Jul 26, 2009

Aug 10th - Concert in Jerusalem!

A Night of New Jewish Music
with Rabbi Menachem Creditor
aug 10, 8-9:15pm
The USCJ Fuchsberg Center on Agron St.

Menachem Creditor of Shirav, a renowned Jewish folk music group from the States, will present a night of 'unplugged' music, blending traditional lyrics and contemporary original melodies.  All are welcome to share, and to sing!

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Jul 24, 2009

Shabbat Chazon: "Dispatch from a Normal State"

Shabbat Chazon: "Dispatch from a Normal State"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

In memory of Dr. Barbara Wachs

Sitting here in Jerusalem, just waiting for the pre-Shabbat siren, I realize something has changed.  I've been here many times, shared this holy place with my wife, my children, my parents, and now my extended family, some of whom have made Aliyah.  But something is different this time.

The combination of having become so familiar with the streets of Jerusalem and my growing Israel-based family hase transformed a tourist experience into a 'normal' one.  Whereas in the past it was the Kotel and Ben Yehudah Street that captivated me, the highlights of this trip have been playing with my children and my parents in a Jerusalem playground, noticing the diversity of other playing Jerusalemites.  Old and young, black and white, Jewish, Muslim, kippah-wearing and not.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel once quipped: "We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew."  While these aren't desires I share, they do represent something remarkable.  A world of rapid-fire Hebrew, of Jews cursing the intense traffic, of troubling Jewish politics - a living laboratory of a new Judaism, with all its accompanying problematics.  In other words, "normal."

Another Israeli David, Rabbi David Golinkin, recently presented a talk (in memory of Barbara Wachs z"l, a profound Jewish educator from the States) entitled "Will the real Jerusalem please stand up?" in which he demonstrated two visions of Jerusalem: Heavenly Jerusalem and Worldly Jerusalem.  In the talk, Golinkin suggested that the mystical
yearning for Jerusalem is a Diaspora mentality, that Heavenly Jerusalem (typified by Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Israel: An Echo of Eternity") is precisely not "worldly."  Worldly Jerusalem, Golinkin argued, is full of plumbers and supermarkets and building permits, decidedly non-mystical.

And so I went to a playground with my children in Jerusalem and saw both: the natural experience of a family in a city they visit as often as possible, and the fulfillment of a verse: "Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the squares of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age.The city squares will be filled with boys and girls playing there. (Zech. 8:4-5)"

There is something abmornal about reading meaning into every fragment of a place.  It turns the living people and the society they comprise into symbols.  They are not that
.  They aren't even the headlines screaming out from every news-source.  Those are sensational geopolitical posturings by news conglomerates.  Israelis were having coffee and going to work this morning, some getting ready for Shabbat, some not.

And yet it is a crime to not weep at all this normalcy.  We hadn't had the possibility of being normal in 2,000 years.  Yes, the reality of Israel is a tremendous challenge to Judaism - how to keep the edge of being marginal when you are suddenly a country with internal concerns.  But think about the Jewish coffee shop I've visited every morning ince arriving a week ago:  Anglos and Israelis sharing space, time, and experience - with no expectation other than life.  How magical. 

It is not dissimilar from a daily routine.  Get up, eat, have some coffee, go to work, go home, do something else, go to sleep.  But isn't it amazing that we woke up at all?  Isn't it ecstasy to connect with another person?  Heschel taught that radical amazement can be experienced through a grain of sand.  It's just sand.  It's just life.  But it's also so much more.

On the eve of Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision, which always precedes Tisha Be'av, a day of intense Jewish mourning, may we hold Heavenly Jerusalem in one hand and Worldly Jerusalem in the other.  May every crosswalk and every conversation be simply normal.  May there be many moments of awareness of the grandeur of it all.

May life in its fullest be the experience we are blessed to know here in Jerusalem.

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Jul 19, 2009

Rabbi Michael Graetz on Ynet: "Identity crisis in Israel"

Rabbi Michael Graetz on Ynet: "Identity crisis in Israel"

We have to return the positive pride in being Jewish to Jewish Israelis, and the positive pride of being Israeli to Israeli Jews

Rabbi Michael Graetz
http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3748487,00.html

Many Israelis are born Jews, but as they grow up and witness people identified as Jews doing things that offend their own sense of morality, things that offend their own sense of justice, they have an identity crisis with their being called "Jew". So, for a long while, many people took refuge by saying: "well, I am an Israeli, and not a Jew." What they meant was that "I", my own identity, can't really cope with my identifying myself as a "Jew", but, I can easily and proudly identify myself as an "Israeli".

 

Israel then was glitzy, proud, victorious, a miracle. Good materiel for self identity. But, today, even the Israeli part is having a rough time in our own eyes. So, if we have trouble with "Israeli", what happens next?

 

How does one address this problem? It seems obvious that what is needed is a way for a Jewish person to develop a positive nurturing sense of themselves as a proud Jew and as a proud Israeli. I cannot think of separating the two. We have to return the positive pride in being Jewish to Jewish Israelis, and the positive pride of being Israeli to Israeli Jews.

 

We must make it possible for a Jewish Israeli citizen to feel proud of their Judaism, and to feel that their personal existence and Israeli society is ennobled by this identification. And, all of this must be done with NO degradation of pride in Israeli citizenship among those Israelis who are not Jewish.

 

Repairing the tear  

The Masorti Movement in Israel, and the world wide Conservative Movement produces just such results. We offer a living example of just such a process of positive choice of Jewish and Israeli identity, with NO belittling of other ethnic groups or religious groups. It is a Jewish approach that we believe can repair the tear in the Jewish identity of many Israelis and many Jews.

 

Our basic building block in this process is the sense of "kehillah", that is, diverse people from diverse backgrounds who come together to care for each other, and to care for society, to take responsibility. It is the sense of responsibility that is at the heart of Jewish religion, it is a prime value of Judaism.

 

It is the pride in community, respect for each other, all rooted in Jewish texts and tradition that keeps people attached to Masorti congregations, such as my own congregation Magen Avraham in Omer. It is a thirst for Judaism that brings these diverse people together!! Imagine if the way we treat each other, and our positive pride in being Jewish were the norm all over Israel!!! Our example is crucial to coping with the identity crisis which grips our society.

 

Judaism inspires democracy  

While some Orthodox leaders, and the Chief Rabbinate conduct a public campaign of defamation of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism, we continue to believe in the positive approach of our movement of inclusion based on the intrinsic values of Judaism about the ultimate worth of every human being.

 


There is no need to debate the ability of Judaism to be a source of strength and inspiration for a democratic state. Concentrated and serious study of Jewish texts will reveal values that serve that purpose. Even as we study and encounter other values within our tradition which seem antithetical to a Jewish democracy, we become profoundly aware of the range of ideas and values within our tradition, and we realize that we have an obligation to choose and highlight those values which reflect our deepest beliefs.

 

This is part of the process of study in Masorti institutions around the world. It is a way of pleasantness, peace and deep spiritual enrichment.

 

Rabbi Michael Graetz, Rabbi Emeritus in the Masorti congregation 'Magen Avraham' in Omer, is one of the Founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel, its first director and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. He is past winner of the prestigious Simon Greenberg Award and past member of the Israel Law Committee.


