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Blogs: The Yudelson Files

A Teaneck “Golem” in the Kenyon Review

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Helen Maryles Shankman, a Teaneck resident, has been writing a series of interlocked short stories. The stories are based in part on the true tale of the German officer through whose offices her mother survived the Nazis, and in part on classic supernatural themes.

One of these stories was just published by the Kenyon Review, perhaps the most prestigious literary publication in America. Entitled The Golem of Zukow, it begins like this:

The Mirsky mill nested at the fork of the Bug and Wlodawa rivers, near the liquid and ever-changing border with the Ukraine. At the hub of a cultivated patchwork of plowed fields, the plain stone structure could be observed for miles, a landmark in those parts, and was reached by way of a worn spur jutting off from the main road, exactly ten kilometers from everywhere.

Shayna and Hersh’s parents were the third generation of Mirskys to inherit the farm. As the sole proprietors of the only grist mill in a district famed for its endless fields of wheat and rye, Shayna and Hersh’s parents worked hard for the entire length of their short lives, wearing themselves out before they turned forty.

There were many who were willing to take advantage of the new orphans; after all, there was a Depression going on, the son was young and a dreamer, the daughter, just a girl. But Shayna’s black eyes crackled with a fierce intelligence, her tongue was quick and sharp, and she soon put an end to all that.

Now, read the rest.

 
 

What did the etrog say when the lulav whacked it?

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Ma pitom!?

-- courtesy of Joey, age 12.
 
 

Has Bob Dylan been reading Time Magazine again?

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Bob Dylan has had a long and storied relationship with Time Magazine. ranging from insulting a reporter at a press conference in1965 to borrowing prose for his 2004 memoir Chronicles. Now, the Dylan-Time Magazine relationship has resurfaced, with the release of a track list of his forthcoming album "Tempest," due in September.

The first song on the album is entitled "Duquesne Whistle," which appears to be a reference to a 1933 Time Magazine article that begins:

Duquesne is a little Pennsylvania steel town, twelve miles up the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. For two years its 21,000 inhabitants watched the tires die in the blast furnaces one by one. Then for two more years the furnaces were cold. Duquesne called it Depression. One day last week, Duquesne whistles shrieked, Duquesne bells clanged. Followed by the city council and most of the leading businessmen. Mayor Crawford marched into the local works of Carnegie Steel Co., picked up a long iron blow pipe, thrust the red-hot tip through a hole in a furnace, igniting...

For the rest of the article, Time Magazine subscribers can follow this link. Let us know what you find, will you?

 
 

RCA leadership fight: some background

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I write this week (the issue of July 6) on the insurgency within the Rabbinical Council of America. Herewith some of the documents I referred to.

Statements about homosexuality



RCA statement

Liberal statement of principles


Blogs of insurgent rabbis



Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Rabbi Dov Fischer (But see also his 115-point list of reasons to vote against Barack Obama

Rabbi Jonathan Gross

Platform of insurgent slate



Platform

Who Are We? Why Are We Standing for Election?

As a chaver in the RCA, you are aware that for one of the few times in the history of our illustrious organization an almost complete slate of candidates has been nominated by RCA chaverim like you and accepted to stand for election as an alternative to the slate presented by the nominations committee.

Why is this happening? Why are we doing this?

In simplest terms and with the greatest of respect for our leadership, we have a fundamentally different vision of the priorities, actions and decisions that should be guiding the RCA at this juncture in its history. Even as we offer heartfelt gratitude for the hard work of the current officers, we are running because we care deeply about the RCA and are concerned about the future relevance, resilience and raison d'etre of our organization.

For several years, we have been among the many who have expressed our concerns to the leadership in various ways and venues and at various levels. All of us who are running to serve as officers have served actively as members of the Executive Committee. Some have served as officers and many have chaired or served actively on important RCA committees.

Nonetheless the issues have not been resolved satisfactorily; therefore we aim constructively to offer our platform to you, the voting membership of the RCA in order to democratically share our vision for our rabbinic organization and to seek your support for that vision.

