After Charleston

The rabbis of our tradition have designated Psalm 94 as the Psalm of the day of Wednesday.  Whereas most of the other Psalms for daily recitation exalt God as sovereign, as ruler and creator of the universe, the Psalm for Wednesday begins with an entirely different aspect of the Divine, “God of retribution, Lord, God of retribution, appear!”  Here the Psalmist does not call upon a God who is merely powerful, but a God who sees the wickedness of the world and acts accordingly.  “Rise up, judge of the Earth,” the Psalm continues, “give the arrogant their just desserts!”  These are angry words, verses written (one assumes) in something closer to outrage at injustice than to sublime contemplation of God’s goodness.  Indeed, the next verse confirms the impression, and are among the most pained words in the Bible, “How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult?”  Yesterday, a Wednesday by coincidence, we were given occasion, once again, to call out these words, or their sentiment, to God.

By now, the tragic cycle of mass-shooting violence is well-known to us.  There will be more to find out, more to know, about what happened in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Now that the killer has been captured, there will innumerable attempts to dissect, as minutely as possibly, his motives and methods.  The chilling report of his sitting among his soon-to-be victims for nearly an hour before he murdered them is the first, but surely not the last, piece of this puzzle.  And we will learn more about the victims as well; we will hear their stories, meet those bereaved by their loss.  But the cycle always seems to hold:  there is the shock, the agony, the painful memorial services, the searching examinations of causes and effects, and then, after a time, the receding of the bloody events into back pages, un-clicked links, and then, finally, into mere statistics of violence death.

We know, by now, that nowhere is safe from this sort of randomly wrought death: movie theaters, schools and houses of worship offer no sanctuary.  Indeed, hostility aimed at Black churches has a long and tortured history in this country, from burnings to bombings.  The horrendous events in Charleston, South Carolina thus bring together two deadly strands of the American experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: mass killing by firearm and violence committed against the sacred spaces of African-Americans.  These twin evils have stalked this nation for decades, and they stalk us still.

And so we ask, along with the author of Psalm 94, “How long?”  How long will we continue to abide, in our midst, largely unfettered access to the tools of death and destruction?  How long will the scourge of racism stain the fabric of our society?  How long will the wicked flourish among us?  And though neither the Psalm, nor history, nor our current political environment hold any answers to those questions, perhaps we can take some heart in the ringing call the Psalmist makes, contemplating the broken and bleeding world he confronts. “Who will take my part against evil men?  Who will stand up for me against wrongdoers?”  The answer must be us, for if not us, then who?

Posted in Current Events | Comments Off

Remnants Remembered and Forgotten

Tiberias Synagogue

The Talmud reports that there were thirteen synagogues in Tiberias, an important city in the Galilee.  Indeed, Tiberias, which had been a primarily Roman city, had become an important center of Jewish life starting in about the third century.  According to the Talmud, it was to a cave outside of Tiberias that Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai and his son fled after Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai had committed the sin of insulting the Romans, and for that sin he had been sentenced to death.  The Talmud also tells us that Tiberias was the final seat of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which had been moving around the north of Israel since the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.  But the end of the Sanhedrin in the fourth century was not the end of Jewish life in Tiberias.  Indeed, Jewish life continued to flourish in this town on the edge of the Kinneret for many more centuries, as I inadvertently discovered this evening when I stumbled on an archeological park in the midst of the modern city.

The park itself is almost hidden away, dwarfed by a giant hotel on one side, and bounded by a busy roadway on the other.  There are signs in the park that are faded and little cared for.  It is obvious this particular place is not really a tourist destination, not a spot even the most hardened history seekers would visit.  Trash was littered about the park, and I was the only person there.  But in this faded park were the remains of an ancient synagogue, adorned with a mosaic floor, the remaining piece of which shows a lulav along with a Greek inscription.  The park’s somewhat poorly translated sign said that the synagogue dated to the sixth century and that it had been in use as a synagogue until the eleventh century.  That is, the place where I was standing had been a center of Jewish life, prayer and learning for at least five hundred years.  The modern city of Tiberias had risen around it, and had, finally, all but obliterated the site.  And yet there it stood, a hanger-on of history, unwilling to relinquish the reminder of what had been.

Five hundred years of Jewish history in that place.  The length of time is almost unfathomable, especially in American Judaism, where we celebrate fifty and a hundred years of a community’s life with the fanfare born of a short historical perspective.  And even in contemplating the tremendous span of Jewish history, we tend to focus on the places where the big events happen: on Jerusalem in 70 CE, on Spain in the fifteenth century, on Poland in the bloody twentieth.  We can forget the times between the Times.  Tiberias was famous when Rabbi Shimeon bar Yocahai could see it from his cave, or when the Sanhedrin came at last to rest in its picturesque location. It is famous too, as the final resting place of Maimonides, the greatest of all Jewish scholars.  These are great men and great moments, but most of Jewish history is made in and around such historic personages and inflection points.  Most of Jewish history is made in the homes and synagogues and shops of the millions upon millions of Jews whose names we do not know, who lived in places and times we no longer remember.  Some of those Jews prayed in that synagogue in Tiberias, looking out onto the sea and hoping for the same peace and prosperity for which we pray in our synagogues today.  For five hundred years or more Jews came to that place, and though they are nameless to us now, their commitments to Jewish life, and the commitments of countless nameless others have possible our contemporary religious existence.  We cannot remember every person and every place, we cannot honor every time and every space, there have simply been too many Jews in too many places and spaces and times for that.  Besides, that much past would bury us, and we do not desire burial.  But when we stumble upon the forgotten moments, the unremembered fragments of the millennia of Jewish life, it is wise to pause for a moment, even as the rushing city of contemporary Jewish life bustles around us.  Tiberias is no longer the city of that forgotten synagogue, nor is it the city of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai or the Sanhedrin, but all had their part to play in making the city of Tiberias today, just as all had their part to play in making us the Jews we are today.  Some are famous, most are not.  Some are honored, most are lost to us.  But they are all our ancestors, and we hope our modern expression of their beloved Jewish life does honor to the lives they lived, even those lives now forever lost to our collective memory.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Going to Graceland

Today we went to Graceland.  Well, not technically Graceland.  Graceland, to mix our metaphors a bit, is the Mecca of the Elvis world.  Graceland is a chance to see how The King lived, and where he died.  On this day, we visited Mishnah Graceland.  Graceland of course, is one stop shopping, the house the grave, the whole thing.  We had to make two visits; two ancient cities made up our Graceland.  We followed the footsteps of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, one of the greatest sages of our history.  He was so great they just called him Rabbi, as if there was only one.  He was the leader of the rabbinic Jewish community in the end of the second century, and it was Rabbi who collected, edited, and redacted the six orders of the Mishnah;  in so doing, Rabbi, perhaps more than any other single individual, helped to create what we now think of as Judaism.  Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was The King.  And today, we visited the home of The King.

We began in Beit She’arim, an ancient city where archeologists have uncovered twenty-two separate burial caves used by Jews in the first and second century.  To enter those caves is to be transported back in time; most the caves look as they did when they fell into disuse.  At the time Jews, following the prevalent Roman custom, were burying their dead in sarcophagi.  Some of the sarcophagi are covered in intricate designed, carved into the soft limestone.  All have holes bored into their sides or tops, the remnant of grave robbery.  Some rooms have many sarcophagi, some have fewer.  There were clearly class differences among the people buried in these caves, and the designs surely had meanings that we can no longer discern.  In one of the caves, at the end of a hall, in a small corner, are two graves, the division between them demarcated by simple stones.  In this room, the dead are not buried in a stone box, but directly on the floor of cave.  Many believe that these are the graves of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and his wife.  For a great man, a simple grave.  Tradition tell us that this was Rabbi’s choice, a decision he made to remove the burden of expensive burial from the masses of poor Jews.  If Rabbi can be buried in the ground, then surely anyone can do so; Rabbi’s act of chesed in death was to remind the Jewish people that burial was an act of reverence for the departed and respect for tradition, not an posthumous boast of one’s success in life.  Standing by the grave of Rabbi, I recited the beginning of the very first mishnah, an act of thanks to the man who helped bring into being the literature to which I have dedicated my life.  Do not overly eulogize me, the Talmud reports that Rabbi told his students and family, but instead continue to learn.