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Jul 17, 2009

Rabbi Reuven Hammer in JPost: "Louis Jacobs' View of Divine Revelation"

JPost: "Louis Jacobs' View of Divine Revelation"

Rabbi Reuven Hammer

 

We have recently marked the third Yahrzeit of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, one of the most brilliant and controversial Jewish thinkers of the modern age. In the mid 20th century he was considered to be a rising star in British Orthodoxy. He would most certainly have become Principal of Jews College in London and probably Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain had he not published his book We Have Reason To Believe, in which he detailed his way of reconciling modern Biblical criticism- which he accepted – with traditional Jewish beliefs in divine revelation (Torah Min HaShamayim).

 

His studies had led him to accept the view of modern Biblical scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, that the Torah contains the teachings of various schools within ancient Judaism and therefore represents the work both of God and of human beings. Thus one must study it with the same openness with which one studies all documents. He accepted the view of the "Historical School" founded by Zecharia Frankel and continued by Solomon Schechter, which later became the Conservative/ Masorti Movement, that God does not convey to man "detailed propositions at all but rather that He enables men to have an encounter with Him of a specially intense form." 

At the same time the Historical School maintained that the Torah remains the authoritative basis for Jewish Law. This is the synthesis that he desired – the acceptance of the use of Biblical Critical methodology while maintaining that the Torah is holy and authoritative so that Jewish Law remains binding and unharmed.

 

Why was Rabbi Jacobs so eager to embrace this controversial theory of Biblical Criticism that was bound to arouse opposition? Could he not have kept this to himself as I am certain many others have done?

 

There were two reasons. In the first place he was convinced that it was true and his intellectual integrity would not permit him to pretend otherwise. But at least as important was the fact that this enabled him to tackle honestly various problems he saw within the text of the Torah and the entire Bible, problems that troubled him and that were often cited by Christians critical of Judaism and by questioning Jews as well.

 

As a believing Jew, an observant Jew, a Jew to whom the Torah was a precious possession, he was aware of scientific and moral challenges to the doctrine of Biblical revelation. For example, as believing as he was, he nevertheless could not find it within him to believe that such things as the account of creation in Genesis 1 could be taken literally or that verses such as that condemning a witch to be killed (Exodus 23:17) or that the Canaanites should be completely exterminated (Joshua 9:10-15) represented the will of God.

 

Nor was he satisfied with the usual polemics offered on these issues such as that of Chief Rabbi Hertz that "the population of nearly every European country today had conquered its present home-land and largely exterminated the original inhabitants." Jacobs asks, "Why does this kind of apologetic leave us dissatisfied?" Because we expect perfection from the Bible. However if we accept the new view of divine inspiration that he has expounded, i.e. that "in the Bible we have the divine message conveyed to us through the activities and thoughts of human beings," then the problem is no longer a problem. We can admit that the Bible contains "higher and lower stages of spiritual development." 

 

Jacobs then went on to say that it is not all that difficult to tell the one from the other, to "distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral," and that Jewish tradition, the way in which the Oral Law interpreted and enforced or modified the various laws of the Torah, helps us do that by not enforcing certain laws and interpreting others out of existence. This also enables Jacobs to contend that this new view is therefore "not, if rightly understood, a radical departure from Jewish tradition."

 

In candor and honesty, then, Jacobs had forged for himself an understanding of the meaning of Torah Min HaShamayim, divine revelation, which was based on new, critical, study of the Bible, making use of the tools of philology, comparative religion and archeology, in which the Bible was no longer viewed as the direct dictation of God but, in Jacobs' own phrase, as "the record of a people's tremendous attempt…to meet God….the disclosure of God Himself."  The Torah is the book in which the word of God may be found. Thus he was able to solve the difficulties posed by modern scientific beliefs that contradict a fundamentalist view of the Torah and meet the moral challenges posed by various difficult Biblical passages and laws.

By adopting the view of the Historical School he also was also able to continue to assert that Jewish Law was nevertheless binding.

 

This was the synthesis that he desired. In this he succeeded. Where he failed was in persuading official Orthodoxy that these views could be accepted within those circles and were not a radical departure from traditional Jewish teaching. His view enabled him to cling to the Torah without denying the truth as he saw it, but, unfortunately for Rabbi Jacobs, it was not a view that enabled him to be accepted by the British Orthodox establishment. But in all honesty it was not Jacobs that suffered most because of that but the establishment – banishing from its ranks the most brilliant Jewish mind not only of the century but of the 350 years of British Jewry.


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Marketing, Content, and Seeking in the Conservative Movement.

Shalom Chevreh,

Just a pre-Shabbat thought [based on a conversation taking place on ShefaNetwork] about marketing, content, self-definition and seeking in the Conservative Movement.  

I believe that we, the self-select people who are paying attention to this conversation, are seekers.  We aren't the same, we don't all wish for one thing - but we have a significant amount in common - much more than a successful marketing approach would demonstrate. 

Conservative Judaism is not an institution - it's an approach to life.  It isn't the only magnificent approach to life, but it is a magnificent one.  It isn't the only authentic Jewish path, but it is a Jewish path to God and to a better world.  

What makes us unique, I believe, is our "nostalgic" connection to Halacha and our commitment to being open to change.  As opposed to the Orthodox Judaisms out there, (which roughly agree that the Torah and Tradition are clear mandates FROM God), and as opposed to Reform Judaism (which roughly believes that Judaism is readily malleable), as opposed to Renewal (which completely defies predictability), and as opposed to Reconstructionism (which is a never-ending and almost infinitely variable conversation on communal practice), Conservative Judaism offers a stable framework of "anticipatable Jewish spirituality" - we do not worship form, but we believe that without the grounding Halacha offers us, we are simply floating.  We are, I believe, determined to remain anchored as we seek the sacred.

Marketing this nuanced idea we celebrate is a task to be addressed - one that must be guided with as much passion (yes, from the 'top') as we can muster.  There isn't time for the "committeed-to-death" approach of Emet Ve-emunah - that only kept us from really having a conversation as a movement, because the wordsmithing that committee did ultimately remained an internal conversation.  One example: There are two editions of Emet Ve'Emunah (one blue, on red).  The earlier edition talked about the nightmares of "Hiroshima and Auchwitz."  Once that edition was published, there was an outcry against putting both in one sentence.  And so there was a new edition published.  

I believe a healthy marketing approach would be designed to provoke reaction in an educational framework.  Let's ask if Egalitarianism belongs at the forefront of our ideology.  Let's talk about morality in halacha.  Let's talk about God.  Tension is an authentic part of the ambiguous larger conversation - but I believe the time has passed during which it should be the final word on our self-definition.  We can hold polarities in tension better if we decide to finally state explicitly that which has been largely implicit - Conservative Judaism is an exciting, rooted way to live a Jewish life. 

We, as a Movement, can become this safe sacred space - a place that can be described as stable and dreamworthy - one we can't wait to share.

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Jul 16, 2009

The Jewish Week: "Reinvigorating Hebrew Schools: A New Approach"

The Jewish Week: "Reinvigorating Hebrew Schools: A New Approach"

by Jonathan S. Woocher
Special To The Jewish Week

http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c55_a16191/Editorial__Opinion/Opinion.html

The growing burden of day school tuitions has, as Gary Rosenblatt recently noted in these pages, ironically focused new attention on supplementary Jewish education. Families who firmly believe in the value of day school education, but are now facing virtually insurmountable challenges trying to pay for it, are wondering whether it is possible to find at least some of what they seek for their children in revamped, intensive supplementary programs.  They join many other families with children already in such programs, and others trying to decide whether to enroll their children at all, in asking whether supplementary education can provide a meaningful and satisfying Jewish educational experience.

