Nov 30, 2009

Masorti Foundation: Thousands Turn Out to Rally for Religious Freedom

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the masorti (conservative) movement in israel - promoting religious pluralism and building community through inclusive, traditional, egalitarian Judaism
Jerusalem march -- 11-28-09
Dear Friends,
           We wrote to you last week about the planned march in Jerusalem in response to the arrest at the Kotel of Nofrat Frenkel. It was held right after Shabbat. Israeli media reported between 2,000 and 3,000 participated; that number included 400-500 from Masorti, an impressive turnout, given that those further away could not make it because of Shabbat.
            I now share with you, below, a report on the march by Yizhar Hess, Executive Director of Masorti in Israel. In photos taken that evening, you will note that Rabbi Barry Schlesinger and Nofrat Frenkel are using hand held loudspeakers. That is because someone cut the wires to the speaker system.
            In a related story, YNET reported over the weekend that in the siddurim (all Orthodox) in use at the main Kotel plaza, someone has torn out the "Zionist pages" that deal with prayers for the State of Israel or for the soldiers of the IDF.
            We should be proud of our Masorti community in Israel for asserting, on behalf of Jews everywhere, the right to religious freedom and tolerance in Israel. We need to help them with all the financial support we can provide.
David H. Lissy
Executive Director & CEO
Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel
To the Members of the Masorti Movement and Its Supporters,
Last night in Jerusalem, at the conclusion of Shabbat, as I stood on the dais and looked out at the thousands of people present (well over 2,000 even by modest estimates), I could not help but feel a sense of overwhelming pride. Even as we marched from Paris Square, down Ben-Yehudah Street, on our way to Zion Square, one could already sense it in the air – yet from above on the dais it was palpable and even more evident: hundreds of tee-shirts, worn by Masorti participants, emblazoned with the words "The Kotel for All" (using both the masculine and feminine forms of the Hebrew); so many  NOAM shirts; dozens of signs with original slogans, along with the NOAM emblem; and the wonderful feeling at this important demonstration – there we were as members of the Masorti movement, a large and significant presence, perhaps the largest contingent. Our voices were heard, and we were ever so visible, both on the dais and in the throng.

Rabbi Barry Schlesinger at J-slem March, 11-28-09
Our congregations, even those outside of Jerusalem, were well represented. There were members from our communities in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Modiin, Kfar Sabba, Raanana, Maccabim, Beer Sheva, Kibbutz Hannaton and elsewhere. This was in addition to the many NOAM members and alumni who simply heard about the rally and came to be with us.
Our journey to realizing all of our aspirations in Israel is still quite long. We are still at the beginning. But through demonstrations and marches such as that last night, we will progress on our path toward tikkun olam, repairing the world. We were asked to turn out for this march, and indeed we did so. We made clear to all, through our participation, that Jerusalem really does belong to us all. Social change begins from the place people begin to march forward.

Nofrat Frenkel at J-slem March, 11-28-09
When Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prominent philosopher and theologian who so influenced generations of Conservative rabbis who studied with him at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, returned to his home after joining with the Rev. Martin Luther King in the famous march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Rabbi Heschel summarized his experience in his personal diary as follows: "I felt as though I was praying with my feet…"
So too was last night much more than a simple march. It was prayer in motion. We established that for the sake of Zion we shall not be silent.
I wish to express my gratitude to all who enthusiastically volunteered in the organization of the demonstration; to lend my endorsement to the wise and  meaningful words of Rabbi Barry Schlesinger and Nofrat Frankel who spoke as Masorti movement representatives; and to give a warm embrace to the Masorti and NOAM staffs, who dedicated themselves with such a deep sense of faithfulness to the cause.
Yizhar Hess
Executive Director & CEO
Masorti Movement in Israel

To learn more, please contact:
Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 832
New York, NY 10115-0068
(212) 870-2216; 1-877-287-7414
http://www.masorti.org/; info@masorti.org

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Nofrat Frenkel's speech at the demonstration on Saturday night in Jerusalem

Nofrat Frenkel's speech at the demonstration on Saturday night in Jerusalem:
(translation by Shoshana Michael-Zucker, Kehliat Hod veHadar, Kfar Saba)


"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," said the prophet Isaiah. If God's Temple is to be a House of prayer for all peoples, surely it must also be one for all Jews, male and female, of all varieties and movements. The attempts of patriarchal, chauvinist ultra-Orthodoxy to turn the Kotel into an ultra-orthodox synagogue will not succeed. The Kotel is a place prayer for everyone, male and female.

God gave the commandment to wear tzitzit to all Jews, male and female, without reference to their gender. However, the ultra-Orthodox man who controls the Kotel feels that women who keep this commandment are pulling the rug out of control out from under his feet. His ability to continue oppressing women and distancing them from worshipping God is in danger; therefore, he took action against us.

The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the Diaspora, that "offence against public sensitivity" is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox. We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.

The time has come to put an end to the absurd situation in which the state of Israel is the only democracy is the world where Jewish do not enjoy freedom of religion!

As someone who grew up in Masorti-Conservative movement and a member of  Women of the Wall, which brings together woman from all Jewish religious movements – Reform, Orthodox and Conservative – I call on Rabbi Rabinowitz to remember that as the person responsible for the holy places, it is his responsibility to represent all of the Jewish women and men who want to pour out their hearts before the Creator at the Kotel.

My prayer is that God will bless His people, the people of Israel with love for one another, male and female, and fulfill, through us, the words of the prophet, "And they lovingly grant permission to each other to gratifyingly sanctify their Creator."

Nofrat Frenkel, 28 Nov. 2009

Nofrat Frenkel in the Forward: "The ‘Crime’ of Praying with a Tallit, and a Plea for Tolerance"

Forward: "The 'Crime' of Praying with a Tallit, and a Plea for Tolerance"

By Nofrat Frenkel

Published November 24, 2009, issue of December 04, 2009.


Every morning, since I was 15, I have worn a tallit for prayer in my home. During my army service, I was forced to swallow many negative comments by other soldiers who prayed in the army synagogues, some of which did not even have a women's gallery, because female soldiers never set foot in them. After leaving the army, I began to visit the Kotel every Rosh Hodesh. The atmosphere at the Kotel, the feeling that all those women praying around me were also turning to God and pouring out their hearts to Him, inspires me with the joy of Jewish fraternity. Here is one place in which, shoulder to shoulder, all the hearts are calling to God.

Offensive? Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall.

Prayer at the Kotel is so different from private prayer at home, or from communal prayer at the synagogue. It is a mixed creation: I am in a communal place, with many worshippers, but not even one voice can be heard. Just soft murmurings, choked crying, mute requests.

"God stands in the congregation of God" (Psalms 82) but it appears that God is not alone in this holy place. There is also hatred and contempt, arrogance and argument. At least that is what I experienced when I prayed in the women's section wearing my tallit.

The response of the "righteous women of the Kotel" to my donning a tallit never delayed in coming: every Rosh Hodesh I could expect a different type of "blessing." Curses in Hebrew and Yiddish, venomous treatment toward me and my tallit, and speculation regarding my gender and religion: "A man in the women's section!" "He's not even Jewish!" "Perhaps she's dressed up for Purim?"