At Rabbi’s grave, we did not complete that first mishnah. For that, we waited until we sat in the ruins of fifty century synagogue in the city of Tzippori.  Rabbinic tradition tells us that Tzippori was a bustling market city, and standing in the excavated remains of the large commercial district, it is not hard to imagine.  According to the Talmud, as Rabbi’s heath declined, he was taken from Beit She’arim to Tzippori, whose mountain air was considered to have healing properties.  It worked; Rabbi lived eighteen years in Tzippori.  Here he finished his great work, here he taught his final classes, here he gave  his final instructions as to his mourning and burial.  Here it was that Rabbi ended his life.    In this, his final city, we completed the recitation of the first mishnah, and the questions, answers, debates and stories in that tiny sliver of rabbinic literature served as synecdoche for the vastness of the rabbinic project Rabbi helped to inaugurate.  Judaism may have began with Abraham, or at Sinai, or perhaps on the return from Babylonian exile; that is a question for theologians and historians to answer–or fail to answer.  But rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism of words and texts, of arguments and sages, of unanswerable questions asked anyway, was born in this part of the Galilee.  It was born in the towns and villages of this center of Jewish life in the centuries after Roman victories over various Jewish rebellions had made Jewish life impossible in the area around Jerusalem.  Rabbinic Judaism–our Judaism–was born in places like Beit She’arim and Tzippori. Today, we spent our day in the cradle of the miraculously resilient civilization called rabbinic Judaism.  It was better than Graceland.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Massada and Yavne


The rabbis of the Talmud could not figure out why the Second Temple was destroyed. This was an important question for the rabbis to answer, because lots of folks outside the Jewish people thought they knew the answer: because they had rebelled against Rome was a popular (and historically accurate) theory, while the more theologically inclined argued that the destruction of the Temple proved that God had rejected the Jews.  The rabbis, of course, were not inclined in either of these directions.  The First Temple’s destruction was not such a mystery: prophets like Jeremiah had been warning the people to stop their various sins and turn back to God for generations before the Babylonians finally put an end to the sinning kingdom of Judah.  But, perhaps curiously, the rabbis did not think the Second Temple was destroyed as the result of the accumulated sins of the people. In the end, the Talmud reports that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.  This is a good answer, and there are many good lessons to be found in it, but the truth is that the Temple was destroyed because the a small segment of fanatical Jewish revolutionaries thought God would help them defeat the mighty Roman Empire.  They were wrong.

To visit Massada, as we did today, is to confront these Zealots, as they are called by Josephus and others.  They insisted on the right of Jews to live freely in their land, and they violently confronted Jews with whom they disagreed.  They were an uncompromising lot, these Zealots, and their rebellion against Rome ended in one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the Jewish people.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, rabbinic literature is silent about Massada, and our only source for what transpired there is the works of Josephus, and the archeological work that has been done on the site.  The rabbis, writing in the wake of the rebellion of 66 CE and in the disastrous aftermath of the Bar Kochbah revolt about seventy years later, were decidedly against violent revolution.  They had made their peace with living under the authority of others, and they had no desire to elegize the sort of valiant yet doomed actions of the Zealots in Jerusalem and on Massada.

In the muscular Zionism of the decades before the founding of the State, Massada became a place of holiness, landmark of history and ideology, a foundational myth of the new Jews of Zion.  Rabbinic reticence was replaced by a call to arms, a return to the Zealot’s call for freedom in the land.  Today, in modern Israel, a comparison between the undeveloped site of rabbinic Yavne and the tourist touchstone that is Massada tells an eloquent story about the priorities of the patriotic archeologists of the modern State of Israel. But of course both are needed.  The Zionists Zealots of the modern period were as right as the ancient Zealots were wrong: they wanted the same things, but the Zionists, far from being uncompromising ideologues, were willing to negotiate, to sacrifice and make painful choices to achieve the dream of freedom for Jews in the land of Israel.

But the rabbis of Yavne deserve their place in modern Israel as well.  And not until Yavne is as much a pilgrimage site as Messada will Israel truly achieve its destiny.  Yesterday, we began our day at a Masorti synagogue in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem.  There we heard from Rabbah (the female form of the Hebrew Rav) Chaya Baker, who has served the community for seven years.  She told us that growing up in Israel she had always wished she had been born in the time of Palmach.  The Palmach was the underground fighting force (one of three operating in Mandate Palestine) in those crucial years before the founding of the state, when each battle, each decision, had profound consequences for the future of the Jewish people in Israel.  Her recent realization, however, is that in her role as a Masorti rabbi, as she tries to introduce skeptical Israelis of the profound beauty of Jewish traditions, she is part of what she called a spiritual Palmach.  And Rabbah Baker believes that the battle she is fighting is no less important than those battles fought by young men and women over sixty years ago as they struggled to bring a Jewish state into existence.  The state now exists, the Jewish part is up for debate.

The mythology of Massada was crucial to the founders of the early state; it gave them a history, a national story about freedom fighters of old.  Massada made their struggle seem ancient, and, by so doing, gave justice to their cause.  In addition, the terrible sacrifices made on Massada echoed the very real losses these impossibly young heroes were experiencing as they struggled for freedom.  Massada was essential for founding of the state.  But Yavne is no less essential for its future.  The Zealots of ancient times were disastrously wrong in their military calculations, but their yearning for freedom in their land animated a later, more pragmatic Zionist dream.  The rabbis at Yavne, struggling to preserve a Jewish life in the absence of the Temple, did nothing less than save the Jewish people from the dark recesses of history’s lost tribes.  In the modern State, we need the Zealots and we need the rabbis.  We need the Palmach, and we need the spiritual Palmach.  We need the Massada and we need Yavne. Let us hope we can have both.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Israel Day Seven: Far Away on Father’s Day

One of the trip participants made a suggestion to me today about the content and form of today’s blog post.  He suggested that I write a letter from the fathers on the trip to their sons and daughters, explaining why we fathers are so far away–and therefore so hard to reach–on Father’s Day.  That sounded to me like an interesting idea.  So, at the risk of speaking for the other fathers on this trip, I gave it a shot.


To our Child(ren),

Here’s the thing.  Father’s Day is a little bit silly.  I think we, as fathers, can admit that.  It’s a made up holiday and though we love being fathers, we don’t necessarily think we need a whole day to make a hullabaloo about the whole thing.  On the other hand, we would be lying if we said we didn’t like hearing from you on Father’s Day.  It’s a good excuse to talk, a good excuse to tighten the familial bonds.  We love that. It’s better than the gifts and cards.  (If you want the truth, we would trade the gifts and cards for more time talking to you, preferably in person.)  But this year, we are here, in Israel, and the distance between us makes it hard to really enjoy the closeness of our child(ren).  It’s hard to be this far from you on any day, but on Father’s Day, it feels especially difficult.  So we want to explain why we came on this trip, even as knew it would mean being away from you.

