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Conservatives’ conference eyes a more inspiring way to pray

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Participants in the “President’s Panel: Into the Future” on Monday at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s international biennial convention in Cherry Hill include Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly; Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue; and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Do Conservative Jews need a new, perhaps jazzier way to pray?

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, apparently thinks so.

During his much-anticipated installation speech at the United Synagogue’s biennial gathering, which concluded earlier this week in Cherry Hill, he called for the immediate creation of a movement-wide task force to tackle the issue of prayer.

“Many of our congregations report that tefillot in many of our synagogues do not speak to them, do not inspire them, and do not reach their heart or their souls,” said Wernick, who took the helm in July of an organization that represents North American Conservative congregations.

Wernick said that many participants of Ramah camps and United Synagogue youth programs, for example, “come home to find the excitement and spiritual engagement they experience elsewhere missing in their own communities.”

The four-day conference was held as United Synagogue undergoes a structural upheaval brought about in large part by the dissatisfaction of congregations claiming that they weren’t receiving enough programmatic and other kinds of guidance in exchange for their dues.

Many of the more than 500 lay leaders and professionals who came to the biennial from across the United States and Canada did express hope, though tinged with skepticism, that United Synagogue can transform itself into an entity that helps congregations become more dynamic, welcoming, and fiscally stable.

At the conference, United Synagogue adopted a new set of bylaws with the aim of becoming more efficient. They included reducing the size of its board by about half and the number of offices from 15 to six.

Talks were held about changing the formula for determining the dues that congregations pay, but no formal proposals were made.

The biennial also served to jump-start a nine-month process in which United Synagogue will adopt a new long-range strategic plan.

“While we have considerable problems, I think we continue to have the best product,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.

Artson sat on a panel about the future of the movement with Wernick; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to head the Rabbinical Assembly; and Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly.

During the hour-long discussion, the audience raised pressing questions confronting the movement. Among them: What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew in an age when far fewer Jews identify with denominational labels? How can the movement attract more members in their 20s and 30s? Is the name itself outmoded? How can the arms of the movement work together better?

On the issue of prayer, Stein took a slightly different tack from Wernick.

“You can start by coming to shul. It’s like any other skill set — if you don’t practice it, you aren’t going to be able to do it,” he said, adding that cantors are far more open to experimentation than many realize. “Come to shul and I’ll do anything; I’ll stand on my head and sing ‘Yankee Doodle’ to ‘Adon Olam.’”

Wernick said that too often, worshippers feel they are “prisoners” to the traditional prayerbook, and diversity needs to be encouraged. He also said that clergy need to better explain the poetry and symbolism inherent in the liturgy.

“Adon Olam,” for example, is all about offering worshippers a measure of comfort as they leave sanctified space and head back into a world that can be tense and even frightening.

“We need to really open up the prayers in that kind of way,” he said.

“Whether we sing them to ‘Yankee Doodle’ or the melodies of the great chazzanim,” Wernick said, “they become more than just sing songs and more than just rushing through the words.”

Stein said that while synagogues must try to bring in as many new people as possible — while still appealing to its core — the movement as a whole should count as Conservative Jews only those who follow Jewish law, as opposed to any individual who belongs to a United Synagogue affiliate.

The Cantors Assembly leader pushed some buttons when he suggested that spouses of clergy members — even those with highly demanding careers — need to contribute more time and energy to their congregations.

Schonfeld said that in an age when many are asking if movements and denominations have outlived their usefulness, Conservative Judaism can offer a new working definition of what a denomination can look like.

“That new denomination,” she said, “as opposed to being boxes in which we put people, is going to be more like an ecosystem — more like an interdependent and complex world in which there is room for all different kinds of Jews.”

 
 

A ‘gap year’ spent in service

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“Nativers” Ilana Rosenzweig, Seffi Kogen, Shara Fishman, and Gabe Cohen are all from Bergen County.

