Dying Elephants

If there is one thing that drives me crazy in the American Jewish press, and to some extent about the non-Jewish press when it writes about Jews, it is the veneration of all things new and edgy, and the denigration of all things considered old and stodgy.  Check out any article about Limmud or the Independent Minyan movement, and you’ll see all sorts of fawning quotes and the bandying about of words like “innovative” and “exciting” and “progressive.”  Then check out an article about the Reform or Conservative Movements, or about Federations and you’ll get quotes about how these institutions have outlived their welcome and the operative words will be things like “shrinking” and “aging” and “slowly dying like a huge, old elephant that tripped over itself and is unable to rise.”  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.

Given that basic framework, I have always found it interesting that Chabad—and Chabad-type movements—manage to fall on the Limmud, Independent Minyan side of this divide and not on the old-stodgy-dying side.  Two recent articles caught my eye in this regard.

The first is from the The New York Times and tells the unbelievably amazing story of a rabbi and his wife who have attracted young people to their home by having fancy food and plenty of alcohol.  It is remarkable that if you give people good food, drinks and basically ask nothing of them, they will come.  The article tries to claim that this sort of outreach is new:

When the Soho Synagogue started in 2005, with its loft parties and signature cocktails, there was little else like it.

But of course, anyone who has been on a college campus in the last two decades or so can tell you that this strategy is just the basic Chabad campus strategy taken to the streets of New York (and now L.A. and other cities.)  “Suprisingly” hip rabbi, welcoming wife, food and alcohol: that’s basically the formula.  Sometimes is works better, sometimes worse, but it doesn’t really vary that much.  And of course, in article like this you can’t not have the obligatory dig at other expressions of Judaism:

They started small, with Mrs. Scheiner baking challah and offering it to people in their building on Chambers Street. Within a few months, they had their first guest for Shabbat dinner. They listened as nonreligious Jews told stories about stifling Hebrew schools and uninspiring worship services that led to their alienation from the faith. The couple asked them how they could create something appealing and different.

Man, if only ANYONE else in the Jewish world had though to try to be welcoming and hip and interesting instead of exclusive and stodgy and boring!  I know that in my synagogue, we do our best to alienate as many people as possible, because it’s really, really hard to come up with other ideas.  And then there’s this:

But so far, Rabbi Scheiner said, the secular Jews they appeal to seem to be accepting their mix of traditional and modern. “We are not saying, why do you have a phone in your pocket, why after services are you going to Balthazar or why are you dating a non-Jewish person?” he said. “It’s not my place. We are here to inspire them and open up their eyes and enable them to reconnect and to grow.”

This makes me crazy on so many levels.  First: the article does not even begin to interrogate the implicit claim here that these young people have felt “judged” in all the other Jewish settings they have been in.  I would suspect that have not.  I would suspect that they are secular not because someone yelled at them once for having a cell phone or for “going to Balthazar” but for a hundred other reasons having nothing to with people calling them out for dating non-Jews.  Second, this “outreach” as the article obliquely acknowledges, has a bare minimum of Jewish content.  It’s attractive BECAUSE there’s very little religious about it at all.  Which is totally fine, by the way.  But until you show me that these sorts of get-togethers actually move people towards a more connected Jewish life, let’s not compare apples and oranges.  I’d wager that any Jewish institution in the country could rent some high profile spaces, give out free food and drinks and pack a room full of young Jews.  (This just happened here in New Orleans, in fact.)  But so what?  What’s the next step?  And the next?  Is the goal to a fill a room?  Is the goal to get press as a destination for lots of young, disaffected Jews?  If that is the goal, then I dare say we are setting the bar a weensy bit too low.  Getting people in the room is one thing; taking them somewhere serious and life-affecting once they get there is something else.  But the press loves a room full of swanky young Jews, especially if the cast of characters includes, “an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, dressed unexpectedly in a tight black shirt and ripped jeans.”  Please.

The second article comes from the The Jewish Daily Forward.  It follows the classic everything-Chabad-does-is-freer-and-more-loving model.  It’s about Chabad run preschools, and it makes great hay out of the fact these schools are so welcoming and (relatively) inexpensive.  Again, however, there is no thought give to why these schools can afford to run at such a lower cost: they employ young women who view it as part of their religious mission to serve as teachers in these schools.  (I am not denigrating that sense of mission, it is beautiful, but surely that should be part of this story?)  The article does note that many faith-based schools do not need to be licensed, which is surely part of the equation, but low-cost labor is another element allowing for lower fees.  But I guess I could get over that oversight, if the article’s author had not felt the need to include the (seemingly required) dig at everyone else:

The struggling Reform and Conservative movements might take a lesson from Chabad. If they want to reach parents like my friends and me, for whom Jewish preschool could lead to more involvement and a greater connection to the Jewish community, they should offer more Jewish child care and preschool programs. It’s not rocket science.