By way of explanation, let me tell you about something we saw today.  I know you’ve heard of the Kotel, the Western Wall, which hold such a special place in the Jewish imagination of Jerusalem.  Well, it turns out that the Kotel is only a very tiny piece of an extremely impressive set of four retaining walls which helped support the Temple Herod rebuilt in Jerusalem.  For many long centuries after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, the Western Wall was really the only part of the Temple to which we had access, and eventually the part of the Wall we could visit was reduced in size to the area we now call the Kotel.  Even when we had access to the Kotel, it was never easy to get there, and never easy to pray there. The many, many rulers of Jerusalem were never that thrilled about Jews being in Jerusalem, and depending on who was in charge we had more or less access to this remnant of the Temple, this reminder of a different Jerusalem, a different time for the Jewish people.  Over time, the fact that this piece of a wall was not really a wall of the Temple but was basically a tiny fragment of the external wall of the large superstructure around the Temple was lost, and our people created all sorts of fantastical legends about this particular place.  Unsanctified in its time, the Kotel was made holy by generations of Jewish attention and intention towards its ancient stones.

In modern Israel, the Kotel is under the sovereignty of the Jewish State, and we can come and go now as we please.  But nothing is ever simple in the Jewish State, and certainly nothing having to with such a freighted site could ever hope to be simple.  You see, they turned it into an Orthodox Synagogue, this holy site of the Jewish people, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it is regulated as though it belongs to a particular type of Jewish expression.  This place was sanctified by the people of Israel, but it has been treated as though it belongs to smaller group among that people.  And so it is that this space outside the walls of where the Temple stood, which would not have seen separate sections for men and women while it served its purpose (there were separate sections within the Temple precincts, not outside) now contains a large section for men and a much smaller section for women.  Attempts to change the status quo in this holy site of our people have been met with anger and even violence.

This was the Kotel we visited today.  But more than just the Kotel, we had the chance to see the excavations that have been done in the area around the Western and Southern walls in the last three decades.  We walked on the street level from the time of Herod, several levels of earth below where the contemporary city of Jerusalem goes about its daily life.  We had a sense of vastness of the Temple, the incredible scope and scale of the achievement of Herod, his builders, and his laborers.  We saw the layer upon layer of those who have come to Jerusalem–sometimes to rule, sometimes to destroy, often both.

What we really saw today, more than anything, was our history.  Some of it is factual history: dates and times, rulers and wars, documents and decrees.   And some of it is the imagined history that unites our people across time and space: legend and prayer, hopes and dreams, songs and poems.  The Kotel is a place of struggle because of what it means to our people, not because of the rather prosaic function it once served.  To walk on the street of Herod, passing down and down through the layers of the history of city, is to remember the ancient past of our people, even as the present reality carries on–and occasionally intrudes–above our heads.  This is why we came here to Israel.  This is why we felt it important enough to be away from you, our children whom we love and cherish.  We wanted to understand–as nearly as such a thing is possible–the incredible longevity of our people, and the connection we have always felt to a land and place the vast majority of Jews were never able to see.  At the moments when we have prayed, we have prayed towards this city, and we needed to see this city for ourselves.

We hope that by being here, by seeing this, by taking a small part in the on-going drama of our Jewish heritage, that we will have something to bring home for you, our children.  We hope that we will be able to convey, in some small way, how amazing it is to touch the stones of a hundred and thousand years.  To wonder what these stones have seen of our people.  Upon these stones is etched our past, and we feel certain that only in the decoding of what is written there can we explain our present or imagine our future.  We feel certain that by being here, on this Father’s Day, we will be able to begin to tell you what we think those stones should say to us.  We miss you terribly, but we think this process of learning is worth the distance from you it requires of us.

For Father’s Day this year, we do not want socks or ties or electronic devices.  We ask for this: give us time, upon our return, to let us tell you what we saw here.  Give us time to talk it through with you, because what we want, in the end, is a conversation, not to deliver a monologue. We have seen so much of our people’s past and present in this city and in this country, we cannot wait to sit with you and talk about what this past and this present can mean for our future.  We look forward to being home with you, to start this conversation; we hope it will last a lifetime.

We close on a somber note, I am afraid.  As we left the Kotel plaza this afternoon, we watched as scores of people began to stream into the area.  They were arriving for a prayer service organized as a response to what seems to be the kidnapping of three high school students here in Israel.  As we write, they have not been found.  As fathers, we know that to even imagine what those three fathers are feeling tonight is beyond our capacity.  We are heartsick for those boys, and for their family and friends.  We hope they come home safely.  We hope sanity and humanity prevail.  We hope you will see a world at greater peace than we have seen.  We want you to know we believe it is possible.


Your fathers in Israel

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Two Jerusalems

Military graves at Har Herzl of Israeli soldiers lost in battle.  This section is for soldiers lost in the battle for Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

Military graves at Har Herzl of Israeli soldiers lost in battle. This section is for soldiers lost in the battle for Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

To wax romantic and poetic about Shabbat in Jerusalem is, especially for a rabbi, an exercise in cliche.  And surely, as our group davened Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv in a park above the neighborhood of Yamin Moshe, with a view of Old City as the sun set behind us, there was much romance and poetry to be had.  As we began our silent Amidah, the sirens of Jerusalem sounded, signaling the time for candle lighting had arrived.  The traffic on the street began to thin, and there was a certain sense of peace that settled over the city.  The words of the hashkiveinu blessing in the Maariv service seemed to have a special meaning: spread over us the shelter of Your peace, over Israel and over Jerusalem.  Praying in that moment, it was possible to imagine a City of Peace, as the name of place is said to imply.  Our tradition says that there is a Jerusalem on High and a Jerusalem Below; an eternal and heavenly city, untouched by the violence and bloodshed of human war and obsession, and an earthy city, scarred by the many battles in and around its hills and valleys. In that moment, the heavenly city seemed possible.

We should have known better.  After all, we began our day on Ammunition Hill, the site of a critical battle during the Six Day War, as Paratroopers of the IDF fought Jordanian soldiers for control of the city.  The ceasefire ending the War of Independence had left the Jerusalem divided, and the war of 1967 undid that division.  But the uniting of Jerusalem was a bloody affair with many losses on both sides.  It is a division that still runs through the city, albeit no longer with opposing armies pointing guns at each other across a ceasefire line.  The united Jerusalem was the product of war, and the ripple effects of that war continue to be felt in the city, in the state of Israel, and far beyond whatever one thinks the borders of that state should rightfully be.

But the complexity of prayer and peace in Jerusalem goes far beyond the difficult decisions of the Six Day Way and its aftermath.  Proudly praying in the capital of modern Israel is the peculiar blessing granted to precious few in the long history of our people after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE.  It is a blessing bought with much blood and sacrifice, and–since we believe in the profound truth that all people are created in the image of God–we dare not forget that the blood and sacrifice has fallen on all sides of every conflict that has ever profaned the peace of Jerusalem.  There is no way around this truth: part of the heritage of the City of Peace is the blood that has been spilled in the pursuit of its possession.  That blood has been spilled by soldiers, and civilians, by the uniformed armies of different lands, and by the victims of terror who wore no uniform at all.  This too is Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem of Below has, at times, been so painfully distant from its heavenly reflection that the one hardly resembled the other.

And yet.  Walking around the city tonight after Shabbat ended was a reminder that the Jerusalem of Below is not just about bombing and bullets.  The Jerusalem of Below also has shops and restaurants aplenty, it has a giant open-air book sale for “Book Week” and it even has a sandy beach constructed on the site of the old train station, which, though a touch incongruous, is nonetheless a wonderful reminder of the fact that Jerusalem is not just a symbol or a hope or an obsession of three religions: it is also a place people work, live and play beach volleyball.  (That last one, of course, is fairly new.  The beach only opened this week.)  Over eight hundred thousand people live in the municipality of the Jerusalem of Below, and they deserve to be seen as well, not simply overlooked in the search for the Heavenly City of our prayerful dreams.