I tried not to hear. I tried to concentrate on my prayers and to pray to God "who blesses His people Israel with love" that He should bless His people with the love of man for His fellow man. How can I pray for the building of the Temple when the people are not ready for it? When someone performing a biblical mitzvah is derided and ridiculed?

One Rosh Hodesh, when I had finished my prayers and was making my way out from the prayer area, I suddenly saw a group of tallit-wearing women standing and praying

together. It was my first meeting with the Women of the Wall — Conservative, Reform and Orthodox women who have been meeting to pray together every Rosh Hodesh over the past 21 years. Some wear a tallit, tefillin or a yarmulke, some do not: each according to her religious outlook. I immediately felt that my place was with them.

Illegal Prayer: Nofrat Frenkel (right), the author, reading from the Torah.

Each month we suffered verbal violence. The police looked on with amusement. The high court had decided some years ago that prevention of violence is justifiable grounds for the police acting to avoid an "offense to public sensitivity."

We were forbidden to continue praying with ritual objects, forbidden to read from the Torah in the women's section. We were allocated another space, away from the main Kotel plaza, a place for second-class citizens, in which we could pray without, God forbid, forcing the offended public to be exposed to the brutal sight of women performing the mitzvahs of tzitzit and reading the Torah.

The morning of Rosh Hodesh Kislev, November 18, was a cold Jerusalem morning. We stood, 42 Women of the Wall, and prayed in the women's section. Our tallitot were hidden under our coats; the sefer Torah was in its regular bag. There was no booing, no pushing, no shouting.

We were surprised that our service passed off without any disturbance, and we thought that, perhaps, they had already become accustomed to our presence and that we could even read from the Torah, opposite the stones of the Kotel. Then, just moments after we had removed the sefer Torah from its bag, two men entered the women's section and began abusing us.

All we wanted was to conclude our prayers in peace, so we decided to forgo the Torah reading there and go, as on every other Rosh Hodesh, to read the Torah at the alternative site. As we were exiting with me carrying the Torah, a policeman met us and began forcefully pushing me toward the nearby police station. Our pleas and explanations that we were on our way to the alternative site were of no use. I was transferred for questioning to the station at David's Citadel. All I had on me was my tallit, my siddur and a sefer Torah.

In my interrogation, I was asked why I was praying with a tallit when I knew that this was against the Law of the Holy Places. I am an Israel Defense Forces officer, a law-abiding citizen, a volunteer for the Civil Guard — I have never incurred even a parking fine — and the idea of having broken the law was most trying. Nevertheless, I cannot allow my basic right to freedom of religious worship to be trampled because of a court ruling given years ago.

It is most doubtful that this ruling would be accepted today. In the wake of the Conservative and Reform movements, during the past 10 years, people in the Orthodox world have come to understand that the woman's place is no longer restricted to the kitchen. Feminist Orthodox women are demanding to take an active part in Jewish life. Egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, in which women don tallitot and lead services, are popping up like mushrooms after rain. The "public sensitivity" has changed.

The Kotel belongs to all the people of Israel. The Kotel is not a Haredi synagogue, and the Women of the Wall will not allow it to become such.

I was banned from visiting the Kotel for two weeks, and a criminal file has been opened against me. I hope that the file will be closed, especially so that my medical studies will not be jeopardized. Perhaps, with God's help, this regretful event will awaken wide public objection, enough for the high court to re-evaluate its decision and annul it.

Jerusalem is the city of holiness and justice for all humankind. From Zion, the voice calling for equality should be heard, for boundless love, for better understanding between people. Jerusalem has already been destroyed, due to unfounded hatred. Let us hope it will not happen again.

Nofrat Frenkel is a fifth-year medical student in Israel and an active member of the Masorti kehilla in Kfar Saba. This was translated from the Hebrew.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Nov 28, 2009

Ynetnews: "Thousands protest haredi violence in Jerusalem"

Ynetnews: "Thousands protest haredi violence in Jerusalem"


Seculars, religious march in capital Saturday night to protest ultra-Orthodox coercion. 'We are facing danger that threatens not only Jerusalem, but Israeli society at large,' secular Jerusalem activist says

Ronen Medzini
Published: 11.28.09, 21:09 /

Thousands of secular and religious Jerusalem and out-of-towners rallied in the capital Saturday to protest ultra-Orthodox violence and coercion.


The protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in the Jerusalem city'center under the banner: "Iran is here – we're sick of haredi violence."


Haredi rioters should be detained and indicted, Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said during the protest.


"One time it's a parking lot, another time it's Intel, and in another case it's the Pride Parade," he said. "These are merely excuses for shows of force, violence, and coercion."


"I would love to raise my two small children in a city where they would have the legitimacy to do whatever their faith commands them," Yehonatan Alazar, a religious local, told Ynet.

"It's unheard of that a small group will dictate everyone's actions and cause them to leave town. What bothers me about the struggle against Intel is that (haredim) are forcing others to desecrate the Shabbat, just as they do themselves. Their interest is not the Shabbat, but rather, the power struggle in Jerusalem," he said.


'Iran is here! enough with haredi violence' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

"We are facing a danger that threatens not only Jerusalem, but Israeli society at large. People gathered here from across the country because they realized this danger can reach them too, and they want to put an end to religious coercion," said Merav Cohen from the Awakening In Jerusalem movement.


"It's nice to see so many people care about this city and are willing to fight for Jerusalem's freedom," she added.


'Enough carrying haredim on our backs' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)


Avital Livni, which held a sign that read "Enough carrying haredim on our backs" said, "we live in a country where a whole sector of society refuses to serve in the military...extorts money from the government and doesn't pay their taxes.


"It doesn't make sense that Torah students receive tuition while med students have to pay for their studies, and then they have the nerve to force their rules upon the rest of the nation," she said.


"This protest proves that the battle for Jerusalem is not lost. Just like we were the victors in the battle to open the cinemas and Karta parking lot on Shabbat, we will win the Intel battle as well," said Jerusalem's deputy mayor Joseph "Pepe" Alalu.


"The residents of Jerusalem are not indifferent, and will not give up on a pluralistic city. It's time haredim understand that this city must provide the needs of the free people," he said.

Nov 27, 2009

blog post by Zachary Silver: "Schechter's Yahrtzeit: Sunday, 12 Kislev; The man who was named after a day school"

This post is long. But Solomon Schechter (1847-1915, הרב שניור זלמן בן יצחק הכהן) is a man whose ideologies are the foundation of my worldview. So read to the end. See who this man is:

There are portraits throughout JTS of great minds of the past.

There's a cluster right next to Alperin Lobby.

Cyrus Adler guards the bathrooms on the first floor.

Abraham Joshua Heschel gets his spot in the library.

But Solomon Schechter's portrait gets its own location. His piercing eyes stare out of a face with a disheveled beard, his body draped in an enveloping red cloak. In some ways it's a little like Hogwarts, Schechter's eyes following you each time you head to the cafeteria line.

Mel Scult's article on Schechter in Tradition Renewed dubs JTS "Schechter's Seminary," a feature of the influence he had when he led the institution, and the vision he had into the future, as well.