You’re right, it’s not rocket science, it’s economics.  And “struggling” Reform and Conservative synagogues do not have access to the supply of low-wage labor that Chabad-run schools can tap into.  My goodness, does writing about Chabad success require the author to be condescending to everyone else?  The author may be surprised to learn that there are many Conservative and Reform synagogues that have very well-attended preschools, but that most of them, as is ethical and appropriate, pay their child care workers at the going market rate for their area.  So yes, they will tend to be more expensive.  It’s not rocket science.  If you are going to call out the Movements for not having enough preschool education, maybe giving some, you know, facts and figures would help.

Finally, I love the completely-undefended assumption that the Conservative and Reform Movements are “struggling”.  Maybe they are, and maybe not, but surely that sort of thing needs to be argued, rather than assumed.  The line is completely out of place in the article, except that—given the chance—why not take a shot at those old, stodgy, dying elephants?  Everyone else seems to be.

Posted in Conservative Judaism, Jewish world, Rabbi Thoughts | 15 Comments

Ira Glass Explains How to Get Good at Sermonizing

Not really, but I think this video does speak to something I have been thinking about regarding the practice of speaking in front of group regularly on the topic of Torah.

I often get asked about giving divrei Torah (sermons), and though there are several formulations, the basic question is this: how does one get good at giving sermons?  And my answer is simple: spend some summers at Camp Ramah.  Of course, that’s not the real answer.  The real answer is: volume. When you spend time at Camp Ramah in a senior-type educator position, you have the opportunity to give a lot of divrei Torah.  And when you are speaking to kids who are looking out a lake behind you as you talk, you learn how to be interesting, to-the-point, and rapid.  Or you don’t, and they don’t ask you back.  So in my summers at Camp Ramah in New England, I gave many, many sermons.

I think of that because Ira Glass basically says the same thing in this video: it takes taste plus volume to do good creative work.  That is, if one has a sense of what a good dvar Torah should be, that’s fine, but actually translating that sense into a speech one gives is something else.  And when I started, I was bad at it.  I knew what I wanted to say, I knew how I wanted to say it, I knew I had to keep interest and be clear.  I just did not know how exactly to do those things all at once.  So I would give a dvar Torah that was interesting but totally uninformed.  Or one that was learned but boring.  Or one that went on too long, or ended too soon (okay, that was more rare) or that lost the audience because I forgot that I knew where I was headed but they did not.  But I gave so many divrei Torah over my years at camp that I got better. And since becoming a pulpit rabbi three and a half years ago I have found the discipline of weekly divrei Torah to be both difficult and immensely gratifying.  I feel that I am getting better.  And I am getting better, I suspect, because I give something like 40 to 50 divrei Torah a year.

Taste plus volume.  It’s not rocket science, but it sure ain’t easy.

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Django Unchained, The Untouchables, Zero Dark Thirty and Some Thoughts about Violence

I know I haven’t blogged in a (long) while, but I figured instead of coming up with a whole bunch of totally false excuses, I would just jump back in with a post so long that people will forget I have been away.  Or maybe wish I would have stayed away.  This post has some movie references, and contains spoilers for Django Unchained, The Untouchables, and Zero Dark Thirty.


I thought a lot about whether or not I wanted to go see Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.  I have seen everything he’s done, but the truth is I haven’t really liked any of his movies since Jackie Brown.  More important (for this decision) was the fact that I really did not like Inglorious Basterds, which seemed to be the closest analogue to Django, a revenge fantasy set in the antebellum South. The violence in Basterds was somewhat off-putting, but the gleeful nature of the vengeance wrought by the Jewish characters on the Nazis was more off-putting still. I guess in the end I prefer my Holocaust stories a bit more straight.

But in the end, I went to see Django.  And it is violent.  And it is over-the-top is about ten different ways. I am not interested in giving a review of the movie in this space.  What was interesting to me was the argument that Tarantino seemed to be making in the course of the movie: some violence needs to be met with more (and overwhelming violence.)  In the long and tense dinner scene towards the end of the film, the villainous slave owner (zestfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) asks, referring to the slaves of plantation who easily outnumber the overseers, “Why don’t they kill us?”  His answer is notable for its racist phrenology, but of the course the real answer is: they will.  He is shot dead soon after, and so is just about everyone else.  Django ends with not one but two bloody shootouts in the front hall of the ‘Big House’ of the plantation, and by the end, everyone associated with slavery has been dispatched and the house itself blown to smithereens.  In this, Tarantino is making what seems to me an accurate historical point: slavery in the United States could not be ended by any other means than violence.  It took an apocalyptic war and total destructions of many southern cities and towns to end the ‘peculiar institution.’  Lincoln was right: the house divided could not stand; it needed to be blown apart.  The movie begins by telling us that the action takes place “two years before the Civil War” and the timing is not accidental. The evocation of the great conflagration that would finally and irrevocably destroy American slavery is the background of the bloody violence that animates Django Unchained.  The evil plantation overlord is wrong: there will be much killing, most of it by the freed slave Django.  And he is wrong is the larger sense as well: hundreds of thousands of African Americans, many of them former slaves, would join the Union army and kill for the cause of freedom.  Violence, even extraordinary violence, is sometimes a means that fits the end.

