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Rogue Lubavitchers feast on fast day, sparking uproar

SYDNEY, Australia – It was the 10th of Tevet, a fast day when Jews traditionally mourn the start of the siege of Jerusalem, which presaged the destruction of the Holy Temple.

But while Orthodox Jews the world over marked the annual solemn day last month by abstaining from food and drink, a group of 25 or so Chabad-Lubavitch chasidim in Melbourne staged a festive meal complete with singing, dancing, kiddush, and a Shehechiyanu blessing heralding the arrival of the messianic era.

The act, which was recorded in a video that has been posted on YouTube, is causing an uproar across the Lubavitch world in Australia and beyond.

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Rabbi Zvi Telsner, the chief rabbi of Melbourne’s Chabad community, said the dissidents’ behavior “was in total disregard of Jewish law.” Peter Haskin/Australian Jewish News

“For thousands of years before the Era of Moshiach, Jews commemorated the 10th of Tevet as a sad day connected to the destruction of the Holy Temple,” said a statement posted on the video. “They fasted and prayed for the Redemption and rebuilding of the Temple, so that all the painful days of the exile be turned to celebration and rejoicing. In 1991 the Lubavitcher Rebbe King Moshiach has announced, that the long-awaited Redemption is here, and the Third Temple is complete and standing ready in Heaven.”

“Hello!? Moshiach came already,” says Alex Leonard, the man leading the meal, which took place on Dec. 27. “There’s no fast.”

The dissident Lubavitchers who organized the meal, Leonard and Asher Rozenfeld, said they were adhering to Jewish tradition that says that in the messianic era, fast days will turn into days of feasts. At the meal they hailed the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, as the messiah.

A Chabad leader in Australia denounced the festive meal, held Dec. 27, as “a massive and reckless” act of blasphemy.

The belief among Lubavitchers that Schneerson is the messiah is not new. It began during Schneerson’s lifetime, failed to disappear after his death, and remains a major issue dividing the community. Even those who do not believe Schneerson is the messiah still believe in the importance of hastening in the messianic era through the performance of mitzvot and by bringing nonobservant Jews to traditional Jewish observance.

The rogue act that resulted in the very public desecration of the recent fast day touched a nerve and resulted in what amounts to temporary excommunication for the offending participants.

Rabbi Zvi Telsner, the chief rabbi of Melbourne’s Chabad community, issued a scathing statement Sunday against the “perpetrators of such misguided deeds,” saying their decision to publicize their “transgression” on the Internet “constitutes a massive and reckless chilul haShem” — desecration of God’s name.

In a ruling plastered on the walls of the Yeshiva Center, Chabad’s headquarters in Australia, Telsner said the dissidents cannot be counted as part of a minyan, are not allowed to answer “amen” in shul, and cannot receive an aliyah to the Torah. He instructed members of the community to refrain from speaking with the dissidents or having any business dealings with them until they seek forgiveness before a Jewish court.

Telsner did not go so far as to call it formal excommunication, known as cherem.

“It’s a statement about people who have transgressed,” he said. “Their behavior was in total disregard of Jewish law.”

Rozenfeld called the ruling “character defamation” and said he and Leonard considered themselves “free to talk to anybody we choose and to carry on our business as usual.”

One Lubavitcher who is an expert on cults, Raphael Aron, said the furor raises questions about Chabad’s ability to continue without a rebbe. Schneerson had no children, and there has been no rebbe since his death.

JTA

 
 

Rabba comments on her inclusion on list

Three Englewood rabbis were named last week among “The 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek magazine, a list topped by Yehuda Krinsky, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Using what they describe as “unscientific” criteria to award points to contenders, two friends in the entertainment business, Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., have published this annual compilation since 2007.

While many of the “winners” have appeared before and are virtually household names in the pantheon of Jewish spiritual and communal leadership, including Englewood’s Shmuley Boteach (#6 and a Jewish Standard columnist), Mark Charendorff (#4), and Menachem Genack (#16), one of this year’s picks may come as a surprise to some.

As Newsweek described it, Sara Hurwitz (#36) “rose to national prominence when Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) bestowed [on] her … the title of ‘rabba.’ She is considered the first Orthodox woman rabbi ordained in the United States, and in this role she has had an impact on the roles considered acceptable for modern Orthodox women.”

That decision by Weiss earlier this year stirred controversy in Orthodox circles, as the movement has yet to officially sanction the ordination of women. He changed her title from maharat, a term that was little understood when Weiss invented it to mark Hurwitz’s completion of a five-year course of study for rabbinic training under his tutelage. Hurwitz was also a student at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center of advanced Judaic study for women.

Hurwitz, however, does not consider her selection by Newsweek inappropriate.