It's an important question for these families and the future of the Jewish community as a whole. First, the good news: The last two decades have seen a growing movement across North America to improve and even transform supplementary Jewish education.  National and local initiatives have mushroomed and have become increasingly sophisticated and effective in helping synagogues — the primary providers of supplementary education — create more dynamic and engaging programs for educating children and families. A number of alternative models, quite different from the "Hebrew schools" we've come to know and often hate, have been implemented, some by synagogues, some by other types of educational entrepreneurs. The New York Jewish community has been the setting for some of the most ambitious efforts to "re-imagine" congregational education, and will be the beneficiary of even more extensive initiatives in the future.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of the efforts we have seen thus far suffer from one serious limitation: they start with the producers of supplementary education, not its consumers, as their primary focus.
Here's why this is a problem: The "market" for Jewish education today is diverse and growing more so. Research confirms that parents want to be active choosers of the type of Jewish education their children will receive. The current system provides some options, but not enough. The main choice is between full-time (day school) and part-time (supplementary) Jewish education. There are many synagogues offering supplementary programs, but they tend to cover a pretty standard curriculum (holidays, Torah study, prayer, Jewish values, some history and rudimentary Hebrew) in roughly similar ways.

For the most part, these programs occupy a relatively narrow niche — one that serves well an important segment of the overall potential market for Jewish education, but still leaves substantial populations that are either poorly served (the education doesn't really match what they seek) or unserved altogether (a significant number of children get no Jewish education at all).

Take a day school family now seeking an intensive supplementary program, perhaps one that meets eight or 10 hours per week, rather than the typical four or five, and that emphasizes serious Hebrew literacy, either for purposes of conversation or text study in the original. Or, take a very different, but not uncommon family whose Jewishness is primarily cultural, not religious, or focused on social justice and activism. Perhaps the family has a child who is passionate and gifted in the arts and wants to approach her or his Jewish learning through this lens. Perhaps the family is an interfaith one, and seeks a Jewish educational program that is uniquely sensitive to their life issues. 

With effort, some of these families might be able to find a suitable supplementary program. But wouldn't it be far better if they didn't have to work so hard? What it would take is an approach to providing supplementary education that is market-driven and community-coordinated.

Such an approach would begin by "mapping" the current landscape — what does the market look like, who is being well-served, where do gaps exist, what programs already exist, what assets are available to develop new programs. Then it would set out, working with existing providers and potential new ones, to build a "system" that would offer as many high-quality options as the market can support.

Such an approach would not in any way displace synagogues from their roles as primary providers — though it might free them to think creatively about new ways to configure their programs. For instance, several congregations could combine to operate a set of magnet schools with different curricular emphases, or meeting times could be established that would be available to all their members. Nor would this approach make less necessary or valuable the work taking place today aimed at helping providers ensure that they deliver the highest quality Jewish learning experiences. What it would do is enable us to engage more children and families in Jewish learning, with greater satisfaction, and with greater impact.

At the end of the day, that has to be our goal. At JESNA, we believe that every family that wants to send its children to a quality day school should be able to do so. And we want the same for those choosing supplementary education. It will take some creative thinking and a lot of collaboration. But it's doable, and we're working now with our partners in central agencies across North America to make that vision a reality.

Jonathan Woocher is chief ideas officer at JESNA (Jewish Educational Service of North America) and director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute.
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NYT: When is it OK for kids to run around naked?

MSN Tracking Image
  MSNBC.com

NYT: When is it OK for kids to run around naked?
By Julie Scelfo
The New York Times,updated 5:07 a.m. PT, Thurs., July 16, 2009
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31939730/ns/health-the_new_york_times/

Alex Nicola, who will be 5 in August, enjoys being naked as frequently as possible at home.

"In the morning he gets up and takes his pajamas off, and rather than get dressed right away, he walks around naked," said Dawn Nicola, Alex's mother, a stay-at-home parent in Castle Rock, Colo.

After school, he likes to take off his pants, recline on his stuffed animal chair and watch an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants while snacking on cheese-flavored crackers.

"I call him my little naked boy," Mrs. Nicola, 44, said affectionately.

Alex's desire to be unclothed is not shared by his twin brother, Andrew, or by his 6-year-old sister, Gabrielle. "It's a stage he's going through, and he'll grow out of it," said John Nicola, 39, Alex's father, a sales executive at First Data Corporation.

Usually Alex's state of undress is a non-issue. Several weeks ago, however, it caused something of a stir when a classmate of Gabrielle's and her mother came over for a play date. Alex asked his sister and her friend to paint his fingernails and then suggested a fleshier canvas.

"Apparently, he decided to take off his clothes and was like, 'Put nail polish on me! Put nail polish on my bottom!' " Mrs. Nicola said.

The girls obliged, and after creating a shapely pink masterpiece, ran down to the kitchen to confess to their mothers. Mrs. Nicola was taken aback, but after admonishing the girls and examining her son's backside, she found the situation mildly amusing.

The classmate's mother, however, was horrified. "The mom was sort of appalled that Alex got naked in front of her daughter," Mrs. Nicola said. "She expressed concern that we hadn't talked enough about private parts. She said, 'In our family, we always talk about how certain parts of the body are not for anyone else to touch.' "

For many parents, allowing a child to run around naked at home is perfectly natural, an expression of physical freedom that represents the essence of childhood, especially in the summer. But for others, unclad bodies are an affront to civility, a source of discomfort and a potentially dangerous attraction for pedophiles. These clashing sensibilities can create conflict, even when the nudity in question takes place at home.

Often, the differences in viewpoint are generational. Rachel Sarah, 36, a writer and mother in East Bay, Calif., said that until her 9-year-old daughter, Mae, turned 7, she liked to wear only a T-shirt in the summer, a preference that Ms. Sarah found healthy, but that Mae's grandparents could not accept. "My mom and stepfather were very insistent on her having clothes on for everything," Ms. Sarah said.

Although most days Mae ran half-dressed through the sprinkler or played with friends under a hose, she had to accept different rules when her grandparents were around. "Their view, I would say, is that little girls need to have their clothes on unless they're taking a bath," Ms. Sarah said.

Aly Mandel, 41, a school psychologist and mother of five in Highland Park, N.J., said she, too, felt ire from extended family members for allowing her daughter Ava, now 6, to roam naked in and around the house when she was younger.

"My mother, it used to drive her crazy how naked Ava was," Ms. Mandel said, explaining that the girl abhorred clothes. "My mother-in-law also, they both felt it crossed the line of what was appropriate. My mother-in-law would come in and automatically say, 'Ava, put on your clothes. Put on your underwear.' "

Gloria Schwartz, Ms. Mandel's mother-in-law, says she didn't have a problem with the nudity when Ava and her twin sister, Emily, were very young. But "when they got to be 3 years old, it bothered me," said Ms. Schwartz, 65, a real estate agent. "I would pull up to the house and the girls were running around naked. It felt inappropriate for them to be standing on the street in front of their house naked."

Ms. Schwartz said she has since become more comfortable with her grandchildren's nudity, something that now comes up with Ms. Mandel's youngest set of twins, who are 2.

Sometimes it's the grandparents who are more permissive. Robert Kohlbrenner thought nothing of it last summer when his grandchildren, two boys, ages 4 and 10, and a girl, 6, asked if they could skinny-dip by the dock on a very hot day at his home on Oneida Lake in upstate New York.

"I think it's fun for them," said Dr. Kohlbrenner, 58, a psychologist in private practice, who found out later that his son did not approve. "If you can't do it when you're a kid, when can you do it, you know?"

Dr. Kohlbrenner's son, Justin, 30, said he and his wife felt that their oldest son was too old to be naked. "He was getting a little too big to be doing it, you know, especially in front of his brother and sister," he said.