By coincidence, as I was deciding whether to go see Django, I rewatched Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, a movie I remember liking a lot as a kid.  The Untouchables tells the story of Elliot Ness, the Treasury agent who pursued Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago.  The movie is vintage De Palma: operatic, violent, and deeply unsubtle.  De Palma’s violence is at least as gruesome as Tarantino’s—Al Capone and a baseball bat anyone?—and he seems to be making a similar case: sometimes violence is necessary in the eradication of evil.  But what’s fascinating is, whether De Palma knows it or not, he undercuts his message in an early section of the film.  Kevin Costner, playing Ness, enters his office to find that he has been sent backup from Washington; he is excited until he realizes that the new agent is an accountant, not a gunslinger.  The agent tries to interest Ness in the fact that Capone has failed to pay income taxes, but Ness, uninterested, wanders out of the office.  He encounters Jim Malone, the tough old Irish beat cop played by Sean Connery.  Malone agrees to join the squad chasing Capone but only if Ness agrees to abide by Chicago rules: he pulls a gun, you pull a knife, he puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.  It’s not police work, Malone tells Ness, it’s a war.  Ness agrees, and most of the rest of the movie is Ness and company shooting it out, Chicago style, with Capone and his gang.  Except for one thing.  The nerdy accountant was right.  Capone ends up going to jail for precisely the crime the non-gun-toting agent was trying to explain to a totally uninterested Ness.  It turns out that getting Capone was police work after all, not warfare.  (I do not know if this juxtaposition of the accountant and Malone, representing two paths to attack Capone, was entirely intended by De Palma.)  In the end, the accountant is killed, as it Malone.  But Malone’s death scene is interesting in this regard as well: he pulls a gun on a guy who has a knife—he brought a knife to a gun fight!—and then is himself killed when another baddie pulls an even bigger gun.  Is De Palma saying that the Chicago Way cannot triumph in the end, since someone always has a bigger gun?  Probably not, since he later has Ness throw an unarmed bad guy off the roof and make a quip about it.  But still, the historical reality of movie undermines, rather than enforces, the sense that the extreme violence on the part of the authorities was necessary.  Capone was a bad guy, but after all the death and killing, one can’t help thinking that it might have been easier and less bloody if Ness had just stayed in the office to talk to the accountant instead of running into Malone and agreeing to approach the fight with Capone as a war.  Putting one of his in the morgue sounds good, but putting Capone in jail took brains, not brawn.

All of which brings me to Zero Dark Thirty, another recent film whose violent content—specifically scenes of torture—has been hotly debated.  Zero Dark Thirty sits in the uneasy middle between Django and The Untouchables as it pertains to the use of extreme force.  That is, of course, because the subject matter sits in that uneasy middle as well.  It seems quite clear that the Civil War—with all its death and destruction—was necessary to end the practice of chattel slavery in the American south.  Whatever the founders might have thought would happen to slavery (wither away, get smaller, stay the same) is immaterial, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become quite clear that slavery in the South was only going to die a violent death.  On the other hand, the gangs of Chicago were, when all was said and done, a problem that no amount of authorized violence could solve.  Or perhaps we should say: it was generally agreed that the amount of killing that would have solved the crime problem in Chicago was entirely disproportionate to the desired result.  It was better to get Al Capone on tax evasion than to engage in all out street war in an American city.  Doing it that way meant crime was never fully solved, and it meant that Capone did not get the time in prison he may have deserved, but the accountant way was better than the Chicago way.  The problem with what we have been calling the War on Terror is that we, as a society, have not decided what level of violence we are willing to bear to win.  More, it is not even clear what winning might mean.  Zero Dark Thirty should be a triumphant movie: we get the bad guy in the end.  But director Kathryn Bigelow did not make a triumphant movie, and what we are left with at the end does not feel like victory.  After all, killing Osama Bin Laden did not end terrorism as a threat, nor did it remove from the world certain strands of radical ideologies that lead to terror.  Given that reality, Zero Dark Thirty seems to ask: were all the acts of violence and death worth it?  Django answers that question with an unambiguous yes, and the historical circumstances comply.  The Untouchables seems to think it is saying yes, but the real answer that comes from the movie—and from the history–is no.  But Zero Dark Thirty is tougher: it’s hard to judge the violence America meted out because we don’t really know the end.  The movie begins with real and horrifying 911 calls on September 11th, 2001, thus establishing a framework of righteous violence and justified killing for the film to come. But if this is so, then why, at the end of all that violence and killing, does the final shot of movie show us the main character, a woman who has spent every moment of her life for a decade chasing Osama Bin Laden, crying?  Why does her decidedly non-triumphant face fill the screen, and invite us to feel not joy, not vindication, but something more akin to uncertainty?  Have we done right?  Alas, we do not know.



Posted in Current Events, Movie Reviews, Popular Culture | 5 Comments

5 Election Watching Rules I Live By

The 2012 Presidential Election is upon us (and in some ways has been since November of 2010 or even since November of 2008).  I am a rather voracious news consumer, but I am—when it comes to politics—decidedly an amateur.  That is, I have never worked in politics in any capacity, and my knowledge of the subject comes entirely from things I have read, rather than from things I have done.  I vote, but beyond that I do not participate in political activities or campaigns.