We are committed: to our organization's rules of governance, to better service to our chaveirim, to an RCA that makes a more profound difference in the Jewish and secular world, to seeking greater counsel of our poskim and Beth Din, to our acclaimed and successful GPS and to a more open and responsive organization. We publicly affirm our proud tradition of being a wide tent welcoming all rabbis with accepted credentials to join our renowned and hallowed council.

We have served as leaders in different capacities. We represent different ages, backgrounds, geographical regions, hashkafot and have learned in different yeshivot. We are pulpit rabbis, m'chanchim, chaplains, administrators and baalei batim. Our common denominator is a strongly held belief that the direction of the RCA as an organization needs to change, both for its sake and for the sake of our chaveirim; and a belief that presenting an alternate slate is the best and perhaps only remaining meaningful way to voice our concerns for all our chaveirim to hear. It is our hope that together all of us can begin to chart a new course for the RCA and those whose lives it touches.

Our Platform:

There are four central issues that we wish to highlight.

1. We seek to offer greater services to our members; focus on responding to the various needs of our chaveirim and support them in their avodat hakodesh.

2. We seek a second-look at the Strategic Planning Initiative (SPI), which has fallen far short of its stated purpose and plan for implementation and which does not provide a realistic blueprint for the RCA.

3. We are committed to greater transparency and will seek more meaningful input in our relationships with the Executive Committee and with you, the greater membership, than currently exists, especially when it comes to major decisions affecting the future direction of the RCA.

4. We seek to provide a stronger voice and greater clarity on the important issues facing the Orthodox, greater Jewish and non-Jewish communities. We cannot shy away from responsibly and compassionately confronting and providing leadership and guidance on difficult and controversial issues. We see this as the historic role of North America’s largest Orthodox rabbinic organization.

More Specifically:

I. THE RCA AS A PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION OF AND FOR RABBIS

A. Rabbinic Services

Rabbis all know that the life of a Rav is not always easy. The challenges of family, finances, boards, baalei batim, relations within the shul and the community and other concerns can be daunting. Those of us who are running pledge ourselves first and foremost to strengthening the responsiveness of the RCA in the area of rabbinic services. Both in offering prompt responses and in the quality of those responses we will dramatically improve what the RCA is doing today. If you have an issue of concern in your rabbanus we will help you find the best solution for you. We bring to this commitment several candidates with proven professional track records in this area.

B. Rabbinic Training

Training younger musmachim and rabbinical students. The RCA has all but ceded this area of professional service to YU and the other yeshivot. While they may be doing a fine job there is no reason why the RCA can’t serve as a partner in this critical endeavor. For example, many of our chaveirim are invited to present to RIETS students on a variety of topics. If we can have those presenters come to the programs as official representatives of the RCA, if YU can be asked and encouraged to include an RCA representative of this type in as many programs as it can, we would raise our profile and connect with the next generation of rabbinic leadership. Similar partnerships should be explored with other Yeshivot as we try to encourage their musmachim to join the RCA. This concept has been proposed to the leadership of the RCA for a number of years and nothing has been done to move it forward.

C. Governance and communication

1. The by-laws of the RCA are antiquated and do not serve as the actual governance documents of the organization in large part because they were written for a very different RCA as it existed decades ago. Despite numerous calls for new by-laws, they have not been written.

2. The present structure of Executive Committee (EC) meetings is inadequate. The meetings are too infrequent and come with significant time constraints on each speaker such that a full airing of critical issues essentially is impossible. We must create a structure that allows simple items of broad consensus and reports to be handled electronically while more critical concerns including controversial issues are adequately discussed openly at the meetings.

3. Documents and reports critical to discussions must be submitted to the chaveirim significantly in advance of EC meetings. That rarely happens under the present structure, and it seriously hampers proper deliberations at the EC meetings.