Shabbat ended here in Jerusalem of Below with a painful reminder that pain and loss are part and parcel of the story.  Details are still sketchy, and it is also dangerous to comment on events as they happen.  It appears that three young yeshiva high school students were kidnapped on their way home before Shabbat.  As I write, I am listening the Israeli radio interview a man working at the yeshiva one of the the students attended, and behind him I can hear the students reciting the one hundred and twenty-first Psalm in the hope of the students‘ safe return.  They are trying, desperately trying, to bring the power of the Heavenly Jerusalem to bear on the Jerusalem of Below.  Perhaps they can.  But for now, there is nothing but emptiness in three homes in Israel.  We still, all of us, have so far to go to fulfill the meaning of our hopes and our prayers. We are still so far from the Jerusalem of our imagination.  May God spread the shelter over peace over us, over all Israel, over Jerusalem, and over the entire world.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

The Recognition of Rabbi Balter

"Everything I created, I created for you. Take care not to ruin or destroy my world.  For if you create ruin, there will be no one after you to fix it."

“Everything I created, I created for you. Take care not to ruin or destroy my world. For if you create ruin, there will be no one after you to fix it.”


Rabbi Mauricio Balter has a nursery school and a preschool in his synagogue.  His program gives the children, who range form three months old to six years, religious education. They learn holidays and values, they learn concepts and ideas of Jewish tradition.  Rabbi Balter has a synagogue that provides programming to all ages in his community.  The synagogue, called Eshel Avraham, has been in the community for forty years.  It has an active program of community engagement, and it works with non-Jewish communities like the Bedouin on Tikkun Olam projects.  In addition to all that he does in for the young children in his programs, and in addition to the time he gives to the synagogue community, Rabbi Baltar also takes the time to work with students and teachers in schools around Beer Sheva, helping to bring some measure of Jewish education to students in secular public schools.  Rabbi Balter is a community rabbi par excellence, nearly the Platonic ideal of what a modern rabbi in Israel should be.  Moreover, Rabbi Balter was not born in Israel.  He was born in Uruguay, and, when asked why he made aliyah, he responds, “No matter where I was, I was always here.”  Rabbi Balter is a rabbi and a Zionist, and yet in the Jewish state can only be officially recognized as the latter.  As the former, he is ignored, at least officially.

Five thousand rabbis are paid by the taxpayers of the State of Israel to be “neighborhood rabbis.”  Many do not live in the neighborhoods they are paid by the State to serve.  Many more are invisible to the Israelis who are supposedly their parishioners, and the vast majority are profoundly disconnected from secular Jews in their charge.  Because of course, every one of the five thousand neighborhood rabbis of Israel, and indeed every single rabbi paid by the state to act in that capacity, is Orthodox.  As far as the apparatus of the Jewish state in concerned, there is only one form of Judaism.  Rabbi Balter, though he is an exceptional rabbi, though he is inarguably a neighborhood rabbi, cannot function in that capacity, because he not Orthodox.  He is a rabbi for one of the fastest growing streams of Judaism in Israel: Masorti.

There are over seventy Masorti congregations in Israel today, and more are added each year.  And yet, there are only five Masorti rabbis who serve their communities full time.  A few more have part-time positions, but the majority of Masorti congregations are without a spiritual leader.  The Masorti movement in Israel clearly fills a need, but it is a need the Israeli government cannot, or will not, recognize.  For the Jewish state, “Jewish” means far too constricted a thing, at least as far as state support is concerned.

The situation is changing, but the change is slow and halting.  There are strong forces arrayed against the increased recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions, and the coalition-based nature of the Israeli parliamentary system has long meant that no real progress can be made on critical issues of religious pluralism.  The Israeli Supreme Court has recently been gently easing the government towards a broader acceptance of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, and we can only hope that trend will continue.  But whatever happens in the Knesset and in the courts, one thing is certain: whether the state of Israel recognizes Rabbi Mauricio Balter for what he is or not, many thousands of Jews in Beer Sheva certainly do.  Whether the Israeli government will ever truly support the non-Orthodox streams in Israel is an open question, but the profound success of Masorti Judaism over the last decades renders the question, if not moot, then certainly not decisive.  A deep and broad non-Orthodox Judaism already exists in the Jewish State; Rabbi Balter is a rabbi, and what he represents is Judaism.  That question is settled in Beer Sheva, and, soon, we hope, it will be settled throughout the state of Israel.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Israel Day Three: The Ballad of Reuven and Ora

The first course of a Yeminite lunch.

The first course of a Yeminite lunch.

Reuven was born in Lodz, Poland.  Ora was born in rural Yemen.  Nothing connected them.  They had nothing in common, save one salient fact that altered both of their lives: they were Jews.  Reuven’s Judaism become the defining feature of his life when he was four, the year the Nazis invaded Poland and set about ending Jewish life there forever.  For Ora, there was no definitive moment, no invasion, no new law, just a slowly gathering realization that life for the Jews in Yemen was increasingly dangerous and difficult.

By the time Reuven was ten years old, he had survived ghettos, marches and the Bergen Belsen death camp.  Remarkably, his entire nuclear family, spread across Europe, survived the Holocaust.  After liberation by the British, Reuven’s family reunited and made their way to Palestine.  They joined hundreds of thousands of other survivors, many of whom had to run the British blockade of Mandate Palestine, risking arrest or worse.  But Reuven and his family made it, one of the very few intact families to arrive on the shores of the Land of Israel after the war.

For Ora, the trek to Israel would be long and arduous.  The entire small Jewish village where she lived set out together, forty people in all, including Ora, her two brothers, and her parents.  They walked across the desert, hoping to make it to Aden, in South Yemen, then controlled by the British.  Sometimes they had to walk at night, fearing the many dangers of the road.  At times, the family would find a Jewish settlement and spend some months recuperating and preparing for the next leg of their journey.  When they finally arrived in Aden, it was three years after they had set out from their homes.  Only twenty of the original pilgrims survived the journey.  Ora and her brothers were among them.  Her parents were not.  She arrived in Israel an orphan and was immediately sent to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to be integrated into her new land.

As Reuven tells the story–which he did when our group had lunch at their home in Kfar Maimon this afternoon–when God wants to put two people together, that is what occurs.  Both in Israel as immigrants, there was no reason the two would have ever met, but the Israeli Defense Forces intervened to make the fateful moment happen.  As Reuven sat in his forward position observing the Egyptian lines, he also happened to observe a young female solider who was bringing lunch.  At that moment, Reuven says, the Egyptian guns opened up, and the female solider dove into his concealed position.  And so Reuven, from Poland, met Ora, from Yemen.  Israel, the young state in its earliest and most precarious days, had taken them both, and hundreds of thousands and eventually millions like them.  Jews with nowhere else to go.  Jews whose home nations did not want them anymore, perhaps had never wanted them.

Theodor Herzl, writing in his groundbreaking work The Jewish State had said simply, “give us sovereignty over some part of the earth’s surface…we shall take care of everything else ourselves.”  It was never going to be quite that simple of course, and it certainly has not been.  But one of Herzl’s great dreams, indeed one of the great dreams of Zionism, had always been to create a refuge for the Jews, so tempest tossed by history.  For so many Jews, as Golda Meir was said to tearfully observe at the moment of the state’s declaration, the refuge came too late.  But for many millions more, like Reuven and Ora, the haven Herzl envisioned came to pass at just the right time.