With that caveat, I would like to offer my personal rules for consuming the news of the 2012 election.  Other news amateurs may find some of these useful:

1) I am not interested in gaffes.  “Doing fine” and “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” makes for good short term news, I suppose, and they certainly make for fun attack ads, but these sorts of things are totally useless in deciding which candidate will do a good job as President of the United States.  Candidates say thousands and thousands of words in public every day.  They are going to make mistakes and say what they don’t always mean.  I don’t care.  And I’m not interested in trying to figure out which gaffes and simple misstatements or mistakes and which are so-called Kinsley Gaffe, which ostensibly tell us some truth about the candidate’s core beliefs.  I am not able to make those sorts of distinctions, so I will ignore gaffes.  But there must be some way to know what the candidate thinks about this or that policy without having to overanalyze a few words spoken in haste or out of sheer exhaustion.  Wait!  I think there is, which takes me to rule number two…

2) I am interested in prepared statements, policy papers and vetted plans.  I am interested in these things precisely because they are thought out in advance, which means they reflect the considered thinking of the candidate and his advisors in the particular area they address.  This is important because this is the sort of thinking that will drive decision making when the candidate is elected.  These sorts of statements are also important because good political science tells us that candidates, after they are elected (and contrary to popular belief) really do try to enact the sorts of things they claimed to want to enact while they were candidates.  That is, the much maligned “campaign promises” are actually worth paying attention to, because they give a fairly good indication of what the candidate will TRY to do if they are elected.  The trying matters, but there is something else worth remembering, which leads me to my third rule…

3) I will remember that we are electing a President, not a Prime Minister and not a King.  I often feel as though Presidential elections are conducted (and covered by the press) as though we do not have an existing political system into which the elected President will be inserted.  Candidates talk about all the policies and plans they will enact “on day one” and so forth, but the truth is, when it comes to domestic policy, the President of the United States is severely constrained by Congress and by the Supreme Court.  Oh sure, you hear a lot about Executive Orders (especially from the ‘out’ party) but any major domestic policy shift that will survive more than one presidency needs to have approval from both of the other branches of government.  For example, President Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison complex, and indeed tried to do so, but was blocked by Congress.  President Bush promised to privatize social security, and indeed tried to do so, but was blocked by Congress.  A quick perusal of the United States Constitution will remind us of the various branches of a government (though the Constitution is surprisingly unhelpful on the subject of the Supreme Court) and a cursory look at domestic policy making the U.S. since FDR will further drive the important point home: the President cannot simply do what he (and maybe someday she) wants to do.  Our system does not work that way…except in one area, which leads me to rule number 4.

4) Despite various Congressional efforts to the contrary (like the post-Watergate War Powers Act) the President basically does do what he (and maybe someday she) wants when it comes to foreign policy.  It is true that Congress has the right the declare war, but if there is anything we have learned from the “police action” in Korea to the “support function” in Libya, it’s that Presidents can find any number of ways to commit American blood and treasure to a fight without involving Congress in that pesky voting for war thing.  In areas of national security, the American Presidency has evolved into an almost king-like role.  People can be killed by drones or Special Forces on the President’s say-so, and American troops can be deployed anywhere in the world with a go order from the President alone.  This is, without a doubt, the area in which who sits in the Oval Office matters the very most.  It is also the area which, in most national elections, receives the very least attention.  But how a candidate speaks about the U.S. posture towards the world, about national security decision-making, and about how the use of deadly force will be applied in foreign engagements is vitally important, because in those areas what the President says often goes.  When people, lots of people, can die on the word of one person, we need to be awful choosy about who that person is, which leads me to rule number five…

5) This matters.  People will live and die on the basis of our decisions in the fall, and for that reason alone, it matters who wins.  But it’s not just life and death (though that would be enough): it’s also crime and poverty, environment and energy, religion and education.  It’s a hundred little things, and a dozen or so really big things, and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.  I like a good joke as much as the next person, and I love to be entertained, but I am feeling distinctly humorless about this election, and the candidates do not exist for my amusement.  Neil Postman once wrote what seemed to be a rather cantankerous book called Amusing Ourselves to Death.  He worried, way back in 1985, about the prospect of everything becoming the subject of entertainment.  He was right to worry.  Here we are.  But we have to do better, because it really does matter.  That’s my final rule, and that’s the one I’m sticking to, no matter what.

Posted in Current Events | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter 7

Sometimes, reading The Crisis of Zionism, it hard to tell with whom Peter Beinart is more disappointed: Israel, American Jewish institutions, or Barak Obama.  This chapter begins and ends with Barak Obama backing down in the face of determined Israeli opposition to his policies, and the through-line of the chapter is the story of the Obama administrations’ inability to get a real settlement freeze from Israel and then effectively ending the pursuit.  Beinart seems very disappointed with the Obama administration, and his heroes in this chapter, George Mitchell, Dan Kurtzer, are people who wanted Obama to take a tougher line on Israel.  His villains, Dennis Ross, the American Jewish establishment, Netanyahu, are opposed to any serious pressure being brought to bear on Israel, specifically on the issue of settlements.