Reached at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical seminary founded by Weiss and whose office is located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where Weiss is senior rabbi and Hurwitz is a member of the clergy, Hurwitz noted that she holds smicha — she was ordained by three Orthodox rabbis, Weiss and Rabbis Daniel Sperber and Joshua Maroof.

“In my case, I see the word ‘rabba’ as a description of my duties and roles: teaching and being a presence for congregants on a pastoral level, answering questions, speaking from the pulpit,” she said.

Declining to label herself “rabbi,” she nonetheless sees herself as a beacon of change for women in Orthodoxy and for the modern Orthodox community. “It’s a semantics game,” Hurwitz asserted. “I see myself performing rabbinic duties, but it has a new title to describe and explain the role of women in spiritual and halachic leadership. It’s new language, a new concept, which I know is very confusing.

“I think my most important contribution is helping other women see that it’s possible to become a spiritual leader in the Orthodox community,” she added.

Asked if her having being designated one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis by a mainstream, secular publication would help advance the cause of women’s ordination by the Orthodox movement, Hurwitz replied, “I hope so. I hope this whole conversation has helped put women’s spiritual leadership on the map in a serious way and will only continue to inspire women to pursue a career in spiritual leadership.”

 
 

The second day: To be (in shul) or not to be

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Rabbi Isaac Jeret practices blowing the shofar. Arianna Jeret

Steven Levine is matter-of-fact about his family’s upcoming plans for Rosh HaShanah.

At the dinner table with his wife, Leslie, everyone will share resolutions, round-robin style. He will take the day off from his job at the U.S. Olympic Committee and his three children won’t go to school in order to attend synagogue.

But only on the first day — it is no two-day holiday for this family.

“It’s all cost-benefit analysis,” says Levine, 45, a risk-management director from suburban Denver.

The local public school is still open on the Jewish new year, and vacation time is tight at work.

“With other obligations and commitments,” he says, “we do the best we can.”

“I suppose there’s a bit of a feeling of guilt for not doing more, but I’ve rationalized it that the second day is not significant.”

During her time as a congregational Reform rabbi, C. Michelle Greenberg had a different experience: She was not expected to lead synagogue services — if the synagogue even had services — on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. Greenberg, 37, an educator now living in the San Francisco Bay area, says the second day often would become a chance for her “to celebrate as a participant” at another synagogue.

With its seemingly stepchild status outside the more traditional segments of the Jewish community, what is the significance of the second day of Rosh HaShanah, anyway?

When the ancient Israelites started celebrating the “head of the year” 2,000 years ago, it was, in fact, a one-day holiday. But with no convenient wall calendar to indicate the actual day to celebrate, they relied on trustworthy witnesses to report to the Sages at the Sanhedrin, or Supreme Court, a new-moon sighting. Shortly thereafter a series of smoke signals would alert the scattered communities that it was time to start the holiday.

The ineffectiveness of this communication system was not lost on the Sages. They declared Rosh HaShanah a two-day holiday, or a “Yoma Arichta,” one long day of 48 hours, to ensure that Jews everywhere were celebrating at approximately the same time.

Yet as Mark Leuchter, director of Jewish studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, points out, despite “its root traditions, Rosh HaShanah has changed dramatically in 2,000 years,” and “we don’t do it the way our ancient forefathers did it.”

Nor is there any need for smoke signals today.

“The only part of the original recipe that we’ve retained” is the practice of observing the holiday for 48 hours, Leuchter says. “Now we do it not because we have to but because we used to. It ties us back to a hallowed antiquity.”

Menachem Schmidt, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in Philadelphia, says beyond the historic reasons for observing two days, “there is also a spiritual reason for needing 48 hours for the holiday.”

Rosh HaShanah is a time when every individual affirms his own relationship with God, and “the second day is an equal part of that process,” Schmidt says. There is a new light in the world, he says, “and it takes two days to accomplish that.”

With the drop-off rate in synagogue attendance from the first to the second day at approximately 75 percent, Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Cong. Ner Tamid in Los Angeles says that, “as a rabbi, [I think that] what to do on the second day of Rosh HaShanah is a fascinating question, and I look at it as very important to have different offerings” the first day and the second day.

On the first day, when he expects some 2,000 attendees — many not even belonging to the Conservative synagogue — the service has musical accompaniment and Jeret gives a longer sermon. On the second day, “it is shul-goers day,” he says, and the service reflects that.

“There’s no choir and no piano,” he says. “We take out the Torah and study text as a community. It’s a much more intimate service.”

Rabbi Charles Arian of the Conservative Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Conn., says he makes no secret of the fact that he would get rid of the second day on the Jewish festival holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Passover, and Shavuot, which are tacked on to remind diaspora Jews that they are not observing the holidays in the land of Israel.

But of Rosh HaShanah, he says, “It really is different.”