And still this story continues.  Tonight, several of us went with Katie Connell, a former member of Shir Chadash, to the mercaz klita (immigrant absorption center) where she now lives.  She made aliyah less than a year ago, and she is one of only two Americans in her center.  The rest of the over four hundred and fifty residents of the giant concrete building in Beer Sheva are from all over the world: from Yemen and Mexico, from Cuba and the Former Soviet Union.  They come for different reasons, with different hopes and dreams and fears.  But many of them come for the same reason Reuven and Ora came: home is no longer safe, and there is nowhere else to go.  Give us a state, Herzl boldly declared, and we will use it wisely.  For millions upon millions of immigrants to Israel, one piece of the dream has come to life.  Not without trouble, not without insult and injury and injustice.  But Israel has been the haven Herzl imagined.  Not perfect of course, because nations are not ever perfect.  But  for Reuven and Ora, Israel was a haven, and it became, over time, a home as well.  Herzl would have approved.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Israel Day Two: Dreams and Reality in Tel Aviv


The room in which the state of Israel was declared looks decidedly larger and grander in  pictures than it appears in real life.  The room itself is actually small–certainly too small to seat the three hundred people who received a “secret” invitation to the declaration on Thursday May 13th, 1948, the day before the event was to transpire.  The building had been one of the first houses built in the city of Tel Aviv, on lot 43 (of 66) by Meir Dizengoff.  Dizengoff has turned his home into Tel Aviv’s first art museum to honor his wife after her death, and he himself died just a few months after the museum was dedicated.  By 1948, the building had enough history to be considered an appropriate setting for the historic occasion of national rebirth of Israel as a Jewish state.  (The fact that Jerusalem was under siege meant that the declaration could not occur in what was to be the capital city.)

But the room where the declaration occurred, which was then the main gallery of the museum, is really nothing special.  Art hangs on the wall, and two large Israeli flags drop from the ceiling to the floor behind the dais.  The art was native to museum, the flags were brought in special for the occasion. Also added to the room was a large picture of Theodor Herzl whose organizational zeal and tireless lobbying efforts in the last ten years of his life had done so much to bring the Zionist movement to its moment of triumph.  The art adorning the walls on that fateful day was chosen for the occasion: Jewish themes by Jewish artists, including a work by Marc Chagall.

In the middle of it all stood the diminutive figure of David Ben-Gurion.  In a long and contentious meeting of the People’s Council two days earlier, Ben-Gurion had argued strenuously that advice to postpone any declaration of a Jewish state–including that delivered by American Secretary of State George Marshall–must be ignored.  For Ben-Gurion, the moment of Zionism’s greatest yearning had finally arrived, and all other considerations must be set aside in favor of seizing the historic opportunity towards which so much time, money and blood had already been spent.  Ben-Gurion’s argument carried the day, and so it was that at four o’clock in the afternoon on May 14th, 1948, he arose to change the course of Jewish history forever.

Sitting today in the very room where that moment occurred, it is hard not feel the incredible radicalism of those founding fathers and mothers of the State of Israel.  The Zionist dream had always been equal parts lunatic hopes and pragmatic progress.  Herzl imagined a utopian state while working to build a very un-utopian World Zionist Congress to usher that state into reality.  The eventual shape of that state was not what any Zionist had hoped for–the U.N. partition plan made no one happy–but it was, perhaps, enough.  But the state of Israel was in danger of be strangled in its crib in those early days, as Secretary Marshall had warned.  War had already begun inside Palestine with the passage of the U.N. partition plan in November of 1947, and as the British mandate ticked down to its ignominious end, the prospect of a five nation invasion to end the Jewish state loomed.  The end seemed near, even at the beginning.

The brutal reality of their situation was lost on none of the three hundred men and women sitting and standing in Meir Dizengoff’s museum that day.  Nor was it lost on the many hundreds who crowded the streets outside, nor on the hundreds of thousands who listened for news on the radio all over what would soon no longer be the British Mandate of Palestine.  This was a moment to choose the dream over the facts.  This was the moment for a radical break with the last two thousand years of Jewish history.  This was the moment for Herzl’s dream to be made real, even as the reality of history gathered on its borders and threatened to consume this Old-New land.

And so they made it real.  It took seventeen minutes for Ben-Gurion to read the the Declaration of the State of Israel.  It took barely fifteen seconds for rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon (born Fishman), his voice shaking with emotion, to pronounce the words of the shehecheanyu blessing.  Hatikva was sung at the beginning, spontaneously, and then again at the end, accompanied by the (now national) philharmonic orchestra of Israel.  In just over thirty minutes, it was over.  The radicalism of Zionism had been made manifest.

A little over sixty years later, I left what is now called Independence Hall and made my way to Agvaniyah, a pizza place in Tel Aviv.  As Liba and I sat eating pizza and drinking Coke (of course!) I wondered if this is what Herzl would have imagined, or Ben-Gurion for that matter.  At the table next to us, a typical Israeli family was also eating.  The kids chatted happily about nothing, teasing each other, annoying each other, doing kid things.  But all in Hebrew.  All in Tel Aviv.  They were, I imagine, unaware of the radicalism of their normalcy; blissfully ignorant of the revolutionary nature of their ordinary day.  Which is as it should be.  A country cannot always be a revolution.  A nation can be born in a moment of radical break, but it can only thrive when it is allowed to become an ordinary place where people live ordinary lives.  Israel was conceived in the minds of radical men and women who sometimes failed to notice how crazy they sounded, and it was born from the blood and tears of revolutionaries who wanted nothing more than to live normally.

Israel was born in a small room with nothing exceptional to recommend it.  Nothing that is, save the people gathered therein, all of whom no doubt hoped that one day, perhaps, there would seem nothing so extraordinary about the dream they sought to realize.  They hoped Israel would be like that room: full of people, full of Jewish culture, cognizant of their Jewish past and their Zionist forbearers, a sturdy room, a safe room, a room one could live in.  A room where the sound of ancient blessings could mix with the words of a new national anthem.  A room both utterly prosaic, and utterly extraordinary.  That room is not yet finished.  Like the profound, powerful, yet not yet fully realized words of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the possibility of that perfect room hovers over the state, its people and their future.  Sixty-six years later, there is still much dreaming to done.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Israel Trip Day One: The Ancient Port and the New City

Our very first stop

The ancient port of Yaffo (Jaff), our first stop

Yaffo (Jaffa) is an ancient city, nestled against the Mediterranean sea.  Many civilizations have passed through Yaffo, and many different rulers have ruled there.  For centuries, the port city of Yaffo (Jaffa) was one of the primary entry points for the land of Israel.  When the Crusaders came to the Holy Land, many came through Yaffo.  When Napoleon came to the shores of the Land of Israel, he came through Yaffo.  And when the Zionist movement began inspiring Jews in ever increasing numbers to find their way to Israel, many had their first glimpse of the Zionist dreams as they clamored ashore in Yaffo.  (Yaffo was also an exit point, as the prophet Jonah’s desperate flight from God reminds us.)

As our wonderful tour guide, David Solomon pointed out to us today, as we stood on a hill in Yaffo gazing out over the Mediterranean, the long and storied history of the city makes it entirely appropriate that Yaffo should be our first stop in Israel.  Although we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, like the vast majority of modern day pilgrims, we joined an ancient cavalcade of travelers when we took our first real look at the land from a hill in Yaffo,  The hill (called a tel in Hebrew) is artificial, at least in part.  Like so much of the land of Israel, the hill contains layer upon layer of history; one version of Yaffo destroyed, and another built in its place.  Such was the way of the world for millennia.  From Ottomans to Crusaders to Romans to Israelites to Canaanites, the way of Yaffo, and the way of the rest of the land, was to destroy and only then to build.  And so it was significant, to me at least, that as we stood upon this tel, with its history of destruction and reconstruction, we gazed out upon a new idea, a city built without the destruction of the former civilization. Tel Aviv was built next to, not on top of, its ancient neighbor.  It is a new city, barely over on hundred years old.  But the ideal it expresses is profound: a Jewish state built alongside, not in place of, what came before.  A Hebrew city next to an Arabic city.  A Jewish town next to a Christian and Muslim town.  Can such a thing be done? Can the land support Tel Aviv and Yaffo?  Can there be construction without destruction?  On this lovely day, as the wind whipped off the sea and the buildings of both the old and new glittered in the afternoon sun, it certainly seemed possible.  There can be a Tel Aviv and a Yaffo.  One need not threaten or supplant the other.  This was the dream of the founders of Tel Aviv, and I imagine they dreamed it gazing out from this same hill in Yaffo over a century ago, looking out over the empty shore below.  They dreamed, I imagine, of two cities, both alike in dignity, but avoiding, hopefully, “the ancient grudge” whose blood makes “civil hands unclean”.  Today at least, that dream seemed possible, as do all things on such a beautiful day on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Posted in Israel, Israel Trip, Shir Chadash | Comments Off

