Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Who is a Jew? In Nebraska

Every year the Philip Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization hosts a symposium where academics from all over the world present papers on a particular topic in Jewish studies.

This year the topic was "Who is a Jew." 

As usual the conference was well run by the host Dr. Leonard Greenspoon, who holds the Klutznick Chair at Creighton.  Many of the scholars were first rate and their papers and presentations were interesting.  

The topic of conversion, in Israel or in the US, is mostly a sensitive topic for Orthodox Jews because they have the highest standards.  Some of the presenters used the symposium as an opportunity to lay out the challenges and conflicts that arise from the "who is a Jew" question and to pose alternatives that demonstrate understanding and sensitivity to all sides.

Unfortunately, some presenters strayed from scholarship by injected some of their own personal feelings of frustration with "the Orthodox position."

First some of the high points of the conference.  

Matthew Boxer from Brandies University spoke about Birthright Israel and its effects on young American Jews.  He is employed by birthright, but he gave a fare presentation where he presented facts and statistics demonstrating some of Taglit Birthright's success.

Mara Cohen Iannodies spoke about who is a Jew as it faces the American Reform Jewish community.  She attends a Reform Synagogue and is active in the national Reform movement.  She spoke about the challenges that they face with non-Jewish members in Reform synagogues.  She was not referring to converts, but people who choose NOT to convert to Judaism but want to be members of a shul for different reasons, whether they be marriage or other.  She laid both sides to this debate.  One Reform Rabbi who was opposed to granting community membership to non-Jewish people said that if Reform shuls were to do so they would gradually devolve into social clubs.  Other interesting points is that it would somehow cheapen Reform conversions.  Those who have not converted would say, "I am already part of the community, why should I convert?"  Those who already converted would say, "Why did I bother spending all the time and money on conversion if it was not necessary?"  The presentation was a very honest assessment by a thoughtful person who cares deeply about the future of her own community.

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldeder from Emory University gave a great presentation demonstrating the diversity of opinions that exist within the Orthodox Halachic debate on conversion.  He ended by presenting a solution that he thinks should satisfy even the strictest positions.  Apparently even the strict authorities are more lenient when it comes to converting a minor, someone under the age of 12 or 13.  So for families where the mother is lacking Orthodox conversion and she is unable to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle, a requirement for Orthodox conversion according to most modern opinions, the children can be converted before they reach the age of adult.  I have heard people speak about this before and I hope that his solution one day can be adopted as policy.

I had some issues with the keynote speaker.

His thesis was that we really don't need any conversion at all.  If a person feels that they are Jewish that is enough.  They can just jump in any body of water and they are Jewish and should be accepted by the Jewish community.  

He also said that they don't really have to meet any standards.  What ever they feel is Jewish, whether it be historic, cultural, or their own spiritual ideas is sufficient.  

He brought a number of texts from the Talmud to support his position - each one  completely misunderstood.  Had he read the most basic commentaries, and in some case the very next lines of the text he sited, he would have seen how his interpretation of the text was completely mistaken.  

He made one truly outrageous statement.  He said that all of us are the products of illegitimate and non-Jewish unions because in the tenth century Jewish men would travel far distances for business and no-doubt they had affairs with non-Jewish women leading to children and there were no Jewish courts to convert these children.  So in one statement with no evidence to support it he called us all non-Jewish bastards.   

In the question and answer period a lady asked whether or not according to him a Christian can be a Jew.  His answer as yes.  If it brought them some spiritual meaning then a Christian can certainly be a Jew and we should all accept him or her as such.

The speech lacked any kind of formal scholarship. It was mostly the opinions of a layman in the area of conversion.

But there was something very irresponsible about this man broadcasting to our community.  This man, who comes from New Jersey, came to a small Jewish community with certain challenges that larger communities do not face.  We often have to contend with Christian missionaries who delight in telling Jews that there is no difference between Judaism and Christianity.  These Christians are generally just informed enough to seem very knowledgeable to an undereducated and unsuspecting Jew.  
At the lecture there was a particular lady who has obviously psychological problems who has been doing this for years.  Last year, after a community lecture given by Holocaust survivors she approached the speakers and presented them with Jews for Jesus literature.  For that she was told that she can no longer attend events.  But somehow she slipped into this event.   This man swooped in, emboldened this lady to continue harassing members of our community and then returned to his ivory tower in New Jersey.  

Fortunately, most thinking people, including Omaha's Reform Rabbi, realised how reckless and irresponsible the speaker was. Also, most people I spoke to felt that he was a poor speaker and the presentation put them to sleep. But it is impossible to know for sure what kind of damage this man may have caused.

It is very easy for someone with no standards to advocate a "compromise" where the rest of us abandon our standards to accommodate him.  The conversion issue is a complex issue, but I used to think that everyone agreed that in order to become Jewish you have to become Jewish.  Apparently I was wrong.  

But despite all of that, I had an enjoyable time.   It is always good to hear the opinions and ideas of others.  If I don't like it I can blog about it and say why.  And he can comment and tell me why I am wrong.  That is what makes ball games and that is learning.  