'Clothes can be uncomfortable'
Experts like Sharon Lamb, a professor of mental health at the graduate college of education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said it's all but inevitable that children will want to spend time wearing only their birthday suits, especially in certain situations. "Clothes can be uncomfortable," said Dr. Lamb, a co-author of the forthcoming book "Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes." "For some kids, getting dressed gets associated with something they don't want to do, like eating their veggies."

Around the age of 3 or 4, children begin to differentiate between what's private and what's public, experts say, and they usually begin to feel modesty soon after. But parents' attitudes play the largest role in determining whether children are comfortable being naked at home, said Lawrence Balter, a psychologist at New York University and the editor of "Parenthood in America," an encyclopedia.

"If someone has what appears to be an overly strong reaction to seeing young children running around naked, it tells us about their own hang-ups, their own inner conflicts," Dr. Balter said.

Cultural norms are another factor. Katarzyna Psujek, 38, an administrator at Tiffany & Company and a mother of two sons who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said her son Sebastian, who turned 3 in May, often frolics at home naked and spent nearly an entire weekend naked last September at a rented house in upstate New York where the family celebrated a friend's wedding with about 30 other overnight guests.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who were there were Polish," said Ms. Psujek, whose last name is pronounced SUE-yek. "I remember thinking, if there were more people around, and if they were Americans, would they accept him running naked as he was?"

In the United States, she continued: "I just don't think it's acceptable in popular culture. Americans have a sense that the body is very private. You don't talk about these things openly. Nudity is hush-hush."

Some discomfort with nude children comes from the inevitable: they tend to answer nature's call whenever and wherever it beckons.

Upon picking up her son, Hayden, from his friend's house in Burlingame, Calif., last year, Rachael Dominguez, an optician, said she was stunned when the friend's mom told her that Hayden, who turns 6 next month, was not welcome back because he had undressed and urinated in the yard. "She said, 'I just think it's a bad example for my children and I think he shouldn't come over and do that anymore,' " said Ms. Dominguez, 42.

Another factor that can play a role in attitudes toward naked children is the child's gender. Phyllis Halper, a fourth-grade teacher on Long Island, will not permit her 3-year-old son, Gavin, to get completely undressed at home, not because she thinks it's inappropriate, but because she is concerned that it might influence the behavior of her daughter, Jordyn, 5. "I expect her, especially as a girl, to be more modest," Ms. Halper said.

Ms. Halper, 35, has taught 9- and 10-year-olds for a decade, and she said she sees firsthand how young girls are learning about sexuality at younger and younger ages, and finds it unhealthy.

Masturbation is another landmine. "Kids like to touch themselves, they do," said Phyllis A. Katz, a psychologist and the former director of the Institute for Research on Social Problems in Boulder, Colo. "Parents sometimes feel uncomfortable about that, and maybe negative feelings about masturbation are mixed up with nudity."

The sexual component of nudity — and a fear of pedophiles — is what makes some adults object entirely to letting children be naked. Jenny Louie said her husband is so uncomfortable when their 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is naked that, even if she is alone in her bedroom, in Los Angeles, he will immediately close her shutters.

"He's afraid of weird people looking in," said Ms. Louie, 35, a marketing consultant for Disney.

Her husband, John Louie, 38, a vice president at the Mattel toy company, said that he is "definitely protective" of his daughter, but that modesty plays a larger role.

At a party at a friend's home recently, Mr. Louie bristled when the hosts let their 4-year-old daughter splash naked in a children's pool, and his wife allowed Rebecca to join in. "I don't want to see her naked and, frankly, I don't want to see other kids running around naked either," Mr. Louie said. "Half the other couples there were fine with that, but I'm more demure."

Another group that doesn't always appreciate unclad bodies: childless adults. Kevin Allen, 45, who used to work as a personal shopper, still recalls with horror the afternoon more than a decade ago when he was at a client's house, and the woman's two young granddaughters came into the room and began changing outfits.

"I was extremely uncomfortable," said Mr. Allen, who estimates the girls were 5 and 6. "I know the grandmother well, but I didn't know the children."

When asked to reflect on the source of his discomfort, Mr. Allen, who is gay, said he feared the situation could all too easily be misinterpreted. "Being gay, you're already thought of as a pervert by some people," he said. "If you look the wrong way at them or something like that, people are going to think you're having some kind of lascivious thought. So it's kind of not appropriate even in your own house. When other people are around, you should have modesty."

Psychologists seem to agree that parents are wise to teach their children that different situations call for different behaviors, and that taking guests' feelings into account is a thoughtful thing to do.

"I think there are societal realms of appropriate behavior," Dr. Katz said. "If a kid was having a birthday party and was 7 or 8 and suddenly decided to take off all his clothes or something like that, that would not be seen as an appropriate thing to do. Not because of the nudity per se, but because it's so unexpected."

This article, "When Do They Need a Fig Leaf? first appeared in The New York Times.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31939730/ns/health-the_new_york_times/


© 2009 MSNBC.com

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Jul 15, 2009

Rabbi Hayim Herring on Alban: "The Third Place"

Alban: "The Third Place"

by Hayim Herring
http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=8062

We live in a time of tremendous societal upheaval. While history is often cyclical, showing both change and continuity, there are times when change is so systemic and deep that we enter a fundamentally new era. These changes are of such profound magnitude that they are redefining how life is lived in many areas we assumed were unyielding givens. In broad terms, we might think about boundary shifting, permeability, and cross-religious and cultural appropriation as the motifs that characterize this age. Culture, economics, history, biology, technology—all areas of life are up for reassessment or revision because of these forces. Whether we in the Jewish community view our current era as essentially more of the same or fundamentally different is not a moot issue. Rather, it influences whether we apply current models of thinking about all aspects of our world or if we need different ones.

For shorthand, I refer to our contemporary era as the Age of Four A's: anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is in this crucible that Jewish life is being recast today. This shorthand description of our times captures well-described attributes of daily life, if not precisely for boomers, then increasingly so for Gen Xers and Millennials:

Anything (almost)—products or services—can be modified, or if nonexistent, can be created with relative ease.

Anyone, regardless of credentials or pedigree, can be his or her own expert in many fields that were typically reserved for specialists (for example, we can be our own stock brokers, financial planners, publishing houses, filmmakers, business consultants, and educators).

Anytime, we increasingly demand that goods and services be available to us at our convenience.

Anywhere, in real time or virtually, at home or abroad, we can experience different cultures on a global scale.

The good news is that the age of anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere raises profound issues of meaning, making existential questions about life more insistent:

  • If I live in an age when I can get whatever I want, how do I decide what is ultimately most important?
  • If I have unlimited control over my life, how do I exercise it wisely?
  • If I can choose to be a part of any community, which one is most desirable for me to join?
  • If I live in a world that is always "on," how can I ensure that I find ways to disconnect so that I do not lose my soul?
  • If I live in an age of unlimited power, how do I remain humble, not exploit others, and work to ensure that all people are treated with basic human dignity?
  • If I live in a world where I can keep taking, do I have a responsibility to give something back?

 

These big questions—which most people eventually have to face—are exciting for those who believe that the religious core of Judaism provides an invaluable resource for grappling with them. While individuals have maximized their ability to choose, they often have doubts about their ability to choose wisely. They are therefore open to seeking guidance from religious traditions of all kinds, provided that they do not lose control over how they live their lives. In this environment, religion loses its ability to coerce (a good thing) but gains an opportunity to influence (also a good thing)—if it is relevant.
By unshackling synagogues from leftover views about how they do their work, by creating stronger points of connection between Jewish values and the real life concerns of individuals, and by reimagining the synagogue as a venue where people are empowered to find and create community on their terms, synagogues may become places of greater vision, inspiration, and relevance.