It is not a particularly strong chapter (and, I am inclined to say at this point, this is not a particularly strong book) and I can see—once again—how Beinart opens himself up to the charge of being painfully one-sided in his account of the conflict.  He consistently reads deeply into Netanyahu’s words, explaining why, for example, the PM’s endorsement of a Palestinian state in a speech at Bar Ilan was essentially meaningless, while at the same time taking at face value statements from Palestinian leaders.  (And his list of things Arab states were willing to do if Israel would only freeze settlement construction is hilarious, though Beinart seems impressed by it: cell phone links! Trade offices! Overflight rights!)  Just to be clear: Beinart may be absolutely correct in his reading of Netanyahu’s true feelings on a Palestinian state (and I suspect he is right) but the way he puts the chapter together leaves him open to the charge of being unfairly skeptical of Israeli statements while overly credulous of Palestinian ones.  (This is, in fact, precisely the charge some of Beinart’s critics have made.  I think it is a fair critique.)

But again, buried under the story of a liberal who voted for Obama and is disappointed in his Israel policies, is an important point: the Israeli attachment—addiction perhaps— to the settlements of the West Bank is a problem.  Now, whether it is the problem is an open question.  Beinart certainly seems to think so.  He views the Israeli settlement project as the major reason for the lack of progress towards peace.  Many disagree, but I think Beinart’s core point is probably correct: that without significant movement on the settlement issue there will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians (and the larger Arab world). That is not to say that settlements are the only obstacle to peace—I think they are not—but they certainly are an obstacle, and the one that the Israelis can most immediately and directly affect unilaterally.  This, I think, is Beinart strongest point, but he keeps forgetting to make it, or otherwise burying in a blizzard of disappointment with various people and institutions for whom who had such high hopes.

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Totally Unsurpising News of the Day…

It seems Haredi Knesset members aren’t that thrilled about the State’s decision (as ordered by the Supreme Court) to begin funding non-Orthodox rabbis, just as the State as been funding Orthodox rabbis and institutions for over sixty years.

The head of Israel’s Reform Judaism movement was thrown out of a Knesset panel session discussing state funding of Reform and Conservative rabbis on Tuesday, with the committee’s Haredi chairman saying such rabbis “didn’t exist” and calling them “clowns.”

I can see the clown thing, but its hard to argue that someone doesn’t exist, especially if you throw that same person out.  It’s actually sort of an interesting philosophical question: can you throw someone out of your Knesset committee who, nonetheless, does not exist?

In any case, the non-Orthodox representatives had a nice come back:

“Minister Margi and MK Gafni, who have for years been in charges of allocating thousands of jobs for ultra-Orthodox rabbis, have been conducting themselves like a wronged Cossack and usually undeterred from injuring the courts,” Hess said, adding that it their behavior was “the height of audacity.”

“Wronged Cossack?”  That is not bad at all, especially coming from someone who doesn’t exist.

Posted in Conservative Judaism, Israel | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

I Was Right About Koach Threat

A few days ago, responding to a “leaked” report that Koach was going to be zeroed out in the USCJ budget, I wrote the following:

One more observation:  it’s possible that this whole “leak” is a way to raise some additional funds for the Koach program.  Note how Rabbi Wernick answers the media interest in Koach’s “hiatus”:

“Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week on Thursday that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country.”

We don’t want to kill Koach, but we will unless someone saves it.  They think they need an angel.  But I think they need more than that.  To make college outreach really work for the Conservative Movement, they might need a miracle.

Well, it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get things right.  Here’s the report today, from the JTA:

The Conservative movement has reduced funding for its college campus organization, and expects Koach supporters to come up with the remaining requested money, according to United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s executive vice president.

In its board meeting in Detroit on Sunday, USCJ voted to provide Koach with $100,000 for fiscal year 2013, beginning July 1, provided that the campus group’s supporters come up with an additional $130,000 by the end of December, Rabbi Steven Wernick told JTA.

The board also will work to develop a three- to five-year business plan for the organization, Wernick said. He called the program, which serves some 25 campuses and 3,000 students, a “high-impact program with minimal participation.”

The United Synagogue outlay is enough to fund the campus group until the end of December, he said.

“If they don’t raise the funds by then, they don’t have the resources to be able to continue it,” Wernick said.

We scared you by letting you know we were willing to off Koach, and now we’re letting you know that we’re…willing to off Koach. But we won’t, if you pay.

By the way: couldn’t “high impact program with minimal participation” basically be the motto of the Conservative Movement.  It’s not pithy, but it sorta works.

Anyway Koach fans, the message is clear: pay up!

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Virtual Book Club Crisis of Zionism Chapter Six

I’m starting to suspect that Peter Beinart doesn’t really feel that fondly about Prime Minister Benjamin Neanyahu.  Maybe that feeling has something to do with the fairly provocative first sentences of this chapter:

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t trust Barak Obama, and probably never will.  The reason is simple: Obama reminds Netanyahu of what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews.

Ouch.  I have not loved this book (as a perusal of my other reflections will show) but you gotta hand it to Beinart: the man can write a lead.  The question is: can he back it up?