“My name is Seffi Kogen and I am writing to you from Yerucham, my home for
the second half of my year on Nativ. Back in Fair Lawn, I read The Jewish Standard every weekend, but here, in Israel, I rely on my mom to let me know if there is anything interesting that I should look up online. Recently, she told me about a front-page article documenting the wild behavior that sometimes occurs on yeshiva gap-year programs. That article moved me to suggest that the Standard might want to let their readers know about Nativ: The College Leadership Program in Israel.... Right now, there are five Bergen County residents currently volunteering in the development town of Yerucham. We work in kindergartens, the soup kitchen, the graveyard, the community center, and volunteer with Magen David Adom. We live and work and enjoy ourselves down here in what Israelis lovingly call ‘the middle of nowhere,’ and we would love for more people to know about ... the impact Bergen County is having on advancing the modern Zionist dream.”

That letter, from the son of Linda Ripps and Avi Kogen, prompted a conversation with The Jewish Standard one recent morning after Kogen’s late shift on the Magen David Adom ambulance in Yerucham.

Kogen is among 80 participants in Nativ (“nah-TEEV”), a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in its 29th year. A graduate of Solomon Schechter High School in West Orange, he is joined by fellow Schechter alum Ilana Rosenzweig of Oradell; Frisch School graduate Gabe Cohen of Hillsdale; Pascack Valley High School graduate Shara Fishman of River Vale; and Eric Leiderman of Englewood, who attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

An active Conservative Jew who attends Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn and served on the United Synagogue Youth regional board for two years, Kogen sees Nativ as the perfect middle ground between a yeshiva program and a secular work/travel program. It offers religious or college studies in Jerusalem in the first semester, and optional Judaic courses during its second volunteering semester.

Participants from all across North America travel throughout Israel, experience a taste of military life and desert survival, take leadership seminars, and receive preparation for Israel advocacy on campus. “I hope they go home from Nativ with the ability to keep on asking questions and keep on caring,” said Nativ Director Yossi Garr. “Nativ grads often take a leadership role on college campuses and later on in Jewish communities.”

During their first semester, Kogen and Rosenzweig took for-credit courses in the overseas students program at Hebrew University. Kogen studied Hebrew, Talmud, medieval Jewish history, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, and Israel society, culture, and politics; Rosenzweig took courses in the Holocaust, modern Jewish history, and Israeli literature.

Although Nativ also offers a kibbutz track for the second semester, all five Bergen County participants chose to volunteer in Yerucham, a blue-collar town 30 miles south of Beersheba. Living in downtown apartments with other “Nativers” and counselors, each chose a volunteer job from a list provided by the community development organization in Yerucham, said Kogen. The majority work in local schools, teaching English or assisting preschoolers. Those who also want to volunteer as emergency medical technicians must complete a 60-hour Magen David Adom (the equivalent of the Red Cross) course in Jerusalem, as Kogen did.

Rosenzweig works at a kindergarten. “It’s great because I don’t know that much Hebrew and they don’t speak English,” she said. Every couple of weeks the youngsters learn words that start with a different letter of the aleph-bet, and Rosenzweig learns them, too — like “nadnedah” (swing) for the letter “nun.”

One of her students is among the five children of her host family in Yerucham. These families volunteer to host Nativ participants for Shabbat meals or during the week. “It’s nice to have a family you can go to when you need it,” said Rosenzweig, who shares an apartment with eight other girls.

Living in a community rather than in a dormitory gives “Nativers” an authentic Israeli experience, especially when it comes to shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They have to learn how to read labels in Hebrew, substitute for American ingredients, and figure out metric and Celsius equivalents for measurements and temperatures.

Kogen said he and his seven third-floor-walkup apartment mates have mastered the Israeli method of cleaning tile floors with a squeegee instead of a mop. “We’re all learning how to play mom and dad,” he said. “These skills will come in handy when we have our own dorms and apartments.”

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” added Rosenzweig, “but not in a bad way. I enjoy it.” A USY member through the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, she expects to attend Rutgers University to study elementary and special education.

Kogen used a Jewish National Fund connection to get a volunteer job writing a grant proposal for Youth of Yerucham, which aims to help newly discharged soldiers go to college. “Then, hopefully they will stay in Yerucham, and with their education they will bring jobs. It’s all part of trying to improve Yerucham as a whole,” said Kogen, who has met the town’s mayor.

 
 

Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

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David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee by a 5-4 vote on July 12. Flash90/JTA

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.