Forward with the List

A few weeks ago, Newsweek announced that it was discontinuing its annual “Best Rabbis in America” list.  Around the country, one could hear hundreds of rabbis exhale a silent sigh of relief: we would no longer have to pretend that we did not care about the list.  The demise of list was met with general acclaim, since it always seemed like a pretty bad idea (especially for those of us left off!) and the sense of ickiness of the entire enterprise was enhanced by the anecdotes of rabbis calling the authors of the list and begging to placed.  The whole thing was sort of gross.  Goodbye list of Greatest American Rabbis in America! you will not be missed, except by the 50 people who had to pretend they didn’t care that they were on the list.

But the thing about Jews is that we really need to know who is winning.  We need to know the best, the greatest, the most.  After all, we are a high achieving people, and we like to know our class rank.  Thankfully, our good friends at The Forward have stepped into the gaping self-esteem creating and destroying hole left by our good friends at Newsweek.  For the second year in a row, The Forward solicited nominations for the “Most Inspiring Rabbis in America.”  The selection process after the nominations was fairly unclear, but what was surprising to me, upon the eventual publication of The Most Inspiring Rabbis in America was how entirely uninspiring the stories about these rabbis turned out to be.  Now, I know some of the rabbis on this list, and they are great, but the vignettes chosen by the Forward are almost uniformly uninteresting and unremarkable.  The thing is, I am sure that these rabbis truly ARE inspiring and DO deserve to be recognized for the great good work that they do.  But why does this much deserved praise need to be couched in terms of a page-view seeking “Most”-type list?  If the goal is to highlight some of the innovative and even inspiring work that these great rabbis do, then why not take some time time and a write a more in-depth report on that work? Why not highlight some great rabbinic models?  Instead, we get The List, with its suggestion of superlative utterly betrayed by the prosaic nature of the “inspiration” described.  To be clear: I have nothing against these rabbis, and the ones on the list that I know are wonderful and are deserving of the attention and the accolades.  But for goodness sakes Forward: tell us why!  I mean, if this is the most inspiring our most inspiring rabbis can be, one of two things must be true: American Jews need to raise their standards and expectations, or we rabbis really need to work on our people skills.  I assume, however, that these rather passionless nominating notes are only scraping the surface of what these terrific rabbis are doing in their communities.  Tell us more, folks from The Forward: don’t list us, inspire us!

Posted in Jewish world, Rabbi Thoughts, Religion in America | Comments Off

Staying, Leaving, and the Conservative Movement

After the Pew report came out and after the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and sitting on the floor and weeping was over, I figured I would write something about the results.  I know my blog has become more and more occasional, but if anything would shake me out my blog-silence, surely a demographic study foretelling the coming apocalypse would be it.  But I found that I had nothing really interesting to say (insert variation of “when has that stopped you before?” joke here) and I found, perhaps more ominously, that anything I did try to write came out sounding lamentation-y.

Luckily for me, other people have picked up the dirge work I decided not to do.  For example, here is Dr. Micah Gottlieb bemoaning the inability of Conservative Judaism to retain folks who are interested in living a halakhically observant life:

I was told that Conservative Jews were as serious in their commitment to Halacha as Orthodox Jews were, but they differed in that they recognized halachic change. But as I knew no Conservative Jews who cared about Halacha, my teenage sensitivity to inconsistency led me to see Conservative Judaism as inauthentic.

Does one only have sensitivity to inconsistency when one is a teenager?  More to the point, is it really the case that if the Movement had been more consistent in its messaging (“The Conservative Movement: Not Really That into Traditional Ritual Observance”) that Dr. Gottlieb would have been led to stay?  Probably not, since it turns out what he really wanted was…a Modern Orthodox community.

I felt that Conservative Judaism was distracted by what I saw as political rather than religious issues. The burning issue of the day in the Conservative movement was egalitarianism and the ordination of women. My synagogue was not egalitarian, although women could be called to the Torah on special occasions. The argument was made that egalitarianism was crucial to keeping Jews affiliated.

I did not buy that. It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning and that no serious effort was being made to engage them in these matters. Worse still, as egalitarianism swept Conservative Judaism in the United States, Canadian Conservative Jews who were not egalitarian were made to feel unwelcome. Eventually my synagogue and several other Conservative synagogues in Canada dropped their membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

If you are the sort of person who sees egalitarianism as essentially a “political” as opposed to a “religious” issue, then you are just not going to be happy in a community that has been ordaining female rabbis for thirty years, and has been steadily moving towards the full inclusion of women in all areas of leadership and ritual.  Ditto for issues around gays and lesbians.  I can see how one could perceive these issues as “political” but I—and most Conservative rabbis I know—see such questions as being of a deeply religious nature.  What can be more religious than the question of where women fit into the religion?  My point here is not that Dr. Gottlieb is wrong about the Conservative Movement—much of what he says is correct—but simply to point out that he is not perhaps the best person to speak about where the Movement has gone wrong.  If someone is concerned about being ritually observant and does not care about issues around egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement is not for you.  The Movement lost you when it made some important decisions about the place of women, and then stuck to those decisions.  And I’m perfectly okay with that.

Of course, if you care about ritual observance and you care about issues of egalitarianism, then the Conservative Movement may not be for you either. Just ask the folks at Hadar and any other “post-denominational” traditional egalitarian minyan.  This is not an argument about whether these minyanim are really “Conservative” or not—that argument has been exhausted.  The point here is that there is no reason they could not affiliate in this way; no reason, that is, except that they have absolutely no desire to do so and see no benefit from such an affiliation.  We might wonder why, and we might even think there are multiple issues in play, but it turns out we’d be wrong, because (Conservative) Rabbi Danny Gordis has the real answer:

What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.

Oh, is that all? If only we had thought to address the “deep existential human questions” than we’d be sitting pretty those Reform and Orthodox Jews!  Because when it comes to addressing deep existential questions, those spiffy Movements probably have a whole class on that in rabbinical school, while my Seminary years were spent taking class like Talmud and Bible and Jewish history.  Jokes aside, I have to say, I do not recognize the Movement Rabbi Gordis describes here:

As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.

I do not disagree with Rabbi Gordis’ list of reasons that drive people to shul, but I think it’s odd to believe two things that seem implicit in this argument: 1) that people in pews really care and are invested in the sorts of conversations that are going on among “the leadership” of the Conservative movement and 2) that “leadership of the Conservative Movement” is even a thing that exists in the world.  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I don’t really spend any time at all talking to my congregants about whether or not Conservative Judaism is halakhic or, but I do admit to talking about halakah.  Although I am clearly biased, I think I do my best to sometimes address the “deep existential human questions” though I admit that something I also talk about baseball and movies.  I tend to think that Conservative Jews care far more about what their local rabbi talks about than they do about what the shadowy cabal of leaders we in Movement call “The Circle” talks about in the pages of Conservative Judaism.  Speaking of “The Circle”: I am not sure it exists, or of whom it is comprised, but I do know that I get Conservative Judaism and Kolot and even read those two august publications, and I can’t really say “are we a halakhic movement?” is a trending topic.  All of which is to say: I do think the Conservative Movement has significant issues to address, but to claim, as Rabbi Gordis does, that our main issue is a failure to be serious about our religious message requires a level of information about local rabbis and their message to their synagogues that is not in evidence in the article.