4. The EC and all chaveirim need to be offered choices where possible on critical governance issues and not simply be told what the leadership has decided. Choices offer a sense of buy-in and shared governance and avoid the personal hurt and sense of disloyalty caused by voting against your leadership’s decision.

5. Communication needs to be more than simply reiterating pleasantries. We deserve a welcoming attitude to different views and a real sense that the leadership is listening and not just hearing. Most important, chaveirim deserve to see evidence that at least some of what we the membership have to say is being incorporated into RCA policies and decisions.

6. We must meaningfully engage in outreach to you, our chaveirim, to join committees and expand opportunities for interested chaveirim to participate meaningfully in helping the RCA arrive at its most important decisions.

All of these items are areas that we will seek to implement if we are called by our chaveirim to the leadership roles we are standing for.

D. Conventions

Our conventions need to be made more relevant, more impactful, more challenging and more meaningful, providing both professional training and halachic and hashkafic sipuk hanefesh. The current attendance of a mere 5-10% of membership at conventions is evidence that the current system needs to change.

II. THE RCA IN THE ORTHODOX COMMUNITY

A. Even casual observers, and certainly committed and knowledgeable Rabbonim know that there is a great deal of ideological ferment in today’s Orthodox community. Both on the left and the right actions and statements unprecedented in our history almost routinely are presented as halakhic and hashkafic verities and eternal truths. The RCA needs to lead in defining the acceptable boundaries of our vision of Orthodoxy. Specifically, we need to be a defining voice on the role of women and their involvement in liturgical and leadership roles, on the limits of acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle and of individuals drawn to it, on interfaith dialogue and services, on relations with non-Orthodox denominations, on reacting to “partnership” and “egalitarian” services, on various proposed changes in the liturgy, on Ikrei ha-Yahadut, on the cover-up of abuse in the Orthodox community, on violence or the threats of violence against those who are of a different hashkafa or who dress differently, on the demands for special treatment in the State of Israel because of religious orientation, on exemptions from military service in the State, on the dehumanization of non-Jews, and on many other issues that are defining our era without our input.

We hear often of the “Big Tent of Orthodoxy” and we embrace that concept, with the proviso that particularly in an era of ideological challenge the limits of that tent must be defined, or we become irrelevant to what is occurring. Already, we believe that many people — particularly younger people — in our communities are confused and uncertain where we Rabbonim and institutional Orthodoxy stand on many of these issues. As the premier Orthodox rabbinic organization in North America, it is our sacred burden to provide definition and clarity.

We envision many of these matters as flexible, incorporating any and all approaches that derive from an Orthodox epistemological approach to halakhah. Further, we do not intend to use this process to exclude from membership any individual who is currently a chaver in the RCA. But we do think it essential to indicate when and where our organization can say “Da’at chachamim nocha heimenu” and when it must sadly say “Ein da’at chachamim nocha heimenu”. As with the years when many chaveirim occupied non- mechitza shuls and were members in our ranks while the organization said with a clear voice that this was not the proper way, as with the years when speaking in English in the synagogue was condemned in some quarters but many American rabbis held fast to the idea that we must preach and teach in ways that will allow us to reach our congregants, so too we must develop similar strategies that defend and strengthen our ideological perspective. Important to this process will be developing approaches and educational materials that will speak to contemporary audiences in persuasive ways on these issues.
This is a difficult and challenging endeavor, and we will need to involve our chaveirim, roshei yeshiva, poskim, academicians and perhaps others to succeed, but it is the most critical issue of this era for the Orthodox community. Who must take the lead here if not the RCA?

B. Semikha Standards

The RCA currently vets Semikha-granting institutions regarding whether their roshei yeshiva, educational content and professional training are adequate for us to embrace their musmakhim. That work must continue and must be strengthened wherever necessary.

The biggest issue today is whether to accept musmakhim from an institution where some of what is taught and where some of the student activities are considered by many chaveirim to be questionable at best. In our view this question is premature. First we must do the work described in paragraph IIA. Once we have a sense of where our boundaries are, we can then assess institutions, and more importantly, individuals, who might fall within the parameters defined. At that point the question of membership can be addressed appropriately.