To say that JTS is still "Schechter's Seminary" is hyperbolic. Yet that Chancellor Arnold Eisen's 2007 inaugural address featured the living ideologies of Schechter's 1902 inaugural speaks volumes of Schechter's transcendent message. As Eisen stated two years ago, after African drums ushered him in:

"Let me remind you, as I did at the opening assembly last year, of Solomon Schechter's emphasis on diversity in his inaugural address of 1902, and particularly of his horror at the thought of a faculty and student body who always agreed with him. We are not here to nod pleasantly at one another. For we have important work to do. If the year ahead passes without the unsettling of some settled convictions and the questioning of at least a few truths until now deemed self-evident, we all will have failed to meet one fundamental purpose of our teaching and learning together…

At JTS we have always known that honest difference for the sake of heaven makes us stronger—just as in-depth knowledge and thoughtful criticism of our tradition make Torah stronger. As Schechter put it in his inaugural lecture, "Faith and scholarship are not irreconcilable…

He meant that as an understatement. So do I. Shamor and zachor must be part of every dibbur we utter at JTS. Nuanced remembrance is key to all that we observe and preserve, including most especially what we preserve by changing it. This is never simple, of course, and there are many who would see the fidelity to both scholarship and Torah as an oxymoron."

Schechter lays out the Seminary mission quite explicitly: a no-apologies engagement of Jewish tradition in the modern world. It is no surprise that the mission is so applicable to Jewish life a century after his first Seminary address.

A glance at Schechter's eulogies give perspective to the scope of his influence during his life (click for the NYT editorial):

"Not only American Jewry, but the Jewry of the world, may well exclaim in the words of old, talmid hacham shemet mi mevi lanu halifto "A great scholar died; who shall bring unto us a substitute for him?" stated Reform Rabbi Samuel Schulman. "As the distinguished and revered president of the Hebrew Union College (Kauffman Kohler) and co-worker in a great enterprise with Solomon Schechter already said, 'There is no substitute for Solomon Schechter. " And truly it can be asserted that no one can take his place. There was a romance in the life of Solomon Schechter. And this romance reflects the romance in the life of the modern Jew. Many a Jew in this last one hundred years began his career in an humble town within the ghetto walls and, under God's blessing, unfolded his powers, assimilating all that the modern spirit had to offer and becoming an influence of international scope.'" 1

As Mordecai Kaplan described in his journal: The crowd of people that had gathered though large (about 1,500-2,000) was by no means commensurate with the significance of Dr. Schechter to Judaism. We may now be prepared for changes of an eventful character. 2

Schechter lived the final thirteen years of his life in America. Yet he pioneered unique and fitting visions for the American Jewish scene with the eyes of an outsider. Small examples include that he claimed that every rabbi should know how to play baseball — there was no way to bring Judaism to American society without it. His collection of essays, Seminary Addresses and Other Papers features an essay on Abraham Lincoln, on his 100th anniversary, a beautiful ode to the American bridge-builder (I shall editorialize here that Googlebooks rocks).

Brought from Cambridge University specifically to lead the newly reestablished Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Schechter's scholarship of the Cairo Genizah, secular education and scientific approach to Judaism preceded his arrival to America.

Even before activating change at the helm of the Seminary, the American Jewish Yearbook gave him a prophetic billing: "In the near future, [America will become] the centre and focus of Jewish religious activity and the chosen home of Jewish learning." 3

Schechter's death marked much more than the death of just a man; people despaired that no individual could possibly replace him on the American Jewish scene, and thus the religion as a whole would suffer drastically.

Along with a certain mystique in the walls of the Seminary, his philosophy of Jewish life would reappear throughout Kaplan's conceptions of Jewish peoplehood and community, and in Finkelstein's attempts to secure the Seminary as the centerpiece of religious life in America, even the world, during his tenure.

While Schechter did not dub Judaism a "civilization," his vision of Judaism as an all-encompassing entity, defined in both universal and national terms rings with Kaplan's conceptions of viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization. Though Schechter would not go near to allowing his greater theology to change the nature of halakha, perhaps the reason why Kaplan was most thoroughly castigated, Schechter viewed Judaism as an evolving religion:

"Judaism was an organism with a natural growth, rooted in the Torah… That certain foreign beliefs and foreign usages should creep in was unavoidable, as Israel neither could nor would shut itself from the influences of the outside world." 4

Schechter is widely known for his conceptions of the Jewish people being a nation of "Catholic Israel," an ideal which manifested the unity of the Jewish people throughout the course of Jewish history. Kaplan, in fact, used Schechter's rhetoric to describe the nature of the Jewish people being an organic community:

"Since the interpretation of Scripture or the Secondary Meaning is mainly a product of changing historical influence, it follows that the center of authority is actually removed from the Bible and placed in some living body, which by reason of its being in touch with the ideal aspiration and religions needs of the age, is best able to determine the nature of the Secondary Meaning." 5

With the belief in the authority of community, Schechter thus philosophically felt that a unified body, not a denomination would shape the modern American experience; specifically for Schechter, the Seminary would seek to be the embodiment of Catholic Israel, thereby giving the institution the ability, even the mandate, to integrate modern sensibilities with Judaism. 6

Of course, this assumes that there is an entity that could possibly represent the views of the entirety of the Jewish people.

Granted, the Seminary could not truly be the centerpiece of world Jewry, as modernity allowed and mandated for personal autonomy and freedom of thought. However, Finkelstein's efforts to position the Seminary as the beacon of Judaism gave it a particular influence whose base was set with Schechter.

In his inaugural speech, Schechter articulated the notion of the Seminary being a location for all Jews to study – this would not be the headquarters of Conservative Judaism, rather the epicenter of Judaism at large:

"Such a community is indeed a mystery. And this has become perplexing; for it is amidst all these Judaisms and non-Judaisms that my colleagues and myself are called upon to create a theological centre [sic.] which should be all things to all men, reconciling all parts and appealing to all sections of the community. If I understand correctly the intention of those who honored me with their call, and if I interpret my own feelings aright, this school should never become partisan ground or a hotbed of polemics, making 'confusion worse confounded.'" 7

Defining the Seminary in the broadest possible terms, particularly at its inception, should not be surprising. As with a presidential inauguration, Schechter sought to give a vision for his entire career at the helm of what he hoped to be the bastion of Jewish learning in America. But the speech particularly resonates with Schechter's ideological conceptions of "Catholic Israel," which could have functioned independently from his helm at the Seminary. As Mel Scult explains, at least from the outset of his tenure as head of the Seminary, Schechter sought for the Seminary to what Kaplan would later dub, "adjectiveless Judaism." 8

Finkelstein would seize upon these founding principles as a particular justification why he reached outside of the Seminary during his term, stating in 1945:

"I do not think it is an accident that the Seminary should find itself pushed, as it were, out of the Jewish scene and on the world scene. It did not do it out of choice. It was not that all of a sudden we got a brainstorm and decided we must go had and try to help build peace in the world. It is because the institution itself was built on these very foundations of peace and understanding people who are different, encouraging differences and being grateful for differences." 9 [emphasis mine]

Schechter's influence in the Jewish community, as well as his personal qualities, were omnipresent at the Seminary under Finkelstein's term, so much so that over forty years after he gave his inaugural speech, this precedent could be used as a particular strong reason for why Finkelstein would foster a particular spirit at the Seminary.

If Schechter viewed denominationalism at all during his term, it was between Reform and everybody else, and as Neil Gillman described, the Seminary represented, "everybody else."