One reason, Arian explains, is that it is the only Jewish holiday that is also a rosh chodesh, or a new month. But, he adds, a “complete repeat of what you did [the day] before” is not necessary. He says wearing new clothes or eating a new seasonal fruit (like a pomegranate or an apple) also makes the second day of Rosh HaShanah different and meaningful.

For Ephraim “Fry” Wernick, 33, heading to Dallas to spend Rosh HaShanah with his family may not be different from years past, but it will be meaningful.

He says the first day of the holiday may seem more important, but the Washington-based lawyer will attend services at a nearby traditional synagogue on both days.

“Rosh Hashanah is a cleansing of the soul,” Wernick says. “I try to use the time for spiritual growth, reflecting on the year, righting the wrongs.”

And two days, he adds wryly, is just a start, adding that “I need as much time as God will give me.”

JTA

 
 

With Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod gone, will the Jews have access to Obama?

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White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates in November 2009 at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington. Robert A. Cumins/Jewish Federations of North America

WASHINGTON – They were two Jewish aides who had offices within shouting distance of the Oval Office.

But the resignation last week of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff and the imminent departure of David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, is raising the question of what the disappearance of the president’s top two Jewish aides will mean for the Jewish community

Top Jewish Democrats and leaders of Jewish organizations say there will be an absence — of optics, not substance.

“It’s not every day that a White House chief of staff has his kid’s bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul and takes the family to Israel,” said Matt Dorf, the managing partner at Rabinowitz-Dorf, a communications firm that represents liberal and Jewish groups.

“That gave a human face to this White House to many in the Jewish community,” Dorf said. “In terms of policy and the Jewish community’s relationship with the White House, I don’t expect any change in that relationship.”

The visuals are not unimportant, a top Jewish aide to a senior congressman told JTA.

“People like to have someone who looks like them near power,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You say ‘Shanah Tovah,’ their faces light up.”

Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, said that even the visuals wouldn’t suffer.

He noted that Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew who likes to regale audiences with tales of the difficulties of reconciling observance with the 24/7 schedule of senior public service, is set to take over the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB director — essentially the administration’s numbers cruncher — is a cabinet-level position, one Lew also held toward the end of the Clinton administration. He is leaving his position as deputy secretary of state to take the job.

“If you’re measuring Jewish prominence, there will be prominent Jews in the administration,” Diament said.

With Emanuel in Chicago running for mayor and Axelrod set to leave early next year to run Obama’s re-election campaign, access won’t otherwise change, Jewish organizational officials across the board said.

“Axelrod’s role for being a key conduit for taking advice from Jewish leaders will presumably continue when he has a political hat, not a government hat,” said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Additionally, Obama’s official liaison to the community, Susan Sher, is still on the job — as chief of staff to Michelle Obama, the first lady, she occupies a fairly senior post.

Emanuel’s replacement, Peter Rouse, is seasoned at dealing with constituencies, including among the pro-Israel and Jewish communities, having worked as chief of staff to Obama when he was in the U.S. Senate and previously for Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader.

“It’s more important that that person have a positive disposition to issues of concern in the Jewish community than be Jewish,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch.

Privately, Jewish officials said Emanuel’s departure could smooth relations between Obama and the Jewish community for two reasons: Emanuel had earned a reputation in Israel as anti-Israel, and his overall style had alienated core constituencies, among them the Jews.

One Jewish organizational official said Emanuel’s brusque “just listen to me” style had severely hampered Obama’s agenda, leading not only to tensions with the pro-Israel community but with gays, liberals, and groups seeking health-care reform.

“Part of the reason he got into the trouble he got into were relationship issues,” the official said.

Additionally, Emanuel’s departure means that on Israel policy, Obama no longer will be able to say, as he did in an infamous meeting with Jewish leadership in the summer of 2009, that he has Emanuel to check his policies and does not need to consult with the wider community.

It was a blinkered “If Rahm and Axe are Jewish and they think this is OK, it’s OK” policy, is how the Jewish organizational official put it.

The problem with that view, some Jewish observers said, is that White House staffers — even at that senior level — are likely to defer to the boss, whereas Jewish leaders would be blunter in their assessments. But with two Jewish staffers, Obama mistakenly thought he didn’t need to consult with the Jews, these observers said. They blamed that insularity in part for tensions over west bank settlement-building that dogged the first year of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.

Despite those troubles, some Jewish organizational leaders were baffled by a view prevalent in the Netanyahu government that Emanuel somehow had guided Obama down a path that was hostile to Netanyahu.

Emanuel, in fact, had little to nothing to do with formulating Middle East policy, although he did take a role in selling it — most recently when he met with Netanyahu over the summer on his son’s bar mitzvah trip.

Furthermore, the two individuals now running the policy in the White House — National Security Council staffers Daniel Shapiro and Dennis Ross — are sensitive to Jewish concerns.

“Rahm was not running Middle East policy,” Diament said. “Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro are still there.”

JTA

 
 

An outsider comes home

 
 
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