The symposium was great and I thank the Klutznick Chair at Creighton, the Harris Center at UNL, and the Schwab Center at UNO for bringing this great program every year to Omaha.  I can't wait for next year!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Zealand, Akko, Jerusalem, and Kearney - at Beth Israel

We had a busy Shabbat this past week at Beth Israel.
  • We said goodbye to our beloved assistant Rabbi, Yitzhak Mizrahi. He has been with us for the last 5 years but recently accepted a job as the head Rabbi of the shul in Wellington New Zealand!   

  • Beth Israel joined Synagogues around the world to celebrate a Pink Shabbat in solidarity with breast cancer awareness month.  When I attended the tribefest conference this past year I met the director of a Jewish breast cancer awareness group called Sharsheret.  One in 40 Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews carries a BRCA gene mutation, nearly 10 times the rate of the general population, making Jewish families significantly more susceptible to hereditary breast cancer and ovarian cancer.  Many women in our Omaha Jewish community have had breast cancer and I thought that a pink shabbat would be a very appropriate program for us.  After shul we had a speaker from the Susan B. Koman for the Cure foundation.  We heard her story of breast cancer and how becoming educated about breast cancer can save your life.  

  • My friend Eliad Eliyahu was visiting from Akko.  Eliad is a world famous musician and educator.  His song, Zohar Harakia was number one on Arutz Sheva and his song Aneini appeared in the closing credits of the hit Israeli television show, Srugim.  Eliad now works for our partnership with Israel and he is a fabulous educator.  He came to the Freidel Jewish academy on Friday and taught the kids mishna through song.  He also did a musical Havdala concert at Beth Israel on Saturday night. It was great having him as our guest.  (Eliad was partially responsible for me meeting my wife.  A story for another time.)

  • This weekend was the Klutznick symposium at Creighton University and at the JCC.  Every year the Jewish Community of Omaha, the Klutznik chair for Jewish civilizations at Creighton, the Harris Center for Jewish Studies at UNL, and now the Schwab center for Jewish and Israel studies at UNO collaborate and hold a symposium that brings in 15 academics from around the world to speak on a topic of Jewish studies.  The conference is Sunday and Monday but every year Beth Israel has the privilege of hosting the Shabbat observant participants who come in for the Shabbat prior to the symposium.  This year we hosted Rabbi Dr. Naftali Rothenberg from the Van Leer Center in Jerusalem and Dr. Netanel Fischer from the Open University in Israel.  The topic of the symposium was "Who is a Jew."  The two scholars staying at my house are deeply involved in thought and policy regarding the status of Jewish converts in Israel.  Over Shabbat we had fascinating discussions about the topic, and Dr. Fischer gave a lecture on Shabbat afternoon.  We were also supposed to have Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldfeder JD LLM join us as well.  Unfortunately his flight was delayed.  This impressive young scholar received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, his JD from NYU law school, his LLM from Emory and he is now finishing up is PhD at Emory.  I got to know him over the next two days and I hope to bring him out to Omaha again for a shabbat at Beth Israel.

  • On Sunday my wife and I had breakfast at our Kosher restaurant, the bagel Bin, and we met up with Rabbi Dovid Shaffier and his wife Layla.  Rabbi Shaffier works as a Shochet in Gibbon, Nebraska about 3 hours from Omaha.  They are living in Kearney, Nebraska, the third largest city in the state, and they have taken on the important responsibility of serving the Jews who live there.  Kearney has no Jewish community, but they have many Jews, most of whom are deeply assimilated and in many cases two or three generations removed from any substantive Jewish tradition.  Many, though, are looking to reconnect.  Rabbi Shaffier and his wife host regular shabbat activities at their home and organize monthly Jewish events.  They have been there for a year and we spoke about opportunities to collaborate and help each other in the future.  Check out his blog and see the amazing things that they are doing there. www.rabbishaffier.blogspot.com

Friday, October 26, 2012

Satmar and AIPAC meet in Omaha

Not many people know this, but Omaha is a crossroads that serves a meeting place for Jews from all over the world, of every different background, and every point of view.

Practically every day at our daily minyan we are joined with Jewish people from all over who are either passing through Omaha on their way East or West, or have some business here, or some relatives or friends to visit here.

This week serves as a perfect example of the diversity that we experience here.  On Shabbat, in addition to people from almost everyone of the 50 sates who came in for a bar mitzvah at shul (we had a Jew from Arkansas here.  There are Jews in Arkansas?) we had the privilege of hosting two Satmar Chasidim for Shabbat as well.  
These two gentleman were here doing some Kashrut supervision at a company that produces a kosher egg product used for industrial baking.  They have spent shabbat with us a few times in the past as well.

On Sundays after morning minyan a number of the teenagers stay after and we learn Gemara together.  The two chasidim were at minyan so I asked them if they would stick around and learn with me and the boys.  They were happy to do so.  