C. Educating the public

We need a higher public profile in this area than we currently have. One suggestion is that once a month an approximately 1000 word “op-ed” style piece written by one of our chaveirim from within the parameters of our understanding of halakhah/hashkafa on an issue of concern (perhaps two such pieces if there is a debate) should be emailed to our chaveirim for email distribution to their shuls, schools or other institutions that we serve. Other projects can be explored such as regional Yemei Iyun for our chaveirim and baalei batim as well as webinars and online courses, perhaps in conjunction with YUTorah or the Web Yeshiva. It is our goal to change the conversation in our communities to include areas where we hope to educate our baalei batim in our values and our understanding of halakha/hashkafa.

D. GPS

Born in 2008 from the attempt to delegitimize American Orthodox rabbis in general and RCA chaveirim specifically, the GPS is now the only network of conversion courts recognized by the Rabbanut and praised across the spectrum of the Orthodox community. A recent survey of our members showed remarkably positive feelings about GPS within the RCA. The clear but somewhat flexible standards, the openness of the process, the responsiveness of its leadership to any concerns that are raised, the frequent review of each Bet Din, the inclusion of sponsoring rabbis that even includes qualified musmakhim even if their semikhah may not be recognized for RCA membership, the insistence that dayanim not be enriched by the process--all these have brought GPS broad praise and its influence has now reached as far as Hong Kong and Mexico City. We are proud of this accomplishment but concerned that some in the leadership of the RCA do not share these sentiments. GPS must be strengthened and fully accepted as a centerpiece of RCA activities with the full and unequivocal backing of its leadership.
III. THE RCA IN THE BROADER JEWISH COMMUNITY AND THE WORLD

The voice of the RCA needs to be heard.

On so many critical issues, from the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the land of Israel, to the President of the United States embracing same-sex marriage, to the ongoing legal and societal challenges to the free practice of religion in this country, to Jerusalem remaining the unified capital of the Jewish state to Jonathan Pollard, the RCA has been too silent or too slow in responding publicly. We need to create mechanisms for the values and concerns of the Torah and the Orthodox community to be expressed broadly and publicly in the immediate aftermath of events and issues as they arise.

The RCA needs to be more involved in the great discussions of the day.

There are a significant number of meetings and conferences on public policy issues of concern to us where many different faith communities or religious organizations attend — but the RCA is not represented, despite being invited. Often we leave this type of work to the OU-IPA. While they do a fine job, we need our voice present even if only by taking the effort to find a volunteer from among our chaveirim to attend and speak for us. This is done occasionally, but not with the frequency and consistency it deserves.

IV. FINAL THOUGHTS

These are some of the main ideas, issues and initiatives that have motivated us to stand for election. We pledge to work to implement each of these as quickly as possible should we be elected and to be open to working with you on any ideas or concerns that you have. We are not running against anyone or any group of people and recognize the strong contributions that the current and past office holders have made to the RCA. In fact, should we win, we will invite them to participate on committees that suit their individual interests and talents. We, with forethought, have not run a candidate for the position of President to show that we do not seek power. On the other hand, we are running to make the changes and implement the actions described. We believe that we offer a significantly different vision for the future of the RCA and hope that you share that vision and can support it and us at this critical juncture in our history.

We intend to run this campaign in an honorable and respectful fashion and hope that others will do the same. We were troubled that a few of the early reactions from those who disagree with us, as seen on the RCA forum and in personal phone calls to some candidates and to those close to them, did not match the goal. We truly hope that type of behavior is behind us. We stand for election because we want the RCA to be the best and most productive that it can be in meeting the needs of our chaveirim and in serving the Orthodox and Jewish communities. We believe that if you call us to office we can, with your help, make the RCA better than it is.
 
 

More about Agudath Israel’s policy on reporting child abuse

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