Yet Schechter worked toward including the Reform factions in the community of Catholic Israel despite the deep ideological divides, notably stating in a 1913 speech:

"Thank God, there are still a great many things and aims for which both parties can work in harmony and perfect peace, and unite us… There is also the great work which Judaism can do for humanity at large, in which both parties can combine... We have become so infatuated with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest that we have lost all sensibility to the great moral catastrophes which are passing before our eyes." 10

During a time when Reform Judaism attracted the largest portion of American Jews, Schechter did not try to convert Reformers to his viewpoint, but rather viewed that notions of denominationalism were particularly dangerous to the fabric of Judaism as a whole. 11

However, anyone else was welcome, anyone "who [had] not accepted the Union Prayer Book nor performed their religious devotion with uncovered heads." 13 In his 1915 Seminary, Schechter again differentiated between "Reform and everybody else":

"The greater part of a rather lengthy lecute is devoted to proving that not only was the application of scientific methods to Jewish studies not incompatible with the spirit of conservative 14 , but that it was largely conservative Jews, or at least, men indifferent to Reform tendencies, who availed themselves of the scientific method and became subsequently the most prominent representatives of the scientific movement…." 15

Notably, Rabbi Robert Gordis pointed to the qualification of the term Catholic Israel to illustrate that Kaplan could not be included in this community because of his abandonment of religious law as a binding factor in Jewish life. 16

With the justification of unifying Catholic Israel, Schechter established the United Synagogue of America, an organization that sought to unify the traditional forces in America, manifesting in its name its status as a non-denominational entity. 17 As Finkelstein would indicate in the forties, Schechter saw a unification of American Jewry as the only way to overcome what were inevitable struggles Judaism would have within the scope of modernity.

In his 1913 platform for the United Synagogue, Schechter explained that without a unified front against the inherent problems that would beset Judaism, the religion would dissolve:

"Yes, in view of the danger threatening the historic faith dear to Conservative and Orthodox alike, we regard is as a sacred duty that all forces unite, irrespective of the differences which otherwise divide them. Such cooperation should not be construed as the organization's approval of all those innovations which some of its bodies have introduced….

Close observation for ten years and more has convinced me that unless we succeed in effecting an organization, which loyal to the Torah, to the teachings of the sages, to the traditions of the fathers, to the usages and customs of Israel, shall and the same time, introduce the English sermon and adopt scientific methods in our seminaries, in our training of Rabbis and schoolmasters for our synagogues and Talmud Torahs, and bring order and decorum in our synagogues, unless this is done, I declare unhesitatingly that Traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country." 18

While "Conservative Judaism" may have been implanted on the movement from the outside, like with the name of the United Synagogue of America, Schechter noted that the name of the "Jewish Theological Seminary of America" was quite purposeful, chosen because it did not include references to a particular branch of Judaism; the directors of the institution had "distinctly shown their intention of avoiding sectarianism, for it is an especial American feature that no preference is given to any denomination or sect or theological richtung. All alike are welcome." 19

Kaplan's rhetoric more than forty years later in an address commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Teacher's college resonated with Schechter's inclusive ideology, seeking to create a Seminary that was true to the realities of its name:

"The precedent of having undergone metamorphoses twice before in the course of its career, as well as the inner restiveness both on its career, as well as the part of its graduates and lay adherents, should impel the Seminary to measure up to the need and opposition of these new times, and become the kind of institution that would resurrect the Jew's faith in his people and its religion. In order to achieve this, the Seminary must avoid the pitfall of denominationalism."20

Schechter's emphasis to unite all non-Reform forces in America seems to indicate that he sought particularly to enact his ideology of "Catholic Israel" at the Seminary; certainly, the lack of a strong statement such as Reform's 1885 "Pittsburgh Platform" marked the Seminary as not following the only known precedent for creating a new movement in Judaism. Additionally the Wissenschaft scholarship of the Seminary differentiated the institution from those to the right of Schechter's Seminary. However, this situated the Seminary as a special subset of traditional Judaism, not a new movement in toto.

From his opening address, Schechter emphasized the importance of studying the gamut of the history of the Jewish religion, where he specifically named the importance of the scientific study of approach to Judaism, not necessarily as the Truth, but as a viable approach in the history of the religion:

"We cannot, naturally, hope to carry the student through all these vast fields of learning at the cultivation of which humanity has now worked for nearly four thousand years. But this fact must not prevent us from making the attempt to bring the students on terms of acquaintance at least with all those manifestations of Jewish life and Jewish thought which may prove useful to them as future ministers, and suggestive and stimulating to them as prospective scholars….

[Founder of the Wissenschaft approach to Judaism, Leopold] Zunz's motto was 'Real knowledge creates action' and the existence of such men as R. Saadya Gaon and R. Hai Gaon, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, R. Joseph Caro and R. Isaac Abrabanel, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Abraham Geiger, and an innumerable host of other spiritual kings in Israel, all 'mighty in the battles of the Torah,' and voluminous authors, and at the same time living among their people and for their people and influencing their contemporaries, and still at this very moment swaying the actions and opinions of men – all these bear ample testimony to the truth of Zunz's maxim." 21

For Schechter, incorporating the entirety of the Jewish experience was the only educationally honest way to approach learning; ignoring Wissenschaft approaches because of the antagonistic argument that deconstructing religious texts with modern techniques was heretical, was an evasion of the issues. (It should be noted that Biblical criticism was not studied at the Seminary until well into Finkelstein's term as the head of the institution. During the first several decades of the 20th century, Biblical criticism was wielded as an anti-Semitic axe).

Jews, he said, had an obligation to question, and an additional approach did not have to be threatening: "There is no cause to be afraid of much learning, or rather, of much teaching. The difficulty under which we labor is rather that there are subjects which cannot be taught, and yet do form an essential part of the equipment of a Jewish minister." 22

Schechter emphasized a complete involvement in Wissenschaft, to the exclusion of other aspects of a rabbinic life, even disliking the term "rabbi" itself.

Schechter sought to establish an institution that, above all, sponsored a feeling of intellectual freedom:

"The Torah gave spiritual accommodation for thousands of years to all sorts and conditions of men, sages, philosophers, scholars, mystics, casuists, school men and skeptics; and it should also prove broad enough to harbor the different minds of the present century…. The teaching in the Seminary will be in keeping with this spirit, and thus largely confined to the exposition and elucidation of historical Judaism in its various manifestations." 23

The portrait of Schechter hanging down the hallway from the library gives me goosebumps nearly every time I pass it. His visions for living an immersive Jewish and American life still resonate with me unlike many other thinkers in Jewish history. In addition to studying the gamut of Jewish studies, his vision for being a vivid and vital rabbi in America still pushes me as I study continue in my rabbinic journey.