But the Movement is clearly stumbling, and I think we would all do well to be clear-eyed about that fact.  We need to be thoughtful about the reasons for our stumbles, and I think taking advice from people who have moved on to other Jewish communities—or “meandered” as Rabbi Gordis would have it—is not always the best way forward.  But we do need to hear the voices of people like Sarah Miriam Liben, whose impassioned cry in the Times of Israel is what really got me off the couch and into my chair to write this post. (Full disclosure: I know Sara Miriam Liben and I think she is awesome.)

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not mean to suggest that my male friends who have chosen Orthodoxy over Conservative Judaism did so without serious thought. Nor do I mean to imply that my female friends who choose to pray in Orthodox synagogues do not feel empowered or deeply connected to the communities of which they are now a part. There are many compelling reasons, personal and not, for an individual to choose a different community, but that is for another time.

What I am saying is that deeply committed Conservative women cannot make this shift fluidly. And I find it extremely difficult to understand how being raised in an egalitarian community can be reconciled with a non-egalitarian community, and a non-egalitarian religious future for one’s family. I want to be counted in a minyan. I want to someday be able to say kadish for a loved one. Partnership minyanim do not do it for me. Sitting behind or next to a mechitza is not equal prayer for me. And being told apologetically that I do not have to fulfill the same mitzvot that are required of my male counterparts is not my Judaism.

Sara wants the Conservative Movement to work; she needs it to work actually, because the Jewish life she is looking for is something that only the Conservative Movement is trying to provide on a national scale.  Sara wants observance and she wants seriousness and she wants commitment and she wants to count.  That is what I want as well. I want it for Sara, I want it for my own daughter, I want it for my sons, and I want it for myself as well.  And I am not ready to give up yet.  Rabbi Ed Feinstein might be right that “our house is on fire.”  But you know what? I’m not leaving, because though much has burned, there is much yet to be saved.

Posted in Conservative Judaism, Religion in America | Comments Off

Investment and Incentive in the Conservative Movement

I know it’s been awhile since I wrote a blog post.  I guess I just haven’t had anything so say.  (Real reason: discovering ‘Arrested Development” for the first time.  Late, I know.)  And this post will not be interesting to my legions of general interest fans.  This is a little bit inside baseball, but if a Conservative rabbi can’t write a faux-insider take on the Conservative Movement, then who will do it?  A note of caution before I begin: I know personally many of the people involved in the decisions I am talking about, but I know none of them very well, and I have spoken to none of them, or really anybody in any leadership capacity about this.  These are my personal and uninformed musings.  Also: it’s long.  Consider yourself warned.


The Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, located on some prime real estate in Jerusalem, has always been a bit of an odd and confusing institution.  Although there is a Conservative Judaism in Israel (called Masorti) and although the Fuchsberg Center is “for Conservative Judaism” and in Israel, the Fuchsberg center is not affiliated with Masorti.  The Fuchsberg Center, as I understand it, is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Israel institution.   The raison d’être , which is right at the top of the really bad 1990s era website that seems endemic to Conservative Movement institutions is, “Conservative Jews from all over the world visit the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for study, guidance, fellowship and hospitality and above all to be exposed to the Israel Experience.”  So that’s what the Fuchsberg center is.  It’s the USCJ’s arm in Jerusalem.

Part of the Fuchsberg Center is the Conservative Yeshiva, one of the very few Conservative institutions that people, and particularly people under the age of 50, feel strongly about.  (Ramah, and, to a lesser extent, USY, are the others.  Don’t get me started on how USY and Ramah are separate arms of the Conservative Movement’s youth program.)  For over a decade, the Conservative Yeshiva’s Rosh Yeshiva was Rabbi Richie Lewis, about whom many people (myself included) have many positive feelings. Indeed, it is hard to find a person who went through the CY over the past ten years or so who did not feel that Rabbi Lewis was an essential part of the experience of studying at the Yeshiva.

Long story short: the Fuchsberg center, under whose auspices the CY operates, recently eliminated the Rosh Yeshiva position and therefore cut ties with Rabbi Lewis.  From the point of view of the Yeshiva, this was a terrible decision.  But, as I will endeavor to argue, there is a deeper problem here that Rabbi Lewis’ departure clarifies: this decision exposes the deep weakness of the current institutional model of the Conservative Movement.  As such, I do not think blaming the professional leadership of the Fuchsberg Center of the United Synagogue really gets at the more fundamental concern: the Conservative Movement is, at this moment, set up to fail in the future.  This is not the fault of an individual; it’s the fault of a system.  And we need to change the system.

The core problem is this: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is funded largely through assessments on synagogues.  It is a membership organization of institutions, not individuals.  And what that means is that the interests of the institutions it serves are paramount in all decision making.  There is a lay board of the USCJ and individual board members may have their own interests and concerns, but the primary function of the USCJ is to serve Conservative Synagogues.  This inevitably leads to the following conclusion: the USCJ is far more concerned about serving its constituents in the present than it is about serving possible future members of those constituents.  If you take a look at the Strategic Plan (PDF) the USCJ produced in 2011 you will note that the “core functions” of the USCJ are described in largely present-tense terms: efforts to help build and expand existing congregations (or kehillot, as the Movement now insists they be called.)  Yes, there is some hand waving towards “seeding and nurturing new kehillot” but there can be no doubt from this document that the main function of the USCJ is to serve its current membership—current synagogues and their members.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the plan, not in theory, and not in practice, as least as far as Conservative synagogues are concerned.  But you can see immediately how this focus leads to decisions like the one made about Rabbi Lewis: the Conservative Yeshiva is great, but it is simply not a core function of the USCJ.  Therefore, the USCJ and Fuchsberg announced that they wanted to be the CY to be financially independent, which is another way of saying: we do not prioritize this program.  The exact same thing happened with KOACH, the college program of the USCJ.  KOACH received a funding reprieve, but the language the USCJ is using about KOACH going forward is the same: independence.  Again, this is simply a question of priorities: the USCJ could shift resources away from serving current communities and into areas like KOACH and the CY, but it won’t because the institutions that pay the bills at the USCJ do not see a significant return from those sorts of investments, at least not in the short term.  So, in the absence of dedicated dollars from the USCJ coffers, KOACH and CY have to raise their own funds.

This dynamic also helps explain why little or no money in the Conservative Movement goes to outreach of any sort.  We don’t really do outreach: not in Israel, not on college campuses, not at all.  Outreach dollars are future investments, and they require a commitment to spending on things that will not rebound soon, if at all, to the benefit of the funders—in this case, the synagogues.  Because the folks served by the likes of KOACH and the CY do not immediately become members of Conservative synagogues, if they do at all, it is an entirely rational decision to downplay the importance of those efforts.

What of this means is that the USCJ, as currently constituted, is simply not institutionally capable of making investments in these sorts of outreach programs.  And neither is the Rabbinical Assembly, Ramah, JTS, or any Conservative Movement institution in America.  Perhaps if one these groups were awash in money there could be a runoff to these sorts of efforts, but in tight times, there simply is not going to be money in the Movement for serious outreach efforts.

Of course, in the long term, this is a disastrous situation.  If we do not engage people on college campuses or in Israel, then where, pray tell, will we find them?  The Conservative Movement does not, to put it mildly, enjoy wonderful a wonderful brand in the Jewish world.  It is therefore important for people to have positive, meaningful, and transformative experiences with the name Conservative attached to them.  Great outreach can do that.  Poorly funded, poorly executed, poorly run outreach will simply have the opposite effect.