Urban sociology literature has a concept called the "third place," as distinct from the first place (home) and the second place (work). According to sociologist Ray Oldenberg, third places "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Oldenburg suggests that main streets, coffeehouses, and other third places are the heart of a community's social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. They promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, creating habits of public association, and offering psychological support to individuals and communities.

More simply conceived, the third place is the informal public space between home and work that connects people to each other, allows them to recharge, pause, and then reengage the world. They are places in which participants feel strong, positive emotional ties because they are creating rewarding, meaningful social experiences and a warm community environment. That is why successful third places do not have to engage in gimmicks to stimulate participation; they are places that individuals voluntarily choose to visit.

Starbucks is an example of a highly successful corporation that recognized the vacuum of third places in American culture. They modeled their coffeehouses after the traditional European coffee shop as a third place between home and office, one that leveled class and economic differences. Though Starbucks has lost some of its luster, initially consumers perceived the third place nature of Starbucks, viewing it as a place for individuals to relax between a hectic work schedule and a frenzied home life and to connect with people who sought these same goals. Starbucks did not invent coffee, but reinvented the experience of drinking coffee by providing relaxation, wisdom in a cup, and culture.

They also joined the effort to provide fair trade coffee (making a values statement about the environment), and they invested heavily in training and benefits for their employees (making a values statement that they care most about the people who create the experience for customers). Whoever thought a venue that sells a stimulant at a price few could not long ago imagine as sustainable could come to symbolize relaxation?* As the Starbucks experience shows, even a for-profit corporation can leverage a social vacuum and become relevant by selling not just products and services, but also values and meaning.

The synagogue has a history that is more than two thousand years old—a rather impressive track record for an institution! However, its origins are also sources of its current weakness. As a venue, it derives some of its functions and inspiration from the Second Temple period. On a local level, the synagogue was supposed to replicate some of those functions (a centralized location with prayer and study as replacements for sacrifice; a place to which people were supposed to show lifetime allegiance through ongoing financial contributions and visits, supporting a greater religious and national cause, sustained by a class of professionals that attended to its ongoing business). The values of this venue, which still express themselves in today's synagogues, are in conflict with the notion of third places in that third places are spaces where individuals can find community on their terms and receive individual benefits for their participation. A new mental map of the synagogue as a third place would be much more in tune with the age of anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere in which individuals focus on personal meaning, autonomy, and a search for community on personal terms.

If synagogues can reconceptualize their venue as a third place, they can feel more like a welcoming home in all aspects of their operations. This shift in thinking could cause profound changes in how synagogues relate to people on an individual level, how they approach the diversity of today's Jewish community, and how they seek to relate to their broader environment.

By understanding what people seek today that can help them navigate work and home; by developing leaders who use the language of Jewish values to speak in ways that inspire and engage them; by changing the organizational thinking of synagogues so that they can develop into a third place—we can turn more synagogues into venues of relevance, inspiration, and Jewish character formation.

*Observations made at a presentation by former Starbucks chief marketing officer, Scott Bedbury, Nov. 14, 2006, in Chicago, sponsored by BMO Capital Markets.

__________________________________________________________

Adapted from Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements, edited by Zachary I. Heller.


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Jul 14, 2009

Re: [Shefa] It Is Time For A New Message and Mindset

Shalom Steve and Chevreh,

So important, I believe, to keep the focus on a combination of communication and content.  The Conservative Movement certainly has an image problem, but it's also a reality.  If the "Come Home to Conservative Judaism" line isn't working, it's important to recognize the intent of the attempt (to generate a sense of "home") and determine if that's what we believe our shuls are called to be. And if they are that, then it's the mandate of every synagogue to take steps to live up to the dream of being someone's home.

The Hayom coalition (with which I'm proud to be counted) is dedicated to this transformation - the alignment of our movement's institutions with our spiritual ideals.  Who chose the slogan?  Was there an attempt to listen to those not yet connected when determining a marketing strategy?  And, once the correct combination of listening and marketing is achieved, have our shuls had the time and support to be prepared for success?

Chevreh - this is an important moment, and I'm hopeful visions like Steve's are the tone we begin to generate - critical and passionate. 

Btw, my vote for a catch-phrase is based on my conviction that the "Young Jews" (which is, I feel, a deeply marginalizing way of looking at a much-sought-after demographic) are seeking meaning over packaging.  This is what my teacher Vicky Kelman describes as "the big gift" as opposed to the "gift-wrapping" most Jewish institutions focus on when attempting to seem more appealing.  I think Rabbi Judith Hauptman's "Ethical Halacha" works best, is honest, progressive, and traditional.  That's the Conservative Judaism I believe in, and the one I believe would be most compelling to those who already call our Movement home, and to those looking for a spiritual home.

Kol Tuv,
Menachem


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On Tue, Jul 14, 2009 at 7:41 PM, Steven Katz <steve.katz@greenwichindustries.com> wrote:


For the past year I have been seeing the slogan "Come Home to Conservative Judaism" pop up on a number of the movement's websites, mailings and publications.  I have to admit I really hate this slogan and every time I see it used it makes me embarrassed to be part of the Conservative Movement. This slogan sounds both desperate and like you are on a losing team.  Its message to me is that we are begging people to come home to something that was not so good  that they left to start with.  It also gives little thought to people who might not have been associated with conservative Judaism before to join us (a change in mindset in itself that perhaps we can even attract new people who were never Conservative Jews to join our ranks).  

 

Given all the poor PR the Conservative Movement has this slogan in my view plays into the negativity and send the exact wrong message.  This is not like the warm and fuzzy come home to the holidays that the churches use to get people in for Christmas mass.  If we are honest with ourselves the general perception on the street for Jews that care about Judaism is that the Conservative  Moment is in trouble and this just reinforces that view and as I noted makes us desperate showing we have nothing  new and exciting to really offer.

 

I never, however, believe in complaining about something without a solution which is the purpose of this comment.  I think we need a new slogan and a new mindset.  Out with the negativity about the movement and begging people to return and in with a positive message on why you should want to be a Conservative Jew.   I would like to get some suggestions from my Shefra chevra that perhaps the national office would consider using.   I am not a marketing person but let me toss some suggestions into the ring to start this off and see if others from Shefra can offer different ones.  Some better slogans might be along the lines of "Experience the Traditions You Love with Ruach" or "Authentic Judaism for Modern Times"   or  "Today's Nourish For Your Jewish Soul" – or anything else that makes us seem lively, upbeat  and vibrant and cool . 

 

As a Jewish movement right now we certainly lack the cool factor and let us all face the fact if you want to attract younger families and younger people back into the Conservative Movement it is not about pleading for them to come home but it  is all about rekindling their memories of Jewish traditions, sparking their interest in their Jewish identity and traditions and being seen as being cool (tradition and change is a winning formula we just never seem to get how to market it effectively).   I realized this early on when I became President of my synagogue that despite my being personally a very traditional conservative you need to be become and be seen by less observant (aka mainstream Conservative Jews and even some unaffiliated) as a synagogue that is a vibrant and energetic congregation, that is very welcoming to all, that does different and cool services and programs  and were people feel they are with  a winning organization (that is why BJ is so successful as they are seen as this).  No one wants to come home to a losing  team that in the press seems dysfunctional no matter how much we plead for them to come home. We need to change the mindset and the perception and a new slogan would certainly be a step in that direction.