1. Rabbi Samuel Schulman, "Solomon Schechter,"
Proceedings, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1916

2. Kaplan journal, Nov. 20, 1915 in Communings of the Spirit, 98

3. Jonathan Sarna,
American Judaism (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2004)188

4. Myer S. Kripke, "Solomon Schechter's Philosophy of Judaism,"
The Reconstructionist, 1937

5. Kaplan, "Toward the Formulation of Guiding Principles of the Conservation Movement," to be delivered December 6, 1949, labeled confidential, Ratner Center; also published as a supplement to
Conservative Judaism, Vol. VI, No. 4, May, 1950, 1-24

6. The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904, s.v. "Judaism

7. Solomon Schechter, "Inaugural Address of Solomon Schechter as President of the Faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America," New York, 1903, delivered Nov. 20, 1902, 7

8. Scult, "Schechter's Seminary," in
Tradition Renewed, 59

9. R.A.,
Proceedings, 1945 in Greenbaum, Louis Finkelstein and the Conservative Movement, 235

10. Herbert Parzen,
Architects of Conservative Judaism (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1964), 53

11. Ibid., 52

12. Ibid., 73

13. Ibid., 72

14. Schechter used the term "conservative" several times throughout his career as an adjective to describe the type of Judaism practiced at the Seminary. He never used Conservative with a capital "C" to describe the movement, however.

15. Schechter, "The Preface," in
Tradition and Change, 100

16. Gordis, "Authority in Jewish Law," 83

17. In 1991, the Union would change its name to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, illustrating its commitment specifically to the Conservative movement.

18. Report United Synagogue of America, 1913, in Parzen, 68-69

19. Max Arzt, "Conservative Judaism as a Unify Force,"
Conservative Judaism, Vol. V, No. 4, June 1949, 13

20. Kaplan, "From Strength to Strength," 13

21. Solomon Schechter, "Inaugural Address," 18-19

22. Ibid., 19

23. Schechter, "Inaugural Address," 24-25
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 25, 2009

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg in the Forward: "Adults, Who Happen To Be Young(er)"

Forward: "Adults, Who Happen To Be Young(er)"
OpEd By Danya Ruttenberg
November 25, 2009

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the new head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has made it clear that one of his priorities for the organization is outreach to Jews in their 20s and early 30s. As Conservative Jews gather for the USCJ's biennial in Cherry Hill, N.J., December 6 — the first of Wernick's tenure — and begin to chart a new course for the movement, it's worth considering how best to go about pursuing this important goal.

Obviously, there are a lot of exciting possibilities when it comes to enfranchising and exciting 20- and 30-something Jews. But there are also some pitfalls that are common in efforts to reach this particular demographic.

Thinking in terms of "getting the young people" has too often led to programs that have the potential to fail on at least one of two counts.

On the one hand, people can spot an attempt to "be hip" from a mile away; programs that aren't organic, that don't genuinely tap into the zeitgeist and people's interests will be read as pandering and condescending and are likely to fall flat.

But more than that, even when people show up, the nature of many outreach programs leads me to wonder whether we aren't operating under a misguided definition of "success." If people go to an event featuring a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model from Israel and leave tipsy but untransformed Jewishly, is that a success? Will attending a kosher karaoke night make people more moral, kinder, more in touch with themselves, with the Divine, with a stronger sense of meaning to their lives? Will it quench their thirst for the living Torah — the Torah that speaks to their lives, their struggles, their romances and ethical questions, to their financial woes and existential fears?

I would posit that getting butts in chairs — even the butts of a highly desirable demographic — is not the point. Our job, as rabbis, as Conservative Jews, as Jews in general, is to offer opportunities for our constituents to have meaningful connections to other people, to the Jewish tradition, to Torah, to the world as a whole, to themselves and to God. And as it happens, 20-somethings — like folks in other age groups — crave substance and depth.

In my work as a Jewish educator on a college campus, I've been astounded by the degree to which this is true. I've been tasked with helping students create Jewish opportunities and communities in the dorms, fraternities and off-campus apartments — all over campus, in other words. What most people want, I've learned, is the high-octane stuff: to come to a deeper understanding of Jewish spirituality; to talk about the nature of God and the purpose of religion; to find a Jewish connection to the big questions weighing on their hearts, and to create a community in which those questions can be explored together.

If this is true of college students, how much more is it true when working with those who have already transitioned to the working world? "Young adults" (which, it must be noted, also refers to the genre in which Judy Blume writes) are adults. And their questions, concerns and yearnings are adult yearnings.

In fact, the most successful programs that I can think of — in terms of lifespan, vitality and overall contribution to the Jewish community — are those that are not defined by age or generational identification. They're opportunities for people with common interests to come together to work from a Jewish perspective on a cause or issue about which they feel passionate, to pray with a particular sensibility, to make or enjoy Jewish cultural offerings or to take part in study that touches the heart. These are programs that have depth, substance and vision, and have been created by the same types of people who ultimately participate in them.

USCJ, to its credit, has already done some strategic thinking about how to partner with folks who are making exciting things happen in a way that serves everyone's interests. Its Kesharim program, which offers grants to independent minyans that partner with Conservative synagogues or the USCJ, has created some mutually satisfying relationships. (Rabbi Wernick has indicated that he hopes to broaden the Kesharim initiative.) Other minyans or local organizations that are not interested in this sort of partnership are nonetheless game for other kinds of joint programming and connections.

Certainly, though, there are some risks in the USCJ's decision to create a Youth and Young Adult Services department to serve, out of one office, the teens of United Synagogue Youth, college students and people who are in their first 10 or so years out of college. As David Levy wrote on the blog Jewschool, "Please do not treat young adults in their 20s and 30s like children…. If the movement is losing members between the time individuals complete USY and the time they have their first child, the answer is not to extend the USY experience right up to the mid-life crisis."

Jewish 20- and 30-somethings certainly don't need to be programmed to the same way that teenagers do; taking them seriously as adults means that any initiatives that come out of USCJ must be done in very close collaboration with those it hopes to serve, and it means that the organization must know when its role is better served offering resources and letting its constituents lead.

The Conservative movement has the chance to step up to the plate and engage 20- and 30-somethings in ways that are substantive, meaningful and transformative — that address the big questions. Not, mind you, "the big questions facing young Jews" — but, rather, the big questions facing everybody. It has the chance to do so with depth, nuance and sophistication, to partner and collaborate with the adults in question in order live out the movement's potential in the best possible way: embedded in the tradition and yet engaged in the world today. Will the organization offer up more than kosher karaoke? I hope so.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel and the author of "Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion" (Beacon Press, 2008).

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 24, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009: "Giving Thanks"

Thanksgiving 2009: "Giving Thanks"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

in memory of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg z"l, who died in an attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai on Thanksgiving 2008


The experience of Thanksgiving resonates with so much of Jewish tradition. Family, feast, gratitude, and harvest are part of many Jewish holidays, and some scholars believe that Thanksgiving is, at least in part, based on the holiday of Sukkot.  There are even those who offer special Tefilot/Prayers for Thanksgiving.  None of these necessarily fit our theologies, our American identities, our understandings of history - but they do point to an attempt to connect Judaism with an American identity.

Consider this one by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:

"In the days of the pilgrims, the Puritans, when they arrived at these safe shores, suffered hunger and cold. They sang and prayed to the Rock of their Salvation. And You, standing by them, roused the caring of the Natives for them, who fed them turkey and corn and other delights. Thus You saved them from starvation, and they learned the ways of peace with the inhabitants of the land. Therefore, feeling grateful, they dedicated a day of Thanksgiving each year as a remembrance for future generations, feeding unfortunates feasts of thanks. Thus do we thank You for all the good in our lives, God of kindness, Lord of Peace; thus do we thank You. (from A Thanksgiving Seder; see also a A Thanksgiving Seder for Small Children.)"

