Rabbi Menachem Creditor
President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our "commitment to religious freedom,"backtracked, saying he wasn't commenting on the 'wisdom' of building it so close to 'hallowed ground.'
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama's hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas' endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
Last week a group of protesters came to chant "God Hates You" outside the Jewish Community Center where I work, with children waving signs that read GOD HATES JEWS, RABBIS RAPE CHILDREN, YOUR RABBI IS A WHORE, and, of course, GOD HATES FAGS. This was their yearly blitz of Jewish Los Angeles - they targeted a number of synagogues and institutions to make sure that we, and every passerby, knew just how angry God was with us. My colleagues and I had mixed reactions as we stood at the window watching them sing and sway with their signs and their hatred. Most said: they're crazy. Let's get back to work -- we can't be distracted by their idiocy. But I found myself unable to take my eyes off them. Their rant was against Jews and gays, but it was hard not to think of the hysteria over the Cordoba House and the way that civil discourse these days has become so uncivil - so defined by hatred and fear rather than reason and empathy.
President Obama should not have backpedalled. And politicians and faith leaders should not equivocate. For survivors and families of victims, opposition to the Islamic Center is a reflection of grief, pain and fear. But for many others, opposition is rooted in the conviction - stated or unstated -- that all Muslims are responsible for the tragedy and horror of 9/11 and therefore must be held accountable. No amount of interfaith dialogue and cooperation will credential Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan against those who want to believe that, because of the direction in which they pray, they must be preparing to build a terror outpost smack in the center of lower Manhattan. Collective responsibility is a dangerous game, one I don't think any of us want to play -- whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, American. One of the great outcomes of the Enlightenment was the recognition that, despite our ongoing communal connections, we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves as individuals. For Jews, though we say kol yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh -- all Jews are responsible for one another -- we know that we are not all (God forbid) Baruch Goldstein nor are we Bernie Madoff. To condemn an entire people because of the offenses of the few would leave us all with very few friends.
Those who love America must speak about this Center without ambivalence. It hardly helps us in the real fight against Al Qaeda when we alienate Muslims who seek to build communities of freedom, dignity and peace. It is unwise, it is unfair, and it is unAmerican. Mayor Bloomberg said that we would be "untrue to the best part of ourselves - and who we are as Americans - if we said 'no' to a mosque in Lower Manhattan... We would betray our values - and play into our enemies' hands - if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else." And he was right. Period.
I was part of a small group of clergy brought down to the ruins at Ground Zero a couple of nights after 9/11 while the fires were still burning. We were there to offer support to the rescue workers and to bear witness to the horror. I remember wondering: what would it take to redeem this broken place? To bring some healing to this shattered landscape? How will we ever recover what we have lost here? Now it strikes me that perhaps the best way to bring healing and peace to New York City, to our country and to the world, is through supporting initiatives that are dedicated to interfaith cooperation and a politics of reason and empathy rather than hatred and fear. An Islamic Center that is designed to build bridges of religious tolerance and understanding is precisely what we need.
|USCJ Districts: An Alternative Vision|
by Michael Culp Gilboa
Last year the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as part of its efforts to cut costs and redefine its mission, announced that it would be consolidating its 14 regions into six super-powered districts. Being a bit of a geography dork, I had one question: What are the new districts and what are their borders? So I emailed the USCJ and asked them what their new districts were going to be. I received no response to my email. A few months later I went on the website and saw that, lo and behold, the new districts had been unveiled. They are:
Metropolitan New York (METNY)
Now, I wouldn't be going to rabbinical school if math were really my thing. (I'd be an astronaut.) Nevertheless, even I can tell that the six promised districts have somehow become seven. Also, there is a massive geographical disparity in the size of these districts. So I decided to do a little figuring. Here's the old region map, near as I can tell:
View Old USCJ in a larger map
And here is the new district map:
View New USCJ in a larger map
As you can see, the districts are just the former regions smashed together. While this is definitely the easiest way to consolidate, I am left wondering. The ostensible cause of the redistricting was the contraction and demographic changes that the Conservative movement has experienced. Certainly these changes have not been uniform, yet we are relying on the old borders to be part of the new solution. I am also instinctively uncomfortable with the contrast between the New York City district and my own home state's "Here There Be Dragons" district. This Central region behemoth is just a nightmare of logistics and planning, and it's hard to imagine trying to make the case that Pittsburgh, Denver and San Antonio share the same regional concerns in the same way that Staten Island and the Bronx do. Plus there are seven districts when they promised us six.