Following the structure he used in the previous chapter, Beinart analyzes Netanyahu by looking carefully at his intellectual (and actual) ancestors: Vladimir Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu, Benjamin’s father.  Beinart wants to argue that the monist/revisionist position of Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu were formative for the Primse Minister, and continue as his lodestar in assessing the situation facing Israel with respect to the question of the Palestinians.  He certainly has good material here, and I think he has a strong case to make that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been less than excited about reaching a final, negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.  Certainly during Oslo he was a constant voice of critique and he ran (and won) in 1996 as a severe critic of the Oslo process. (He was elected, we should remember, in the wake of some terrible bombings inside Israel.)  Indeed, making the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not a humongous peacknik is fairly simple, and Beinart easily clears that threshold.

But Beinart wants to say more: he wants to say that PM Netanyahu will never reconcile to a Palestinian state, and thus his leadership in Israel (and the embrace of that leadership by the established Jewish community) moves Israel further away from peace.  Indeed, even more: Beinart seems to want to argue that a coalition of American conservatives and right wing Israelis has been responsible, partly, for holing up the peace process.  This is a provocative case, and, as in other chapters, Beinart comes tantalizingly close to really spelling it out and trying to show it to be true.  He has some interesting anecdotes about the close connections between Likud and the American right (both Jewish and not) and he makes some important points about the ways in which groups like AIPAC and the President’s Conference claim to support Israeli governments but really come down on a more hawkish side when Left wing governments turn towards peace negotiations.  But, unfortunately, all he has our anecdotes, and again, this section needed to be stronger, more carefully researched, more tightly tied together.  I think there are important points to be made about the connections between the American and Israeli right, the way they interact, the way they help each other, and the way that aid and assistance plays out in the domestic spheres in both countries.  This is important,  and a perfectly legitimate topic of discussion, but Beinart is too interested in talking about an interview Benzion Netanyahu gave when he was ninety-nine to really give the issue its due.

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This is Me, Not Getting Excited About the Pirates

At the beginning of the last baseball season, I wrote a little primer on what it means to be a Pirates fan.  Briefly, the process looks like this: hope in the preseason, excitement at the early going, joy as the team seems better than expected, then crushing despair as the true awfulness of the franchise reveals itself yet again.  In the event, last year’s process was about what I had predicted, though with perhaps a little more excitement than usual since the Pirates came out of the All Star Break doing fairly well and challenging for first place in their division.  The magic was broken however—partly by a terrible call—and the Pirates proceeded to regress to the mean, which in their case meant losing something like three hundred games in the second half of the season.

All of which is to say that I am not getting excited about this year’s flirtation with respectability and competitiveness.  I am not getting excited about the excellent pitching they’ve received from their starters, or the terrific work of their bullpen.  I am certainly not getting excited about the emergence of Andrew McCutchen as a true star this season, or about the fact that the Pirates have won eight of their last ten games.  These things are not interesting to me, and I will not be excited about the fact that the Pirates are playing in a relatively weak division and if they could just get a little more offense (like they did last night!) and keep the pitching going they would have a chance to really make a run for the division title and once you’re in the playoffs it’s all about pitching and the Pirates pitching has been excellent and there’s no reason it couldn’t be excellent in the post-season and I could see them stealing a series or two with the starting pitching leading the way and then all of a sudden you find yourself in the World Series and then who knows what could happen it could be amazing.

But I’m not getting excited about all that.  It’s the Pirates after all, and, as a Jew, I believe strongly in tradition. And no one has a stronger losing tradition than the Pirates.

So I am not excited.  In fact, I’m hardly even thinking about the Pirates at all.

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Koach on the Chopping Block

More than a year ago, the United Synagogue’s draft strategic plan became public.  As I noted at the time, the document was admirable in its honest assessment of the challenges facing the institution.  One of the programs which came in for the toughest criticism was Koach, the college arm of the USCJ.  The Draft Strategic Plan from last year had this to say about Koach:

The current campus environment is heavily serviced by Hillel and numerous other well-funded and professionally staffed efforts. The only way a relatively modest expenditure by USCJ can make a significant impact on campus is by highly focused interventions. While the USCJ cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.

As I wrote at the time, I tend to think this is accurate.  I guess from that moment on, the writing was on the wall, and just this past week (to mix a metaphor) the second shoe dropped:

The budget committee of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism will recommend that funding be halted for Koach, the movement’s national college outreach program, when the governing board meets June 10, as part of an effort to reduce the organization’s deficit.

Since this news broke (according to a USCJ letter it was “leaked”) there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth (although not as much as one might think, which might be part of the point) but what’s really interesting, at least according to the published news reports is how little money is involved here:

He [Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO for United Synagogue-EL] said painful decisions were necessary in seeking to balance the United Synagogue budget, and that while “the impact [of Koach] on those we reached was quite high, we had to look at the return on our investment,” suggesting that the $225,000 program was seen as too costly in terms of the number of students who participated on 25 campuses.