“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision-makers.”

JTA

 
 

Chelsea’s wedding raises questions about intermarriage

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Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton during their wedding ceremony on Saturday. Genevieve de Manio

Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage?

Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, in the background.

The couple are Marc Mezvinsky, the banker son of two Jewish ex-members of Congress, and Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former U.S. president and current secretary of state.

The images and scant details of the tightly guarded wedding — dubbed by some the “wedding of the century” — have raised a number of questions about the significance of the union for American Jews and what it says about intermarriage in America.

We should “celebrate the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society that this marriage represents,” Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven Cohen told JTA via e-mail from Jerusalem.

At the same time, he noted, the fact that so few children of interfaith unions, particularly those between Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, are raised solely as Jews raises the conundrum of our age: “How do we Jewishly engage and educate the intermarried, while at the same time maintaining our time-honored commitment to inmarriage?” Cohen asked.

“In short, we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents.”

The wedding had more than just a Jewish flair.

It was officiated by a rabbi, James Ponet, head of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University, along with a Methodist minister. The marriage took place under a chuppah. Friends of the couple recited the traditional “sheva brachot,” the seven traditional Jewish blessings given to the bride and groom. The groom broke a glass with his foot, according to tradition. And according to several reports, guests danced the hora and lifted the former president and the secretary of state, Bill and Hillary Clinton, in chairs during the dance.

Yet some of the more liberal streams of American Judaism, which accept intermarriage if the couple’s children are raised as Jews, chafed at the fact that the wedding took place on Saturday, before the Jewish Sabbath ended. The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting weddings on the Sabbath, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, told JTA.

In 1973, the Reform movement decided officially that its rabbis would be allowed to perform intermarriages, though they would be discouraged from doing so, an edict that still stands today, he said.

“She has married in,” Paul Golin, the associate director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, a nondenominational group that reaches out to unaffiliated and intermarried families, said of Chelsea. “Some will say he married out, but if he was marrying out, there wouldn’t have been anything Jewish.

“The fact that they went to the effort to have a chuppah and have a rabbi and that he wore a tallis says a lot about their future direction. Otherwise, why bother?”

The marriage has pushed the internal Jewish community debate about intermarriage into the view of mainstream America.

In the days before the wedding, the Washington Post asked several rabbis in its “On Faith” column, “Is interfaith marriage good for American society? Is it good for religion? What is lost — and gained — when religious people intermarry?”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly “not ideal,” but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and “help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.”

Rabbi Shmuley Hecht, who is Orthodox and the rabbinical adviser at Yale University’s Eliezer Jewish Society, said intermarriage can work only if the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion and genuinely changes religions. Otherwise, he said, the marriage is doomed to fail because down the road any self-aware Jews, “however defined, will feel the call of their people and have the fullness of their being disrupted by intermarriage.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, also Orthodox and president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said that when marriages break down it usually has little to do with religion. All religions should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work, he wrote.

Ed Case, the executive director of Interfaithfamily.com, said the Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the same month last year. Case said that accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.

Golin said he is skeptical that the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding does anything more than revive existing battle lines in the Jewish debate over intermarriage.

“The horse is so far out of the barn on this one,” Golin said, noting that as an intermarried person himself, he is turned off by much of the debate over intermarriage as a problem. “The folks who are fearful that my kind of Judaism is going to destroy Judaism are still going to be fearful. The folks who are fully embracing of interfaith families are going to be embracing. I don’t see a whole lot of movement.”

Approached by JTA, the Orthodox Union declined to comment on the wedding. Separately, the head of its kashrut division, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, a longtime Clinton friend and political supporter, declined to comment.

The Mezvinsky-Clinton wedding is affirmation both of the success of the Jewish community and that American Jewry must learn how to deal with intermarried families and figure out how to bring them into the Jewish fold, the Reform movement’s Yoffie said.

“The price of our reaffirmation in American society is a high rate of intermarriage,” he said. “We can’t be embraced and not expect that our young people won’t be marrying with their young people. Unless we are prepared to withdraw into a ghetto, there is no solution.”

“I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.’ I don’t know if they have had that conversation.”

JTA

 
 
 
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