(Astute readers will note that I left Canada out of the regional calculations. Recent trends seem to indicate that they are more interested in doing their own thing anyway, and I think Conservative Judaism ought to evolve in its own way in Canada, not having to be the little brother to the U.S. movement. No offense is implied.)
I decided to fight my instincts and ignore geography, instead looking at the numbers behind the districts. According to the USCJ website, here are the number of synagogues in each district:
Metropolitan New York: 101
Southeast Seaboard: 115
Pacific Southwest: 61
Northern Pacific: 29
Aha! This is the reason for the geographic disparity. They are trying to create an equal number of synagogues in each district. (Except for the Northern Pacific district, which really ought to have been incorporated into the Pacific Southwest. I guess that's our mystery seventh district.)
So, problem solved, right? Not really. All of this thinking of mine led to more thinking and wondering, and then I realized that I don't know why the USCJ even needs districts. What do they accomplish? What is their purpose? I've been doing a lot of reading, and I'm still not sure. I thought maybe they were to facilitate USY. As a youth organization, they have to plan events with everyone being reasonably nearby. But it turns out that USY has its own districts anyway.
As near as I can tell, the USCJ has districts because it always has had them. What do they provide that couldn't be done from New York? Something I'm sure, but probably not enough to justify maintaining all of these offices. I certainly don't mean any offense against the people who work in those offices. It's just that I've been involved in synagogues in lots of different ways, and I haven't really seen these regional offices playing a role.
It occurred to me, though, that I knew what they COULD be doing. Unfortunately, this was going to involve more math. It's not enough, you see, to make sure there are an equal number of synagogues in each district. There are so many different sizes of synagogues in our movement. In fact, we have five designations for them: very small, small, medium, large, and very large. I decided to plot these out, giving one point to the very small synagogues, and so on, up to five points for the very large. After looking at some maps and doing some addition, I realized that around two-thirds of Conservative Jews live in about a dozen highly-concentrated geographic areas. Outside of those areas, synagogues are few and far between, and almost always "very small."
The purpose of districts, then, ought to be clear. The "Here There Be Dragons" section of the United States is not an obstacle to our map-making; it ought to be the guiding purpose of our organization. Concentrated Jewish communities should be paired with large swaths of land outside of their concentrated area. The inner district should then be communally responsible for building up Jewish life in their outer territory. This is a model I am happy to have borrowed from certain churches who use a diocesan system. In these churches, established diocese are often paired with "missionary diocese" where the church is growing.
Some might point out the immediate problem that Conservative Judaism in fact isn't growing. To me, that's exactly the point! Here I am proposing a model of districts that exist not just to exist, but are part of a larger vision for the future of the movement. Conservative Judaism ought to be planning and preparing itself to be a leading voice for major growth in American Jewish life. We ought to be filling in the map with mitzvah-centered communities which are repairing the world. Either that or we ought to close down.
My proposal calls for 12 districts, 11 of which exist in concentrated areas of Jewish population. Using my point system, I attempted to draw districts of around 80 points. The largest outliers were the San Francisco Bay Area, with 34 points, the Chicago area, with 49 points, and northern New Jersey, with 119 points. I considered scrapping the Bay Area district, but I found that there was no other district in which to comfortably subsume them. Also, with a 2% synagogue affiliation rate for the Jewish population, the Bay Area is uniquely primed for expansion.
The twelfth district, the Expansion District, occupies the rest of the United States. It is geographically the largest by far, but contains only one-third of the American Jewish population. It is mostly inhabited (Jewishly) by isolated communities in mid-sized cities. These synagogues ought to share a district because they share the same challenges. The single Conservative synagogue in Altoona, Pennsylvania shares more in common with the single Conservative synagogue in Bakersfield, California than it does with the many synagogues in nearby Philadelphia. For very small synagogues, size more than geography is their primary common attribute.
The Expansion District is also subdivided among the other 11 districts, relative to each district's size on the point scale. Each district is assigned a section of the Expansion District at a ratio between 45% and 55%. For instance, the New England district, which has 77 points, is assigned a section containing 42 points, or about 54% of the district's size. The 11 districts are tasked with providing material support for the Jews in their section of the Expansion District. In other words, they are responsible in that territory for Conservative Judaism's development and expansion.
For eight of the 11 districts, I drew borders that were primarily concerned with geography. Thus, southern Florida is paired with northern Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But three of the districts have a special assignment. Metro New York, Long Island, and northern New Jersey are home to the largest and most established Jewish populations in the United States. They are also adjacent to each other and to other large Jewish populations which inhabit the highly urban east coast. Thus they have been assigned portions of the Expansion District which are not contiguous to their territory. These districts are in a special position to offer their support to a wider swath of territory, and their ready access to transportation resources makes geography less of a concern.