I have no idea what the USCJ annual budget looks like, but it seems to me $225,000 is a pittance.  Certainly it is an absurd amount of money to spend on college outreach.  I think if USCJ values Koach and its mission at only at $225,000, it’s probably better not to spend the money.  You can’t do much (nationally!) for $225,000.

Now, the question of whether the college outreach of the movement should be worth more than the table scraps it has been getting is another matter.  It could be that USCJ was never the right place for the college outreach program to have a home, but, as usual with the Conservative Movement, there is not nearly enough coordination among the different arms.  Why, for example, isn’t Ramah tasked with college outreach: they already have the database.  There are hundreds of Ramah alumni and current staff members on college campuses, and they form a natural nucleus of interest in the sorts of thing Koach could be doing.  But because the Movement has USCJ and it has Ramah and it has JTS and it has the RA and it has…well, you get the idea.  It’s not that there are too many cooks in the kitchen: there are too many kitchens.  In this sort of environment, I can certainly see how USCJ would feel as though spending an absurdly low amount of money on a program that falls outside their core function simply does not make sense.  (An argument that college outreach is certainly within the core function of the arm of the movement tasked with helping synagogues [who will be the next generation members of those synagogue after all?] is valid, but it is beside the point.  Koach has not been working, and USCJ is probably correct to argue that they are not able to run it effectively.)  What Koach needs is an infusion of (real) money and a new organizational home.  I nominate Ramah.

One more observation:  it’s possible that this whole “leak” is a way to raise some additional funds for the Koach program.  Note how Rabbi Wernick answers the media interest in Koach’s “hiatus”:

Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer for the United Synagogue, told The Jewish Week on Thursday that while Koach remains “a valued program,” it would be “on hiatus” unless and until philanthropic funds can be secured to continue its work at colleges around the country.

We don’t want to kill Koach, but we will unless someone saves it.  They think they need an angel.  But I think they need more than that.  To make college outreach really work for the Conservative Movement, they might need a miracle.

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Virtual Book Club: Crisis of Zionism Chapter Five

I am not sure why this chapter is in the book.  Actually, I am starting to have a sense that I do not actually know what this book is about.  Which is not to say that I didn’t find this chapter interesting—I did—but the larger argument (if there is one) has been lost, I think.  I ask again: what is this book about?  Is this book about American Jews and Zionism?  If so, the evolution of President Barak Obama (who is, as Adam Sandler might say, and contra the title of the chapter, not a Jew) and his views on Israel is interesting, but seems more about the pressure the establishment Jewish community can put on politicians than it is about American Jews and their relationship to Zionism.

In some ways, the far more interesting part of the chapter for me was the way prominent Jews are treated (if Beinart is correct) when they violate the basic consensus on Israel.  This is a strong indictment of the way American Jews talk about Israel, and I think this is Beinart’s best section of the chapter.  The story of Rabbi Wolf is fascinating and important, and it seems me using him as a case study might have made for a more interesting and relevant chapter than charting the course of President Obama’s position on Israel.  The fact that Beinart did not, in fact, write that chapter points again to what I take to be central weakness of the book: Beinart cannot seem to decide whether he is writing politics or sociology.  Does he care about how the American political system deals with Israel, and the way Jews (some Jews) influence that system, in the manner of a book like The Israel Lobby?  Or is he more interested in the alienation many (most/few/lots of?) Jews increasingly feel towards Israel?  Beinart seems to want to write both books, and they uneasily exist in this one book side-by-side.  You see it clearly in this chapter: is this chapter about Rabbi Wolff or about President Obama?  I know he tries to connect the stories, but the truth is the narrative of an American President’s evolution on Israel and a Zionist rabbi who is nonetheless seen as persona non grata in the establishment Jewish community are different stories, and they point towards different concerns and conclusions.  It’s almost as if Beinart could not decide which issue concerned him the most: what he sees as a pernicious influence on the American political debate by the core establishment Jewish groups, or what he sees as the closed and forbidding intra-Jewish conversation about Israel.

I wish he would decide.

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Don’t Let The Door Hit You on the Way Out

Not everyone in Israel was thrilled about the great news yesterday.

Minister of Religious Services Ya’akov Margi (Shas) blamed Reform Judaism for “centuries of assimilation,” in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday morning. He added that the Reform movement “thinks it is bringing a new spirit to Judaism, but in practice it is an evil spirit.”

His remarks come the day after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein adopted a recommendation that would for the first time allow non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state funding.

On Tuesday Margi said that if the High Court of Justice decided to recognize Reform or Conservative clergy as community rabbis, he would ask permission from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to resign from the government.

I certainly hope Rabbi Yosef will give Minister Margi leave the resign from the government.  In fact, why doesn’t he just leave now, and save us all the trouble?

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I opened my Times-Picayune today to two stories, both of them tragic and tragically common.  But appearing in the very same newspaper brought the point home:

A 5-year-old girl and a 33-year-old woman died from gunshot wounds Tuesday afternoon in a fusillade in Central City, New Orleans police said. A 10-year-old boy had graze wounds to the face and leg, a 20-year-old man was wounded in the wrist and a 24-year-old man was shot in the face, police said.

“It was my grandson’s birthday party,” said a woman, referring to the 10-year-old boy.