I do not know the solution, but something needs to change.  Perhaps a new Conservative Institution needs to arise whose sole goal is outreach: KOACH, the CY, young Conservative rabbis going places we never go.  Or maybe Ramah is the right existing address for this effort, given its extensive lists of staff and campers.  But the USCJ will never be able to really take on the outreach effort, and the sad cases of KOACH and the Conservative Yeshiva have made that fact abundantly, painfully clear.  The only question now is where we go from here.  Because when it comes to real outreach with an eye toward the future, here is really nowhere.  And if we spend too long in nowhere, then nowhere will be our fate.

Posted in Conservative Judaism | Comments Off

Does The Wall Street Journal Read An Alternate Universe Version of My Blog?

I would never be so bold as to suggest than anyone actually reads the things I write, but I have to say, last week’s front page story in The Wall Street Journal felt like, as one of my friends put it, a bizarro world version of my earliest post about how different movements are written about in the press.  I mean, look at what I wrote about articles about “innovative” forms of Judaism on the one hand and “boring” types on the other:

The only thing those two types of stories have in common is that Professor Jonathan Sarna will be inevitably quoted at the end of both.

And then look at this:

“Once upon a time, some people went to synagogue to talk to God. Nowadays, more and more people come to see their friends,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. The prayers and sermons “are a distraction. Conviviality goes better with a drink.”

They quote Dr. Sarna!  I guess this makes me a prophet of some sort.

But of course the real scandal of the article is how overwhelming depressing it is.  That is, either the various rabbis were misquoted, or perhaps taken out of context, or else our community has gone terribly, terribly wrong.  It could, of course, be both.  But dear God, what to make of statements like this:

In Westhampton, N.Y., Rabbi Schneier’s synagogue has private sponsors each week who shell out $7,200 for food and $1,800 or more for the ever-changing bar—which may, incidentally, include rum-based mojitos, Champagne-infused Bellinis and the like. The L’chaim liquor table costs an additional $1,800—so the total can exceed $10,000 for a single Sabbath. Despite the steep cost, there are always eager sponsors, says the rabbi.

Someday, a future Dr. Sarna will write a book about the decline of American Jewish community, and this quote will be an epigraph for one of the chapters.  So will this:

Last year in Bal Harbour, one donor made an unusual contribution. Each Friday afternoon, on the eve of the Sabbath, his driver appeared carrying a leather suitcase with a giant 1.75 liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue label tucked inside. At the Saturday Kiddush, a special volunteer handed out shot glasses of the $500 scotch. “It went pretty fast,” Rabbi Lipskar says.

I can’t understand why this is front page new at The Wall Street Journal, or how this qualifies as news at all.  But if this is the new frontier of “engagement” and “entry points” I can only say that we are in serious, serious trouble.

I need a drink.

Posted in Jewish world, Rabbi Thoughts, Religion in America | Comments Off

Women of the Wall, Civil Rights and Making Change

A while back, I wrote a post about how women wishing to ride anywhere they liked on Israeli buses was not, in fact, analogous to the situation faced by Civil Rights pioneers like Rosa Parks, despite the superficial similarities.  My point in that post was that in the case of buses, the law was on the side of the women, not on the side of those who would segregate the genders.  In the case of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the law was against her, which is why she was arrested when she refused to move.  As I tried to argue, a woman wishing to sit wherever she liked was far more like the situation of African-American children attempting to integrate schools which had been forced by the law to accept them.  They were often met with resistance from the local population, but the law was decidedly and determinedly on their side, which is why they received police protection (in some cases) to fulfill the legal mandate they had been given.

The true analogy to Rosa Parks in the Israeli context is the struggle over the female presence at the Western Wall.  Here, the law is certainly not on the side of those who wish to make change.  When the women who wear tallitot or pray in certain ways are arrested or detained by police, it’s because they have, in fact, broken the law.  I assume that the women who gather for prayer each Rosh Chodesh know they are breaking the law (just as Rosa Parks did) and that part of the reason they gather is to test the willingness of the authorities to uphold the law by force.  The strategy, it seems to me, is similar to that of the Montgomery movement (which then became a template for later struggles): test the law, get arrested, raise the stakes for the ruling power, and then see if opinion (either inside opinion or the opinion of those who are outside but who are in a position to exert influence) will turn enough such that the law must be changed.  In the case of the Civil Rights, sometimes, as in Montgomery, Rosa Park’s act of civil disobedience sparked a mass movement that altered the opinion of enough influential (white) citizens of Montgomery to effect a change in the local statutes.  In other cases, especially those having to do with voting rights, the Civil Rights Movement needed to raise the awareness of Northern whites and (especially) the Federal government, in order to effect change.  Seating on buses and at lunch counters could be changed (in some places) without the Federal government (that is, outside influence) coming to bear, but when it came to issues like voting, the Movement needed to change hearts and minds outside the South, because in the South the Movement had virtually no success in altering (white) opinion towards a change in the law.

Now, I do not mean to fully analogize between the push for desegregated busses in Montgomery, Alabama and the drive to change the rules at the Western Wall, or for that matter the larger aims of the Civil Rights Movement and the larger struggle to tear down the system of religious favoritism and oppression that exists (legally) in Israel.  First of all, there was much more violence in the course of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many, many more people were murdered for their support of Civil Rights, and this level of violence is no small thing.  It is, I think, connected to the other major difference: one could argue that, at least in the struggle over the right to cast a vote, the issues at stake in the South in the 1950s and 1960s were far more fundamental to the concept of citizenship than anything we are currently fighting over in Israel.   But those caveats aside, the similarities between the two Movements does suggest some important points.

First, the issue of the Wall is probably closer to bus seating than to voting.  That is, my guess would be that the powers-that-be in Israel will be easier to move on this issue than on other related to the religious pluralism in general.  First, because there is very little money involved, and second, because, at the end of the day, this is an issue that it is easy for outsiders to understand and form a position about.  That is, American Jews will get exercised about this issue, because the notion that the Western Wall should belong to any one sect of Judaism will be intuitively wrong to most American Jews.  They might not have thought about the issue when the visited the wall on the last Federation trip, but the more this sort of the public display is met by the authorities with arrests, the more the issue will gain prominence and pressure will be brought to bear.  Many Israelis don’t care about this issue, because, in truth, many (secular) Israelis don’t care all that much about the Western Wall.  But this is an area where outside opinion can have an impact, and indeed already is, as evidenced by the government’s decision to have Natan Sharansky investigate the issue.  The choice of Sharansky is not accidental: as the head of the Jewish Agency, he is (supposed to be) in touch with the Jewish Diaspora, and certainly their cares and concerns will be part of his proposed solutions. I would not be surprised to see some changes in the law over the next few years.

But the larger issue of religious pluralism will be much tougher.  First, there is a lot more money involved.  Money for schools, money for neighborhoods, money for thousands of rabbis employed by the state.  A ruling power will fight hard for its economic prerogatives, and this was surely a part of the intense struggle over Civil Rights in the South.  Black voting meant black elected officials, and white elected officials responding to the needs of black communities and citizens; this meant a reordering of the economic priorities in many communities.  Second, the issue of what it means to have a Jewish state is still very much up for grabs.  The various answers go to the very heart of the Zionist enterprise and to the posture of the modern Israeli state.  And it is to this deep and abiding question that the issue of religious pluralism addresses itself.  This is why I would expect outside opinion (that is, the opinions of Jews outside Israel) to have less of an impact.  This is a battle Israelis themselves must fight, because it is their tax money and their national self-identity.  That is not to say the Jewish Diaspora should not have or express an opinion, it is only to say that, in the end, a thoroughgoing reform of religious authority in the Israeli state is going to take a large-scale change in Israeli opinion.  Avowedly secular parties have come and gone in Israel, and none has managed to shake the religious power vested in the (increasingly ultra-) Orthodox rabbanut.  But I think it can be done.

And it must be done.

Posted in Israel | Comments Off