View Proposed USCJ in a larger map
I believe that this organization of the synagogues in the USCJ would help to establish a 21st-century purpose for the United Synagogue. It would strengthen ties between the regions, and by giving our more prosperous and larger synagogues a stake in the undeveloped territories of Jewish life, it would encourage a renewed sense of purpose for Conservative Judaism. I welcome any thoughts about this proposal.
1. Fluency in modern Hebrew and passion, skill and experience with teaching Hebrew
2. Desire to work in an egalitarian, traditional, participatory setting
3. Creative approach to teaching using games, movement, skits. etc.
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When I decided to become a rabbi in 1996, I visited the Jewish Theological Seminary, my future rabbinical school. Along with sitting in on some classes, I stayed in the apartment of four first-year rabbinical students. I still recall a discussion we had at the Shabbat dinner table. One of the rabbinical students raised the question of what would happen if one of their siblings became engaged to a non-Jew — could they even attend the wedding?
The Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism's rabbinic organization, lists attendance by a rabbi at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew as a violation of its "Standards of Religious Practice" in its code of professional conduct. The underlying rationale is that a rabbi's attendance at an interfaith wedding would be perceived as condoning intermarriage.
While the recent wedding of Chelsea Clinton to Marc Mezvinsky renewed age-old debates about intermarriage, for Conservative rabbis in particular it has spurred discussion about the R.A.'s policy. This is because JTS's chancellor, Arnold Eisen, attended the couple's post-wedding reception.
Eisen — who became close to the groom when he was a professor at the couple's alma mater, Stanford University — is not a rabbi. Yet chancellors of JTS are considered by some to be the Conservative movement's titular heads. Is it possible for the chancellor of JTS to attend an interfaith wedding reception without implicitly sending a message either about the Conservative movement's attitude toward intermarriage or, more specifically, about the appropriateness of the R.A.'s policy?
In truth, if Eisen were not such a high-profile figure, he would not have been breaking new ground. In practice, the R.A.'s policy has left considerable room for interpretation. Some
R.A. members distinguish between attendance at an interfaith wedding ceremony and the reception that follows. Others disagree, arguing that the wedding ceremony is directly connected to the actual ceremony and attendance at either could be perceived as tacit approval. Some rabbis, however, have simply flouted the policy, quietly attending interfaith wedding ceremonies of relatives and friends.
The R.A.'s code states that violations of standards of religious practice "usually result in expulsion from the Rabbinical Assembly." Rabbis who officiate at interfaith weddings face the prospect of stern sanctions from the R.A., and in practice have generally chosen to resign their membership in order to avoid public controversy.
I am not, however, aware of any instances in which rabbis who simply attended interfaith weddings (and I know more than a few who have) faced repercussions from the R.A. Indeed, one widely held view among R.A. members is that the real purpose of the attendance ban is to give Conservative rabbis who personally oppose attending such weddings a ready excuse when invited.
Nevertheless, the policy presents many of us with profoundly difficult choices. A couple of years after I was ordained at JTS, I chose not to attend my first cousin's wedding to a lovely, albeit non-Jewish, young woman. I explained that my wife and I would not be attending because my rabbinic association forbade it. My refusal to attend (he knew better than to ask for me to officiate) led to animosity from other relatives and a fractured relationship among cousins.
In light of the fallout from that decision, I made a much different decision several years later. When I received an invitation to the wedding of a close childhood friend, I didn't allow the fact that her bashert wasn't a "member of the tribe" to deter me from replying "yes" on the RSVP card. I don't believe anyone in attendance saw my presence as an acceptance of intermarriage. My intention was only to show support for my long-time friend and to ensure the couple knew that the Jewish community wasn't turning its back on them.
The R.A. isn't about to allow its members to officiate at interfaith weddings. But the attendance ban, which is listed in the code of conduct alongside the officiation ban, is a different issue. This policy forces rabbis to choose between violating a rule and slighting loved ones. The policy, enforced or not, adds pain to an already difficult situation for families. It sends a message that Judaism puts tribalism before dignity and respect.
It is time for the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind its policy banning its members from attending interfaith weddings as guests. If outreach to interfaith couples is a goal for our movement and our community, then the insult of refusing to attend their weddings is counterproductive.
Rabbi Jason A. Miller is rabbi of Tamarack Camps and director of the Kosher Michigan certification initiative.