championed a Judaism of purpose and complexity, one that moves beyond the 20th-century emphasis on helping Jews fit into American society and concentrates instead on helping them “find moral and spiritual purpose” — a “passionate authenticity” that will “seed, nurture, and harvest opportunities for people to find depth.”

Wolpe argued, on the other hand, for a coherent ideology that “could be put on a bumper sticker,” to let Jews know what the movement stands for.

“Intellectual complexity is not the way to bring people into your synagogue,” he said. “You have to pray to something expressible. You can’t beseech a nuance.”

While that big picture conversation was going on in the main plenary, rabbis of congregations outside the major metropolitan centers said that although they found the discussion fascinating, those weren’t their day-to-day concerns.

“I’m not that much into the politics,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. “Our shul is 80,000 square feet. The sanctuary seats 1,800, and we get maybe 100 people on Shabbat.”

With a $150,000 deficit and less than one-quarter of his membership paying full dues, Werbow says the future of his synagogue doesn’t depend on how the movement is reorganized.

“Our deficit isn’t going away if we don’t pay our dues to the United Synagogue,” he said.

“I don’t think the work I’m doing is ‘saving’ the movement,” added Ita Paskind, assistant rabbi of Cong. Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Va. “In my daily work I try to touch Jews and help them connect to their tradition. I get a fair amount of questions about what the movement says about certain things, but that’s an opportunity for me to explain what Judaism says about it.”

Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus told The Jewish Standard in an e-mail from the convention, “For all the problems and issues that face Conservative Judaism, our message remains compelling and valuable. I support the efforts of my friends and colleagues to ensure that our movement remains a vital and leading force in American Judaism in the 21st century. A Judaism that is traditional in its approach to law and observance yet not afraid to confront modernity will ultimately resonate with American Jews.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

 
 
 
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