Reb Zalman's formula is based on the traditional "Al HaNissim/Upon the Miracles" recited for Channukah and Purim (and, more recently, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut/Israel's Independence Day).  It paints a peaceful portrait of the Puritans as well as a picture of God as gentle, guiding Presence.

But the history of Thanksgiving, like most things (including any image of God), is more complicated than any simple narrative can express.  For instance, contrary to popular perception, it was not until 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln fixed the last Thursday of each November as a "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father."  (Click here for an article on the rabbinic battle that ignited in 1868 when the governor of Pennsylvania declared that Thanksgiving should be celebrated as a Christian holiday.

On Thursday, when we share Thanksgiving with family and friends, we might take a moment and offer thanks for the very freedom to consider these thoughts, for the right to practice our Judaism openly and with pride, for the gift of our precious communities and all they represent in our lives. 

We have a precious gift as Jewish Americans: the right to be both Jewish and free.  This might not have been the Pilgrim's design, but it is their legacy.  Just as this moment in American history represents a dream-in-process, so to do we each have important work ahead as members of a Jewish community and as citizens.  What a blessing!  Ours is a moment worthy of gratitude and rededication.

Perhaps, this Thanksgiving, we'll choose a traditional Jewish way of offering gratitude.  Perhaps we'll create something new.  But however we may express our souls, may this Thanksgiving be an experience of nurtured gratitude for our country and all its inhabitants.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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a sweet Amitim pic from today

may all our learning be so photogenic!
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Masorti Foundation: Jerusalem Rally to Protest Kotel Arrest


the masorti (conservative) movement in israel - promoting religious pluralism and building community through inclusive, traditional, egalitarian Judaism
Nofrat Frenkel
Dear Friends,
I am writing with an important follow-up to the story about the arrest in Israel at the Kotel of Nofrat Frenkel, a young medical student active in the Masorti movement since childhood. Nofrat was taken into custody for the "crime" of wearing a tallit and holding a sefer Torah during a Rosh Hodesh gathering of 40 women.
Nofrat has since written a sensitive, moving reflection on the incident. It appears as a "Letter from Jerusalem" in the forthcoming edition of the Forward newspaper, and I encourage you to read it: http://forward.com/articles/119509/.
I am also pleased to report that Nofrat's arrest has apparently hit a nerve among Israelis, the tens of thousands who are fed up with the repressive tactics of the haredim when it comes to expressions of religious freedom in Israel. Masorti and many other organizations are sponsoring a rally to "liberate the Kotel a second time" will take place in Jerusalem at the end of this Shabbat. You'll find details in the announcement below.
In the meantime, to continue the important battle for religious freedom and equality at the Kotel and throughout Israel, the Masorti movement needs your support. Please make your contribution today. Send a check to the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel at the address shown below, or make an online donation at www.masorti.org.
David H. Lissy
Executive Director & CEO
"Taking back the city, by walking!"
Secular, religious and Masorti Jews: Say "Put an end to attempts of haredi coercion and unite to restore sanity, freedom and mutual respect to the city!"
Nofrat Frenkel, a NOAM graduate, member of Kehillat Hod Vehadar and a fourth-year medical student at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, was arrested last week after daring to put on a tallit at the main Kotel plaza.  This incident joins a series of events that have practically expropriated the Kotel Hamaaravi from the hands of of Am Yisrael.  For example, until very recently, groups of students or tourists would spontaneously break out in song and dance in the public plaza (Am Yisrael Hai, Kol Haolam Kulo).  Now, however, if there is singing and dancing, they are immediately and brutally halted by the Modesty Guard of the Kotel rabbi; the public plaza itself has recently been divided in a way that allows the rapid erection of a mechitza between men and women; even the entrance from the parking area has been separated between the sexes; emotional ceremonies in which olim chadashim receive their teudot zehut have been cancelled after the Kotel rabbi insisted that the families adhere to separation between men and women; sign have been placed around the plaza cautioning people to maintain modesty; and the rabbi has many other ideas.  The Kotel, a symbol that united Israeli and Diaspora Jews, is today, in effect, placed in the hands of the haredim.  This is a hostile takeover by a small, fundamentalist group in the history of Am Yisrael (the haredim) – and the methodical exclusion of all those who do not adopt its code of behavior.  We must liberate the Kotel, a second time.
After examining various options and ideas for a fitting response to this Kotel incident, we decided to join the forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem, which protests against the expropriation of the Kotel and against the haredi radicalization in Jerusalem in general – the haredi violence in the Intel and Karta car park incidents.
This coming Motzaei Shabbat (28/11), together with the forum, we will hold a large public march, for the members of the organizations, for the general public and for members of the Movement from around the country.  The march will begin at 19:00, in Kikar Paris, and will culminate in a rally, at 20:00, in Kikar Zion. (there may be a change to the route, in accordance with police dictates).  A Masorti rabbi will speak at the rally, as will Nofrat Frenkel.
The forum of organizations for a free Jerusalem includes: Hitorerut, Vaad Kiriat Yovel, Ruach Hadasha, Meretz, Tzeirei Haavoda, Tzeirei Halikud, Mifleget Or, the Greens-Meimad, Marom (Masorti Movement), Neemanei Torah Vaavoda, Forum Hatzeirim and Telem Students.
We call upon all members of the Masorti Movement, from across the country, to make the effort to come to the rally (we will try to assist those wishing to stay in Jerusalem from Friday afternoon by finding host families).  An impressive turnout by members of the Movement will color the march and rally with the correct messages.  We will provide Movement members with a Movement T-shirt, stickers and placards.  Whoever can should also prepare placards at home and bring them with.
The meeting point of Movement members (distribution of T-shirts, stickers, placards) – 18:50, at the entrance to the Fuchsberg Center (beside Kikar Paris).
To learn more, please contact:
Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 832
New York, NY 10115-0068
(212) 870-2216; 1-877-287-7414
http://www.masorti.org/; info@masorti.org

Nov 23, 2009

[Shefa] ShefaJournal 5770 - "HaNefesh v'HaGuf" - Call for Submissions!!!

Call for Submissions for ShefaJournal 5770:

"HaNefesh v'HaGuf: The Relationship Between Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement"

This journal will be focusing on both the current states of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement as well as their relationship past, present and future. For the purposes of this journal, we will define Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement as follows:

"There is a large difference between Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement.  One is a system of ideas and commitments; the other is a series of institutions born during particular moments in attempts to give the dream a body, a vehicle for becoming real."
–Rabbi Menachem Creditor, "Shmirat HaGuf: Caring for the Body of Conservative Judaism"

Shmirat HaGuf and the resulting conversation will be a large part of the journal. However, seeing as Shefa has always been a place for us to dream about both Conservative Judaism and the Conservative Movement, we will also return to our previous journals, our chronicles, to find starting points for this new discussion. We will respond to quotes from all of the previous journals that will be distributed first come, first served.

If you are interested in writing for ShefaJournal 5770, please contact me as soon as possible by e-mailing me at ksnygirl@yahoo.com.

The deadline for submissions will be Sunday, December 13, 2009.

Todah rabah v'hatzlacha!