It wasn’t the only fatal shooting in New Orleans yesterday, as the end of the article points out:

The shooting followed a series of three shootings across the city, one of them fatal.

A male was fatally shot in the head outside a body shop near the corner of Toulouse and Gayoso Streets about 3:30 p.m. He was transported to a hospital and died shortly afterward.

About 40 minutes earlier,  in the 7100 block of Deanne Street in eastern New Orleans, a 19-year-old man was shot in the neck, according to New Orleans police spokeswoman Remi Braden.

Another shooting occurred a few minutes later in the 4300 block of South Carrollton Avenue, near Baudin Street. There, a male was shot in the stomach.

And then, just two pages away from this front page story of death in a hail of bullets, we get this:

Louisiana voters will decide this November whether to amend the state Constitution to limit ability of the Legislature and other arms of government to restrict the right to carry guns. The Senate gave a final 34-4 approval to language that will give Second Amendment rights the benefit of “strict scrutiny,” a term used by the U.S. Supreme Court to require that government must have a compelling interest before regulating constitutional rights and that any limits must be narrowly tailored.

With the backing of the influential National Rifle Association and Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, pushed the measure to put Louisiana law in line with recent U.S. Supreme Court cases that struck down local weapons bans. Riser said the additional state protection is needed to clarify Louisiana law and protect gun owners from the actions of future lawmakers and jurists.

The amendment requires majority approval on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Jindal released a written statement after the vote: “We are adopting the strongest, most iron-clad, constitutional protection for law-abiding gun owners. It’s our own Second Amendment, if you will, and I look forward to voting for this amendment in the fall.”

I am not sure how having more guns would have protected the five year old who died at the birthday party, or the woman who was shot in her car just driving by.  I am not sure how we live in a world where this sort of thing does not even constitute a challenge the so-called guns rights lobby.  I understand that we live in a culture of guns and rights, but this mania for fewer and fewer common sense restrictions on firearms is madness.  And just to prove my point, here is the final nail in the coffin of sanity, also from today’s paper:

Handing the gun rights lobby another victory not long after approving Riser’s constitutional amendment, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to criminalize the reckless discharge of a firearm near residences in unincorporated areas. While exempting any action intended to protect life or property, the negligent discharge bill would have made it a crime to fire a gun within 1,000 feet of a residence in an unincorporated area. The bill would have set a maximum fine of $250 for the first conviction and $500 for repeat convictions.

That’s right: we couldn’t even agree to make it a $250 fine to recklessly discharge a firearm.  To do so, I suppose, would be an infringement of our rights.  That bill lost 1-33 in the State Senate by the way.

There is only one word for this: madness.

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I Might Have Spoken Too Soon in My Last Post (Updated)

Okay, maybe it’s half a good day for religious pluralism in Israel:

Fears of a historic rift between the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox rabbis overseas have been sparked by the Chief Rabbinate’s recent decision not to recognize conversions and divorce decrees (gets) by most Orthodox rabbis abroad.

The Rabbinate confirmed that rabbinic courts in Israel have been instructed not to recognize conversions and gets authorized by overseas rabbis until those rabbis pass Rabbinate exams in Israel.

Dear Orthodox Jews in America (and everywhere else): it’s time to get together with the Liberal streams of Judaism and break the power of the rabbanut.  You can hold your nose while you work with us, we won’t mind.  Let’s just agree to tear the rabbanut down and start over.  It’s bad for everyone.


Update: This article is from 2006.  I apologize.  This happened awhile ago, and somehow it came up in my newsfeed to day.  It’s still wrong though.

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A Major Breaktrhough in Israel on Pluralism

More of this please:

In an unprecedented move, Israel has announced that it is prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries. Rabbis belonging to either stream will be classified as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” The attorney general advised the High Court that the state will begin equally financing non-Orthodox rabbis in regional councils and farming communities that are interested in doing so.

This is wonderful and amazing news.  One the major religious injustices in Israel is about money: Orthodox rabbis and institutions receive millions and millions of government dollars, while Liberal stream rabbis and institutions go begging.  (Literally, and it’s always worth giving a donation to Masorti.)  But now, things are finally changing.  Now, to be fair, it took a law suit and years of negotiations, and then there’s this:

The State held that the deal on Reform and Conservative rabbis will not be made via the religious council and will not be done via direct employment by the local authorities, rather via financial assistance. The Reform movement agreed to this. Financing will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry.

God forbid anyone should mistake these non-Orthodox rabbis for, you know, rabbis. Maybe if we pay them with the Sports Ministry’s budget we can think of them more as minor league coaches or something.

But you know what?  I’ll take it!  So will the Reform Movement in Israel, which has been working so hard on this issue:

The head of Israel’s Reform movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, said “the state’s decision to support the activities of Reform rabbis in regional councils, while clearly acknowledging their roles as rabbis, is an important breakthrough in the efforts to advance freedom of religion in Israel. This is the first, but significant, step toward comparing the status of all streams of Judaism in Israel and we hope the state will indeed ensure the court’s commitments are fully applied.”

Amen to that.  This is a good day for religious pluralism in Israel.

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