 

Steven Katz

President

Temple Sholom

Greenwich, CT

 

 

 

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USCJ Exec VP Rabbi Steven Wernick Reflects on Meeting with President Obama

Rabbi Steven Wernick Reflects on Meeting with President Obama

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, who has just become executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was among the 16 national Jewish leaders invited to the White House on July 13 for a candid conversation with President Barack Obama about the issues most important to the President and the American Jewish community.

Subjects included the economy, the environment, healthcare, and poverty, but the focus was on foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. President Obama stressed that his commitment to Israel is deep and true; his posture with Israel is no tougher than with the Palestinians and both will benefit equally from peace in the region. "President Obama asked us to understand that although we might eventually have some disagreements about tactics and strategy – and of course tactics and strategy are very important – he wanted to reassure us that his administration has not and is not and will not jeopardize Israel's security," Rabbi Wernick said. "Whatever approaches they take to these issues are done with the very best of good faith for what they believe is in the best interest of Israel, of the region, and of the United States.

"I was honored to have been included in the meeting," Rabbi Wernick said. "I think the fact that the president of the United States invites these conversations, and really listens to us, is extraordinary, and a testament to our democracy. I believe that President Obama enjoys broad support in the Jewish community, both politically and personally. And I am heartened to know that President Obama sees the Conservative movement as one of the anchors of the Jewish community."

At the meeting, Rabbi Wernick gave one of President Obama's aides a document describing United Synagogue's positions on foreign and domestic issues. As the document, which you can find below, shows, the White House and United Synagogue are in close agreement on a number of issues.

Rabbi Wernick was quoted in an article in the L. A. Times
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-obama-jews14-2009jul14,0,1886892.story ; one sent by Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE56D0BD20090714, one sent by AP http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jrdSaQ2vd-WGTD_86aHvyHVysjpAD99DS0N00 , and one by the Washington Post/Newsweek http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/godingovernment/2009/07/obama_meets_with_jewish_leaders.html#more


_____________________________________________________________________________________________


THE UNITED SYNAGOGUE OF CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM
PUBLIC POLICY AND SOCIAL ACTION COMMITTEE
White House Meeting- July 13, 2009

ISRAEL AND FOREIGN POLICY

Israel's security
– We respect the President's desire for progress on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and appreciate his support for Israel's security needs. To date, Israel has withdrawn from territories in Lebanon and in Gaza with very mixed results, including ongoing conflict in both of these regions. We need the President's leadership to explain to the American people and the world community that Israel can not take risks for peace that will endanger her survival as a Jewish homeland. A safe Israel remains at the center of concern for our congregations.

The threat of a nuclear Iran – We support the President's program of preserving open communication with all nations, friend and foe, as the best way to make progress towards security and peace world-wide. We are alarmed, however, by recent developments in Iran which indicate that the radical anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-American positions taken by Iran's President do represent the thinking of the top level of Iran's leadership. A nuclear Iran represents a fundamental threat to the existence of the State of Israel and will spur regional nuclear proliferation threatening all the nations in the region and many in the west. Every effort must be made to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capabilities.

Gilad Shalit – The kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit represents an escalation in the campaign of terror directed against Israel and its families by adding hostage-taking as a weapon in the arsenal of the enemies of peace. June 25th marked 3 years that Gilad has been held captive. Shalit has been denied the right to a Red Cross (ICRC) visitation, which is a violation of international law. The return of prisoners has always been a major value informing Jewish communal life, whether the numbers were large as in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, or small, as in the case of an individual soldier. We ask the American diplomats to keep the return of Gilad Shalit and the renunciation of kidnapping on the agenda of conversations with the parties involved in Gaza and Egypt.

Darfur – The situation in Darfur, Sudan has touched a raw nerve in our congregations where so many remember the world's silence during the Shoah. We welcome steps the American government might take to enhance the safety of the people of Darfur and strengthen the African Union and UN forces in the area.





DOMESTIC ISSUES

Hekhsher Tzedek – A recent initiative of our Conservative movement called Hekhsher Tzedek (ethical food certification) is designed to ensure that kosher food is produced in ways that ensure the rights of workers and the humane treatment of animals. We have developed metrics to facilitate the granting of a seal of ethical certification for food products that meet the standards of Jewish ritual traditions and ethical traditions. Our hope is that this certification will become an important part of the recent move throughout American society towards a deeper awareness of how and what we consume and how sustainability can be integrated into more aspects of our society. Recent government decisions to bring cigarettes under the jurisdiction of the FDA and your family's decision to model healthy eating and support local agriculture are to be applauded in this regard.

Environmental Protection, Climate Policy and Energy Security- Energy independence and the nurturance of alternative fuel sources has implications for the long term health of our planet and our ongoing desire for a foreign policy that should not be unduly influenced by our need for foreign oil. We support programs that will facilitate new forms of energy development in the United States. We note that Israel continues to do cutting edge work in this field and we hope more joint projects can be developed. Conservation also plays a major role and our institutions will continue to model and encourage "green" building and home based conservation and recycling projects.

Affordable Health Care – We support plans to find a solution during the current term of Congress to our nation's need for quality, affordable health care for all. We recognize that this will involve a number of compromises and we want to know how we can be helpful in developing and selling the emerging program to our communities.

Immigration Reform – Our nation is a nation of immigrants and the Jewish community is particularly aware of the marginal position of immigrants and foreign workers. Scripture reminds us over again that we were strangers and that we should understand the plight of the stranger. We support moves towards comprehensive immigration reform and we are prepared to speak out on the subject when it next returns to the national agenda.



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Jul 13, 2009

Baltimore Jewish Times: " Hebrew National & Kosher Politics"

Hebrew National & Kosher Politics

What's kosher about answering to a higher authority?

July 10, 2009

Kenneth Lasson
Special to the Jewish Times
http://www.jewishtimes.com/index.php/jewishtimes/news/jt/cover_story/hebrew_national_kosher_politics/13402

Hebrew National & Kosher Politics

"No one should see how laws or sausages are made."

— Otto von Bismarck

Barbecued hot dogs are as American as apple pie on the Fourth of July — and as universal, for that matter, as Israeli cookouts on Yom Ha'atzmaut or Lag B'Omer. In fact, they're consumed around the world, from Australia to Zambia, and have become a major part of the increasingly capitalistic fast-food business in communist China and Russia.

But nowhere are as many hot dogs eaten as in the United States. We bite into more than 20 billion of them a year — some 818 every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. (Yes, there is such a group, which also lists things like the biggest hot dog-selling cities — Baltimore/Washington is third behind New York and Los Angeles — as well as even more arcane trivia.)

It's a $4 billion-a-year business, a large share of which is the kosher dog market (preferred by 6 million Americans, according to the NHD&SC, only a quarter of whom are Jewish). And that number is growing at twice the rate of consumption of all other kosher foods.

Little wonder, then, that the controversy surrounding the Hebrew National brand — which was recently rated by Consumer Reports as the best in overall quality among all hot dogs (Oscar Mayer, the largest producer, came in eighth) — is mushrooming by the day.

But the most fascinating fact may be that many Orthodox Jews will not eat any Hebrew National meat products. The underlying reasons for this irony are a hodgepodge of Halachah (Jewish law) and rabbinic infighting — power, profits and politics — much of it as juicy and spicy as what goes into the common sausage.

Here's the story, in a variety of casings.

Rabbi Jehoseph H. Rabag, chief kosher supervisor for Triangle KFrom Whence the Wiener?

One of the oldest forms of processed food, the common sausage can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire. (It was mentioned in Homer's "Odyssey" in the ninth century B.C.)