~Nina S. Kretzmer
Guest Editor, ShefaJournal 5770

Alban Institute: "Small is Beautiful"

by Wendy McCormick

"People don't realize we've been doing 'small group ministry' for 150 years!" This comment from the leader of one of the many small congregations across the country got a laugh from the ministerial association of a small southern Indiana town, but any leader of a small congregation would recognize the truth in the comment. Small congregations often feel isolated from the bigger congregations in their communities and denominations, and even looked down upon by a culture that promotes the notion that bigger is better, but many of these congregations are thriving.

Statisticians tell us that while the majority of church members in the U.S. attend a large church, the majority of congregations are small. Many of these congregations provide an anchoring presence in the rural or small town communities they call home, and some offer services and programs to benefit the community at large and not just "their own." Most small congregations enjoy much higher percentages of their members in worship and ministry than do their larger counterparts, and many make generous contributions to mission in the community and the wider world, especially in proportion to their size.

But these congregations often struggle to find resources appropriate to their setting. Materials seem to be tailored to large congregations with large staffs. At the same ministerial group meeting, another pastor said it seems that every seminar or book begins, "First you convene a meeting of your worship pastor, your outreach pastor, and your discipleship pastor..."

The Indianapolis Center for Congregations strives to find resources appropriate for each congregation we serve. Often small congregations can be resources for one another. We also find that when small congregations gain clarity about who they are and what they are uniquely called to be and to do, other challenges begin to resolve. One small, rural congregation in southern Indiana put time and energy into clarifying their mission, landing on three key areas. They determined to do these three things well and to put aside the "something for everyone" approach into which congregations so often fall. Energy for their three-part vision began to grow, and thirty of their fifty members (60 percent) joined one of the three ministry teams.

At the Center, we also find that when congregations build on their strengths and assets, energy and resources for big challenges tend to increase. Several small congregations in southwest Indiana have focused on the unique advantages they have precisely because they are small. They realized that some of their members go out of their way to be part of a small congregation, passing by bigger congregations with more extensive programming precisely because they like the relationships and the family feeling the small congregation affords. They began to appreciate some of the interactive things they could do in worship that just aren't possible in a large group.

Some congregations have built on these positive attributes by using the tools of appreciative inquiry and asset mapping to identify their strengths and passions. One congregation located near the center of their small town identified their building as one of their best assets and launched a study process to determine better ways to use the building for ministry and to prioritize needed capital improvements. Energy for projects and even for fundraising increased as ministry purposes were clarified and priorities fell into place.

Another congregation noticed that while they didn't have young families, they did have teenagers. They trained some of their adults in CPR so they could supervise the youth group in providing monthly "date night" child care for the young families in the new subdivision that has grown up nearby.

Another congregation knew that the recession had increased the numbers of hungry people in their rural community, but they didn't really know who the hungry were or how to find them. They didn't feel they had much expertise at social services, but they knew their congregation was "pretty good at food." They began a free "community meal" one night a week, opening their congregation's table to anyone who wanted to come. Within a few months, they were in the unexpected position of needing more space; each week more and more of their previously unknown hungry neighbors, along with some of their community's lonely citizens, were joining them to break bread.

These congregations are not without challenges. Some of them have part-time pastors stretched thin as bivocational ministers. Many have budget woes and building maintenance issues. Still, the Center for Congregations finds that small congregations grow in their capacity to face their challenges when they do what these congregations did: identify one or more areas of strength and start small; look more at what they can do than at what they cannot; and resist traditional outside measures of success. They are proving that small is beautiful.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 22, 2009

Reflection: Being a Sacred Vessel in Moments of Tension

Reflection: Being a Sacred Vessel in Moments of Tension
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The human body, according to Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, is a fragile sacred vessel. His program of Jewish learning, therefore, involved altered modes of breathing and bodily vitality to prevent physical harm to the student of the spirit. For every human being is a bridge between this world and heaven, and every bridge needs support. Especially when the load being carried is great.

Those whose work includes channeling the divine and supporting others are placed frequently in the immediate intersection of Mercy and Judgment, Limitless Compassion and Structural Integrity. When in a difficult position, the person whose profession is a sacred calling can be torn between relinquishing integrity for the sake of Love and maintaining integrity for the sake of Sustainable Love. This doesn't allow the answer to be "yes" every time, and a caring person suffers when the required answer is "no."

It's not really in that moment (nor is it ever truly) about the vessel. Caregivers, humbled by their roles, experience great Sipuk Nefesh/Spiritual Reward - except when when they don't, when their connection to so many searches for meaning renders them a magnet for intense emotionality. And those intense moments define whether the sacred path they navigate has integrity.

Fragile, Sacred, Intense: What a challenge, what a blessing!

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 20, 2009

Winter 2009/2010 Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism

Winter 2009/2010 Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism




In A Tale of a Movement, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's DR. RAYMOND B. GOLDSTEIN challenges our congregations to take action to keep Conservative Judaism vibrant

CORY R. SCHNEIDER of Women's League for Conservative Judaism encourages Weaving Passions into Actions

The new president of FJMC, MARK BERLIN, describes The Long Arm of the FJMC


The Bookshelf
RABBI NEIL GILLMAN discusses some new books that highlight aspects of Jewish history and tradition

Why I Am A Conservative Jew
DR. FRED PASSMAN'S autobiographical essay traces his search for a Jewish community that meets his needs spiritually, intellectually, and ritually

Students Talk About Conservative Judaism
Five Koach leaders – participants in United Synagogue's college program – talk about their relationship to the Conservative movement

Reclaiming Poland
During an emotional tour of Poland, RACHEL POMERANCE reports, the 70 cantors who made the trip come to understand why it is time to liberate Poland from its overwhelming association with the Holocaust

Rethinking Holocaust Programming
While we should never stop remembering the uniquely Jewish experience of the Shoah, DANIEL M. KIMMEL explains that remembering it should also compel us to emphasize its lessons today as genocide continues around the world

Aliyah and the Conservative Movement
RABBI DAVID GOLINKIN wants Conservative Jews to make aliyah a priority. At the same time, CJ looks at pictures of Conservative Jews who made aliyah this year

Conservative Rabbis Move to Israel
It might come as a surprise that it is particularly difficult for Conservative rabbis to make aliyah, according to JACOB DALLAL

Israel's Ministry for Religious Affairs - A Strategic Threat
According to YIZHAR HESS, the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate is almost out of control

Do Jewish Artists Make Jewish Art?
Four artists who happen to be Jewish talk to JOANNE PALMER about how their art and their lives are intertwined

Creating Sacred Space: Synagogue Design for the Twenty-First Century
Spiritual, communal, emotional, and participatory describe today's synagogue services. BONNIE RIVA RAS looks at how those concepts are incorporated into the buildings that house today's congregations

Women Speak - Sisters in Battle: Maccabees of A Different Nature
LISA KOGEN shares stories of some extraordinary Jewish women whose military courage and skill are particularly inspiring at Chanukah

What's Chanukah Without Latkes
Enjoy some mouthwatering recipes

Sparks of Halachah
For STAN BEINER, the Epstein School's engagement in the halachic process was as much about community as the nature of prayer

Beyond B'nai Mitzvah
RABBI CHARLES SIMON offers an intriguing way to engage teenagers in synagogue life

Taking Rosh Chodesh to a New Level
Women's League offers a virtual rosh chodesh group

Intermarried Challenges and Opportunities
For RUTH NEMZOFF, engaging the many faces of Jewish families can add energy to our communities

Shtey Glaykh: Yiddish Lessons
GERALD M. SIEGEL reminisces about how Yiddish reclaimed a role in his life

You Say Tomato, I Say Tamahto
Even if you say phylacteries instead of tefillin, STAN GREENSPAN invites you to participate in FJMC's next World Wide Wrap

Betting on Belief
SAUL GOLUBCOW is grateful for the wisdom about belief in God that his father gave him

The Visitor
ABE BUNIS'S faith is restored when he can share a prayer with a visitor to his hospital room

Special Guests at the FJMC Convention
MICHAEL ABADI introduces several young Latin American Jews, members of HaDor Habah – The Next Generation, who were guests at the FJMC convention

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 19, 2009

Fwd: Jay Michaelson on Magen Tzedek (Hekhsher Tzedek)

From the Forward

Magen Tzedek: Model of the Jewish Future or Show Without an Audience?

