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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

 
 

Kosher restaurants put ethical standards on the menu

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Kosher diners are starting to think about what goes on behind the counters where they eat, according to the Orthodox ethics organization Uri L’Tzedek. Three Bergen County restaurants have thus far signed up for the organization’s year-old ethical kashrut seal and a fourth will be announced later this month.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, then a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., founded Uri L’Tzedek in 2007. The organization unveiled the Tav HaYosher — the ethical seal — last year to reward businesses that recognize what its Website refers to as “The right to fair pay. The right to fair time. The right to a safe work environment.”

So far, 39 restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have signed up.

“It’s the next wave of 21st-century Jewish activism,” Yanklowitz said. “The simple act of a consumer choosing where to buy a sandwich is a matter of Jewish ethics. The act is so easy and the effect is so meaningful.”

Locally, Teaneck’s Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s Café and the frozen yogurt retailer 16 Handles at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus have signed up for the certification. A third Teaneck restaurant is expected to be announced next week, Yanklowitz said, adding he could not disclose any further details of its identity.

In addition to the businesses that have received its certification, Yanklowitz said Uri L’Tzedek has received commitments from synagogues, federations, schools, and other organizations and individuals to patronize only restaurants that have the seal. The recognition also sends a message to the non-Jewish community that watched the Agriprocessors scandal unfold in the media, he said.

“Many consumers have become disillusioned by the ethics of the kosher community,” Yanklowitz said. “By upholding the name yashrut, ethics, it expands the kosher clientele.”

When a restaurant signs up, a Tav Yosher compliance officer — one of some 60 volunteers — reviews the business’s payroll and other records and speaks privately with the employees. These inspectors are trained to review business ledgers and fluent in other languages to better communicate with non-English-speaking workers. The inspectors then return every two to three months to check the books and interview employees. The certification is free to businesses.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which oversees the kosher supervision of most of the area’s kosher restaurants, would allow restaurants to make their own decisions regarding the seal, said its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. Rothwachs declined further comment until he could learn more about the certification.

Calls to the manager of the 16 Handles Paramus branch, which received the Tav HaYosher last week, were not returned. The 16 Handles in Manhattan also carries the certification.

Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, told this newspaper that the community was outraged by ethical violations uncovered in recent years and wanted reassurance about local establishments.

“We’ve always felt we want our restaurants to be on a level where everyone feels comfortable,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to have an additional agency supervising an aspect we feel is important.”

Neither of his Teaneck restaurants nor his Manhattan Noah’s Ark restaurant, which also carries the certification, had to make any changes before Uri L’Tzedek awarded the Tav Yosher, he said. After the certificate appeared in his stores’ windows, however, customers began thanking the management, he added.

“They want to see people here locally are following the rules,” he said.

The Jewish community as a whole reacted very responsibly following the Agri fallout and has overcome the challenges it presented, he said.

“As long as we can move forward and do something constructive with the information that we have, we become better people,” Sokolow said. “It’s an evolution.”

 
 

From Teaneck to Birmingham

Young Orthodox rabbi takes the helm of a southern congregation

Not only are there Jews in Alabama, but they are doing very well, thank you.

“There’s a thriving Jewish community here,” says Rabbi Eytan Yammer, former Teaneck resident and recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York.

Yammer, who has lived in Birmingham for the past year, served first as the “spiritual leader” of the 120-year-old Knesseth Israel Congregation, the community’s only Orthodox synagogue, and now functions as its official rabbi.

The shul, with some 100 congregants, is made up of two kinds of Jews.

“Some have been here for five generations,” he said, noting that the great-grandparent of one congregant helped lay the synagogue’s cornerstone. Other members are associated with the University of Birmingham Medical School, which, said Yammer, attracts people from all over the world.

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Rabbi Eytan Yammer

According to the rabbi, a former student at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and a graduate of Rutgers University, the chief of the department of medicine is one of his shul’s members, as is the director of the department of surgical pathology.

Yammer said he and his wife Marisa were “indeed surprised” when they visited Birmingham two years ago to help out during Pesach.

“We didn’t know there were Jews here,” he said. “When we arrived, we saw that it was really amazing, a blessing. There are three shuls, 6,000 Jews, and a community day school.”

There are also three Jewish preschools, and “the kosher meat and cheese in the Piggly Wiggly are not that much more expensive than they are anywhere else.”

Yammer said when he first visited the community as a rabbinical student, the job didn’t pay much, but it promised to be an adventure. What he found instead was a “shidduch.”

“Sometimes the timing is wrong but the shidduch is right,” he said. “This was just the right match. I love the community, the people. We found everything we needed here,” he said, noting that the community had much of the infrastructure needed to live an observant Orthodox lifestyle.

“It’s no big deal that they didn’t have a kosher meat restaurant,” he said, adding that things are changing and he is working to make some of the community’s ice-cream parlors kosher. If it hadn’t been for the recent tornado, which tore down the requisite telephone poles, the community would also have had an eruv. (Yammer wrote about the tornado’s devastation in a May 5 Op-Ed piece in this newspaper.)

Calling his synagogue membership “diverse,” the rabbi said the mix of congregants provides “more to learn from.” His shul’s parking lot is open on Shabbat — a decision, he said, “I struggled with.”

Not to open it would have been “sending a message that we don’t care about you. This is not a monolithic place by any stretch,” he said, explaining that while some members are “right-wing Orthodox, others are intermarried. That type of openness toward others is critical in living in the South.”

Nevertheless, he added, “You won’t get anything different in Teaneck in terms of the davening itself [or] how we celebrate Shabbat and festivals.”

Following services on Saturday morning, “We come together and have a small light lunch. People hang out for hours, schmoozing, playing games, learning Torah. Those types of things happen much more readily” in small communities, he said.

Also significant is the “amazing amount of cooperation,” he added, noting that his synagogue shares a daily minyan with Chabad. This year, the community held one awards ceremony for all the local Jewish organizations. While the event was held in a Conservative synagogue, “glatt kosher food was available on request, prepared in our kitchen. The community all came together. It’s very indicative of the way we do things.”

The rabbi said he had always wanted a job in a small community.

“You have an effect on the whole community,” he said. “Even non-Jewish members of the JCC call me rabbi, and people recognize my wife and ask her advice. You reach a much broader constituency.”

Yammer’s wife also grew up in Teaneck and her parents, Robert and Lori Rosner, continue to live there. His own parents, former township residents, now live in Jerusalem.

Speaking of the recent tornado, the rabbi said, “We’re really blessed that no one [in the Jewish community] was severely hurt. It’s miraculous.”

He credited the disaster relief group Nechama with helping to clean up the resulting damage. His shul provided sleeping space for the group’s volunteers, including 35 Yeshiva University students, and helped in other ways with the recovery efforts.

“It was about 100 degrees,” he said, “and the volunteers were mostly helping non-Jews.”

One particularly meaningful moment occurred when a Nechama field worker, “not Jewish, brought 15 NCSY girls and members of the local Jewish community to work with a Mennonite disaster-response team to help a Southern Baptist woman clear out the rubble of her home. I sat there for a moment taking it in,” he said. “It was a beautiful moment in time. It broke down the barriers.”

While he has not encountered anti-Semitism, he said, “there are evangelical Christians who feel they should save our souls. It’s a really big challenge to the community.” But more often than not, he said, “people are really interested in Judaism and what it means to be a Jew.”

 
 
 
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