According to food historians, the edible "dachshund" or "little dog" was created in the late 1600s by Johann Georghehner, a butcher in Coburg, Germany, who later traveled to Frankfurt-am-Mein to promote it. (In 1987, Frankfurt celebrated the 500th birthday of the frankfurter in that city, although the good burghers of Vienna (Wien), Austria, point to the term "wiener" as proof of the concoction's true birthplace.)

Bruce Kraig, a professor emeritus in history and humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, writes that although many lay claim to the hot dog roll as their own invention, it is likely the Germans introduced the practice of first eating their dachshund sausages on warmed buns.

The American version probably made its first appearance in the 1860s, when German immigrants sold sausages with milk rolls and sauerkraut from pushcarts in New York City's Bowery neighborhood.

In 1871, Charles Feltman, a German butcher, opened up the first Coney Island stand, selling some 3,684 dachshund sausages in rolls during his first year in business. (Nathan's Famous Frankfurters, which didn't start until 1916, sold more than 360 million in 2008.)

Another German peddler named Antonoine Feuchtwanger began selling hot frankfurters during the St. Louis "Louisiana Purchase Exposition" in 1904. He provided a white glove with each purchase so that his customers' hands would not be burned. His wife suggested that he cut costs by putting the sausages in an elongated bun, which his brother-in-law, a baker, dutifully supplied.

The origin of the term "hot dog" is in some dispute. Visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago consumed large quantities of the sausage sandwiches, which in the same year became the standard fare at baseball parks. They were also current at Yale as early as 1894, when "dog wagons" sold them at the dorms — the name a sarcastic comment on where the meat came from. ("A hot dog is a cartridge filled with the sweepings of abattoirs," H. L. Mencken said years later. "I devoured them in Baltimore way back in 1886, and they were then very far from newfangled.")

Various urban legends link the first hot dogs to baseball games — at either Sportsman's Park in St. Louis (home of the Browns) or the Polo Grounds in New York. The latter is said to be where a sports cartoonist named Tad Dorgan was covering a Giants game there on a cold day in 1902, when he heard a vendor cry out, "Get your dachshund sausages while they're red hot!" He hastily sketched some barking dachshunds tucked into warm rolls and captioned the drawing with a simpler reference to "hot dogs." The cartoon, however, has never been found — so the story might be little more than, well, baloney.

Hebrew National hot dogsAnswering To A Higher Authority

A true immigrant success story, the Hebrew National saga began in 1905, in a six-story walk-up on East Broadway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory processed kosher meats for New York's numerous delicatessens. In 1928, a Romanian immigrant butcher named Isadore Pinckowitz (later Pines), who had begun peddling meat from the back of a horse-drawn wagon, bought the Hebrew National plant and landed a contract with Waldbaum's, the city's largest grocery chain catering to Jewish households.

At first primarily aimed at the growing number of Eastern European Jews filtering through Ellis Island, the company gradually expanded its product line and consumer base. In 1935, Isadore's son, Leonard, took over the business and began to take advantage of the newly booming supermarkets. By the middle of the 20th century, Hebrew National had become the largest, most recognized kosher brand in the United States.

In 1965, the company launched its famous "We Answer to a Higher Authority" advertising campaign. The slogan quickly achieved its purpose, morphing into a symbol for quality and appealing to both Jews and non-Jews alike. After a series of corporate buyouts, Hebrew National became National Foods and moved its headquarters and distribution center to a large processing plant in Indianapolis.

In 1993, National Foods was acquired by huge food conglomerate ConAgra, which sought to capitalize on the Hebrew National reputation for using pure beef and disdaining artificial coloring and flavoring additives. By now, Skip Pines, Leonard's son, had taken over. In 2004, Hebrew National closed the Indianapolis operation and moved into a state-of-the-art kosher processing plant in Quincy, Mich.

Today, with a work force of 500 people in the U.S., Hebrew National is the largest kosher meat processor in the world, producing 720 million hot dogs a year. It's the leading brand in Baltimore, San Diego, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Denver and San Francisco.

Although Hebrew National also makes salami, bologna, knackwurst, polish sausage, deli meats — even its own brand of sauerkraut and mustard — it's best known for its beef franks, which do a big business at ballparks around the country. Most of the hot dogs sold by Aramark, the Orioles concessionaire, are the Esskay brand (up to 15,000 at a single game and an estimated 750,000 a season), but Hebrew National dogs are also available at the concession stands (where they're cooked on non-kosher grills).

Don't look for them, though, at the kosher stand at Camden Yards; never have been there, probably never will be.

The Politics of Kashrut

More than one prominent Orthodox rabbi has suggested that modern kashrut "is 2 percent Halachah and 98 percent ego and money and politics," which might explain why many of the people interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity.

Over the past half-century, kosher certification has become big business, and is not limited to food processing. The largest among them, certifying close to a half-million products, is the Orthodox Union. But there are at least a hundred other companies, many of them privately owned and operated, each with its own distinctive symbol, offering supervision for a price.

They come in all shapes (Circle K, Diamond K, Heart K, Triangle K) and from far and wide (California K, Florida K, Earth K). They apply their seals of approval to everything from hidden ingredients that need supervision (like chemicals and colorings) to products that, according to most rabbinic authorities, don't (like aluminum foil, bottled water and peaches). They cover specialty confection stores (like the local Cinnabon in Towson Town Center) to franchises of international restaurant chains (like the two Dunkin' Donuts and a Subway sandwich shop on Reisterstown Road).

Kosher meat is probably the most complicated food to supervise, with the simple strictures provided in the Torah to the detailed practices and processes interpreted and promulgated by rabbinic scholars over the centuries. Although disputes among Orthodox authorities about precise interpretations of halachic parameters have existed for ages, most will agree that there is a well-defined objective standard. Meat below this baseline is un-kosher; above it, kosher.

By the 1930s in Baltimore alone, there were more than 300 kosher butchers — at least, they called themselves kosher. According to a recent article by Rabbi Dovid Katz, a respected historian, this was also "a golden era for cheaters" — so much so that the local rabbis took out an ad in the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES appealing to Jewish housewives not to rely on the Hebrew sign on a butcher shop that read "Kosher."

At the bottom of the notice was a message in Yiddish: "Koift nisht fun die chislers!" ("Don't buy from the cheaters!"). In one incident, "genuine" kosher hot dogs were imported from New York and widely consumed, until it was discovered that they were not kosher at all.

In fact, there seemed to be a never-ending series of kashrut scandals at the time, many involving leading rabbis. Much of this was reported in the New York Times and later catalogued in a book by Harold Gastwirt titled "Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness: The Controversy Over The Supervision of Jewish Dietary Practice in New York City, 1881-1940," which is a kosher version of Upton Sinclair's classic 1906 muckraking of the meatpacking industry, "The Jungle."

Which kosher supervision is considered the most reliable? It's hard to get a definitive answer from anyone who has a stake in the business — but most will agree that what it boils down to is a matter of trust. The faith that many strictly Orthodox kosher consumers rely upon is that vested in their local rabbis, many of whom in turn appear to be more subject to peer pressure than knowledgeable about the technicalities of kashrut.

It's been five years since Hebrew National decided to change from its longtime in-house kosher quality control to an independent supervisory authority. It chose the Triangle K, under the direction of the Ralbag family, to put into place the strict standards required by Halachah.