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.

The problem seems not to have changed. Back when I was at college, the egalitarian services couldn't get a minyan, and so, while I didn't like Orthodox liturgy, and didn't approve of the mechitza (prayer barrier), I still schlepped up the extra flight of stairs to the traditional minyan, week after week. Whatever my personal preferences, it seemed that only Orthodox Jews cared enough to make the system work.

Today, I feel like the challenge remains the same — only writ much larger. Historically, progressive Jews have had trouble mustering the same degree of zeal as traditional Jews, whether regarding synagogue affiliation, in-marriage (and affiliation post-intermarriage) or any number of other values. This, the Orthodox often say with a degree of deserved smugness, just goes to show you.

Now, along come the Conservative movement's efforts to create a Magen Tzedek, a seal for food products that would certify conformity not to the ritual particulars of kashrut, but to the deeper and more profound requirements of Jewish social justice law.

I think the Magen Tzedek is a fantastic idea — if it works. It makes a strong case for Judaism's ethical relevance, a 21st-century update of the old Hebrew National advertisements — "We answer to a higher authority." In fact, the Magen Tzedek is even better than the original, which, after all, was a ritual "authority" only tangentially related to contemporary health or sanitary concerns, It is a "higher authority" on values that really matter, to religious Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews alike.

Imagine if Jews were known in America to be the super-ethical people instead of the super-ritual ones. We're the people who won't eat a hamburger unless the workers at the restaurant are paid a fair wage. We're the ones who consider environmentalism to be a matter of religious concern. Because doing the right thing matters to God.
This is good P.R., to put it mildly, both "outwardly," in terms of the wider population, and "inwardly," in terms of the Jewish community. This is a Judaism that stands for something meaningful, something more compelling than Jewish survival, or the ritual purity of cloven-foot animals. (Full disclosure: I keep kosher myself.) I'm not saying that the Magen Tzedek would end antisemitism and assimilation, but it would be a potent weapon against them.

And, contrary to the objections of some, it's grounded in authentic, ancient Jewish values. Of course, the specific details of living wages and green production are new, just like the details of how to kasher a microwave. These will, and should, be debated: Many current Magen Tzedek requirements do seem to be needlessly obscure and overly strict. But the basic principles are indubitable. And I would suggest that in the Age of Madoff, making our ethical reasoning as current, comprehensive and mandatory as our ritual reasoning is, itself, a Jewish obligation. As many Orthodox rabbis said this past Yom Kippur, we need to be glatt yosher (ethically 'straight') even more than glatt kosher.

But it's that pesky adjective — mandatory — that will be the biggest obstacle to the Magen Tzedek's success. Practicing Orthodox Jews simply will not eat food whose preparation wasn't properly supervised, even if they're really hungry and there is no alternative. Will practicing progressive Jews be similarly strict? Or will this be yet another optional practice that, like my egalitarian minyan at school, has the right values but no followers?

There are some positive signs. I know people who will not eat non-eco-kosher food (for example, factory-farmed meat or eggs, over-fished species of fish) and will not use environmentally unsound disposable plates, even if it means missing out on treats, snacks or full meals. And of course, there are increasing numbers of Americans who will not feed their children pesticide-laden vegetables or processed McFood made mostly out of corn.

Some of this is motivated by health concerns, but some of it is value based, and much of it is every bit as strict as Orthodox kashrut. But such behaviors are still on the fringes. Will they ever become mainstream enough to make obtaining a Magen Tzedek worth the financial and administrative costs of doing so? Will progressive Jews care as much about progressive values as traditional Jews care about traditional ones?
I am both despairing and hopeful.

Within the Jewish community, I have my doubts. Conservative Judaism probably has the largest gap between ideology and practice, and it's not clear how the Magen Tzedek will be any different from the 100 other Conservative rules and regulations that most laypeople ignore. Orthodox Jews have already, by and large, rejected it, although some have created their own version, which I'm not sure helps or hurts. And Reform Jews may not care about a specifically Jewish certification. That doesn't leave much of a Jewish constituency.
But if the Magen Tzedek proceeds in its current direction, it will be of value far beyond the Jewish community. According to sources quoted in the Forward, the Magen Tzedek has the potential to be the most comprehensive "green seal" in America, and such seals matter economically. If the Magen Tzedek were to capture a share of this market — though, to be sure, there is already plenty of competition — it could indeed reach critical mass.

The dirty little secret of kashrut certification is that it works the same way. The kosher food industry has boomed in recent years: a 15% annual growth rate (compared with 4% for the food industry in general), and a $9 billion market. But according to a 2007 survey, 55% of kosher food consumers buy kosher because they believe it is healthier. And the majority of them are not Jewish.

This has to be the model for the Magen Tzedek — although not on the half-truth that kosher food is healthier, but on the whole truth that Tzedek food is more just. The takeaway is clear. If the Magen Tzedek gains traction among non-Jews who care about how their food is produced, it is sustainable. If it relies on Jewish observance patterns, it isn't.

In a way, this is an unfortunate result — that a Jewish seal is of more value to gentiles than to Jews. But maybe it's not so unfortunate at all.

In the coming century, sociologists tell us, Judaism will become less like an all-or-nothing proposition — ethnicity, identity, culture, nation and religion, all wrapped up in one — and more like one source of values, identity, spirituality and culture among many. We should get used to someone practicing Jewish dietary laws, Buddhist meditation and secular ethical values, whether that someone is born of a Jewish mother or not. Jewish culture and religion are going to survive not because of endogamy, but because they remain relevant to people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who find them to be meaningful. Like it or not, the Kabbalah Centre, Matisyahu and the Magen Tzedek are the future of Judaism; they thrive not because the Jewish tribe maintains them, but because they appeal to a wide range of people.

This is a meaningful transition in the way Jewishness is understood. For some, it is terrifying. But for me, it represents a compelling model of how particularism can survive without ethnocentrism and despite assimilation — not quite a Judaism without Jews, but Judaism beyond the confines of the Jewish population. Yes, there will always be things that only Jews do: I don't see the lulav and etrog suddenly holding universal appeal. But in the 21st century, progressive Judaism's survival depends on its relevance to the other 99.9% of the world.

Thus, rather than seeing the Magen Tzedek's dependence on non-Jews as a liability, I see it as an asset. Imagine an evening in which you enjoy African-American music, a Japanese-American car and Chinese-American food, and it's all certified according to American Jewish ethical values. Could be worse.

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Shavuot: The Torah of Tenacious Love