Rabbi Jehoseph H. Ralbag, the chief kosher supervisor of the organization, was born in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Yeshivas Etz Chaim and Merkaz Harav. For the credential-minded — who seem to make up a large part of the observant Orthodox community — he is proud to note that he received rabbinical ordination "with the highest honors (Yore Yore Yodin Yodin)," by the most pious rabbis of the Holy Land: Rabbi Iser Zalman Meltzer (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Etz Chaim); Rabbi Yacov Moshe Charlap (rosh yeshiva of Merkaz Harav); and Rabbi Hirsh Pesach Frank (chief rabbi of Jerusalem).

Rabbi Ralbag is presently the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Israel in New York City. He is the author of the "Sefer Imre Yehosef," a scholarly book on Jewish law, and has published numerous articles on various Torah subjects. He is also the kashrut consultant of the magazine The Synagogue Light, and is an executive member of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.

The everyday operations of Triangle K Kosher Supervision and Certification are currently overseen by Rabbi Aryeh L. Ralbag and his two sons (Rabbis Eliezer and Tzvi Ralbag). Like his father, Aryeh Ralbag received a high-order ordination in Jerusalem. He heads the beit din (rabbinical court) on the Agudath HaRabbonim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, and is also chief rabbi of the Orthodox community in Amsterdam.

Of the major brands under Triangle K supervision (which include Sunmaid, Minute Maid, Wonder Bread, Del Monte, Frito-Lay, Mogen-David, Birds Eye, Ocean Spray, Hawaiian Punch and Mott's), Hebrew National is easily the most complicated.

It took Rabbi Ralbag two years to set up Triangle K's certification process for Hebrew National. It's a huge operation. To keep the supply of meat flowing requires four slaughtering houses, one salting facility and a central processing plant — all under round-the-clock rabbinical supervision.

"Our mashgichim [supervisors] are carefully selected, scrutinized and regularly tested for their knowledge of constantly changing technology. They are all God-fearing men who learn every night; all are well-paid and work three-day weeks, with substantial rest periods," he said.

Soon after Triangle K took over in 2004, the top lawmaking body of the Conservative movement issued its seal of approval for all Hebrew National meat products. The decision was supposed to have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food.

Orthodox Jews, however, continued to stay away in droves, for reasons that remain unclear but appear to be largely bound up in rumor, innuendo and ambiguity. Many ostensible adherents to strict Halachah consider Triangle K to be "unreliable."

Others refrain from buying Hebrew National because its meat is not "glatt kosher." That term is used to describe a more expensive and complicated form of rabbinical supervision that requires the lungs of a ritually slaughtered animal to be carefully scrutinized for any imperfections.

If none are found, the animal is considered "glatt." Minor imperfections, however, do not render it unkosher. This, too, is a subject of some controversy.

A number of rabbinic experts feel that the term glatt is overused — that is, relatively few animals truly meet the standard, which has become more a marketing tool than guarantee of superior purity.

Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, who studied in Lakewood, N.J., under the famed Rabbi Aaron Kotler and was once the exclusive halachic authority in the Haredi (fervently observant) stronghold of Lakewood, N.J., founded a popular Web site called kashrut.org . Rabbi Abadi's son, Aharon, who now runs the Web site, declared that Hebrew National's meat "is certainly kosher for all who do not eat only glatt."

Although it is preferable to eat glatt when available, says Rabbi Abadi, it is a chumrah, a voluntarily accepted restriction. Those who don't limit themselves to glatt are still keeping kosher.

At the time Hebrew National switched to Triangle K, the Jewish newspaper The Forward editorialized that, although the stricter glatt standards "could help put an end to the string of urban legends and sordid explanations for why Orthodox Jews won't consume [Hebrew National's products], for a variety of sociological and religious reasons, the decisions are unlikely to translate into a significant increase in sales." That prediction has proven accurate.

The number of Conservative customers account for only a small share of the kosher market. For many of the Orthodox, the main problem remains that Hebrew National is not glatt kosher.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union's kashrut department, told The Forward that while the OU once certified both glatt and non-glatt meat, in the 1970s "market conditions" caused the organization to limit its supervision only to the former.

Kosher Mustard'Kashrut Mafia'

But glatt continues to mean different things to different people.

"What's glatt in Cleveland might not be glatt in Baltimore," says Rabbi Don Moskovitz, a locally based mashgiach who works for several kosher certification organizations. Moreover, there are many Orthodox Jews — especially in smaller Jewish communities around the country — who do not limit themselves to glatt kosher meat but still consider themselves strictly kosher.

"Many people follow the higher glatt standard," says Rabbi Moskovitz, "but there's nothing wrong with Rabbi Ralbag's hashgachah [endorsement] on meat. Hebrew National has to overcome some problems with its historical reputation." He adds that he's more concerned with the kashrut of everyday milk than he is about people eating Hebrew National.

"I'd love to make Hebrew National all glatt kosher," says Rabbi Ralbag, "but there simply isn't a large enough supply of meat in the world that would satisfy the traditional truly glatt standard ?and demand."

Queried about the kashrus of Hebrew National, a spokesperson for the OU said that "we do not comment on other kosher certifications."

The response was different, however, from the "Kashrus Hotline" of the Baltimore-based Star-K organization. "You should not eat Hebrew National." When asked why, she said the Triangle K "is not considered reliable."

Rabbi Aharon Abadi speaks bluntly about the multimillion-dollar kosher supervision business. "You want to do business in this industry, you need to follow the rules of the 'Kashrut Mafia,'" he said. "Most are just businesses with a touch of religion. Just enough to use it to bully us into following their program. Ask anyone in the food industry. They know. Try getting an outside hashgachah in an area that is already someone's turf."

As to Triangle K, Rabbi Abadi wrote on the kashrut.org Web site, "Rabbi Ralbag is a G-d-fearing man and if he says it's kosher, you sure can eat it. I can't say the same for many of the other labels out there."

"Do you remember when Drakes [a widely marketed brand of snack cakes] was under Rabbi Ralbag?" asked Rabbi Abadi. "It was treife [unkosher] according to some of these guys. Then the establishment organization got the account, now it's kosher. Do you think they went out and kashered the whole plant, changed all the ingredients and so on? Please!"

According to Rabbi Ralbag, various Orthodox authorities summarily banned Coca-Cola when it was supervised by Triangle K in the early 1990s — but immediately accepted it as kosher the moment it was taken over by the OU (without any change in formula or processing). He says that Triangle K follows the traditional rules set down in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, and that its seal of approval is accepted categorically by the chief rabbi of Israel, where a large number of its products are widely distributed.

No Full Skinny

One local caterer who requested anonymity said, "You'll never get the full skinny on kashrut supervision" — intimating that political and monetary considerations are paramount to candor.

Trustworthiness can be very subjective. The same Orthodox Baltimoreans who believe that Triangle K is not reliable because of past indiscretions broadly accept Star-K, even though it once certified a local non-Jewish caterer that served treife food on a "kosher" cruise.

The OU and Star-K have had numerous disputes over specific products. Each, for example, has had a policy prohibiting caterers under its supervision from using meats certified by the other.

Fans of kosher hot dogs might find this policy particularly egregious. Caterers under Star-K are currently forbidden to serve two brands of miniature hot-dogs-in-blankets, as well as 999 kosher hot dogs, all under the OU.

Star-K also bans sauerkraut marketed with the OU seal. (Consumers calling the Star-K's kosher hotline are told that "we don't have information" on those products. When asked if they can be used, the receptionist says, "I guess not.")

For his part, Rabbi Ralbag has nothing negative to say about other kosher authorities. Instead, he refers obliquely to those who do with an old quote: "I think it's sometimes more important what comes out of someone's mouth than what goes into it."

Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES.


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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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