I tweeted a picture of us learning.  My father, who is not on twitter, said he heard about it from a Satmar client of his whose son follows me on twitter!  I was retweeted by a #Satmar Chasid!  

It was a great experience for the boys!

First of all, the boys got to see that the gemara that they are learning is the same gemara that Jews all over the world are learning.  The chasidim spoke broken English, as their first language was yiddish, but when we learned together there was no language barrier.  The universal language Torah transcended anything else.  

After we learned a little I asked the Chasidim to share some thoughts with us.  They told the boys how impressed they were with them.  Over the weekend they marveled at the commitment that they showed in coming to shul and learning Torah.  


The boys also learned that there are different types of chasidim and each type is unique in some way.  We asked what defines a Satmar chasid.  They answered that there are many things that define a particular group.  One is ancestry.  They happened to come from Hungary where Satmar is from.  
But they also said that they were inspired greatly by the late Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum.  

When he first came to this country after the war Jews were afraid to walk in the streets with a Yarmulka, let alone in Chassidic garb.  They said that it was the Satmar Rebbe who insisted that Jews not be afraid to express themselves the way that they see fit.  The Nazis tried to destroy the European Jewish community.  The Satmar Rebbe said that we cannot be embarrassed to try and rebuild what we had in Europe here in America.  He inspired others to follow him and in the face of ridicule, discrimination and antisemitism he succeeded in building a proud American Jewish community.  

They said that if it were not for the courage of the Satmar Rebbe then there would be no other types of chasidim in the United States.  He paved the way for others.  

If that is in fact true than I contend that all Jews owe him a debt of gratitude.  

In JCCs, Federation offices, and even the homes of very secular Jews you can always find a picture somewhere of a bunch of chasidim dancing.  My friend Joel, whenever he sees those pictures asks, "do you think Chasidim have pictures of secular Jews dancing hanging on their walls?"  The iconic image of the chasidic Jew is something that every Jew identifies with in some way and if not for the Satmar Reebe America may have never known that image.  

They also spoke about how the Satmar Rebbe was clear in his anti Zionist views.  Many Jewish leaders opposed the Jewish state, but none are as famous as the Satmar Rebbe in his opposition.  (The so-called Chasidim who met with the leader of Iran claim to be Satmar but mainstream Satmar has nothing to do with them.  They are a small fringe group.  The Satmar Rebbe was very thoughtful in his positions, and he believed that the Jewish state would endanger the lives of Jews.  He would obviously not meet with an insane lunatic who has made statements about the destruction of the Jewish people and denied the Holocaust.)

But despite the Satmar Rebbe's vociferous opposition, he respected others who disagreed with him.  
They told us how the Satmar Rebbe gave a eulogy for Rav Aharon Kutler.  Even though they disagreed on many important issues, the Satmar Rebbe respected the man and paid his respects when he died.

This was a great prelude to the Monday evening meeting of our Teens 4 Israel youth group.  Teens 4 Israel is a group of teens from all of the synagogues who share a passion for Israel advocacy.  Last year we went on a fantastic trip to New York, and this year we hope to attend the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.  At the meeting the leaders of Teens 4 Israel set up some goals for this coming year.

The next night, Beth Israel hosted a community briefing with AIPAC.  The speaker was Elias Saratovsky, the regional AIPAC director.  He spoke briefly about what AIPAC is doing in preparation for the upcoming election and then took questions from the crowd..

What I love about Beth Israel is that we are a place where all views and ideas are discussed.  As the only Orthodox shul in the State of Nebraska my job is to try as best as possible to expose the people of Omaha to the great pluralism that exists in Orthodox Judaism.  There are many times where after presenting both sides we take a stand on an issue, but there are also times where we let an argument stand as a Teiku.

But on all issues are main objective is to get people to use their minds and think critically about Torah and the issues facing the Jewish people.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A boring e-mail from Netivot



I received an e-mail from my cousin Danielle who lives in Netivot a city in Southern Israel near Beer Sheva.  Netivot was founded in 1956 and is within the 1948 borders.  It has a population of over 25,000, mostly lower income people, and it absorbed a great deal of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.   Netivot is under constant attack from rockets fired from Gaza.  A single attack would be a traumatic experience for a person of any age.  I cannot imagine how traumatic it is for children, parents, anyone, who must endure these frequent attacks that can and do happen at any time day or night.
When I started blogging I was determined to use my blog to share happy news and upbeat human interest stories that I encounter as a Rabbi in Nebraska.  But when I received this from Danielle I felt compelled to share it with you, my readers.  
Danielle, I wish I knew how I could help!  I daven every day that Israel should have peace and security.  All though I cannot truly know what you and your family live through, I hear about what you live through.  And I stand with you and with all of Israel.  


I thought I'd share this, because some of you have no clue what's going on halfway across your own country. And others have no idea what's happening halfway across the world. And I'm one of those na├»ve believers who keeps thinking… if people only knew what we live through…
So it's ten twenty. Night. Husband on way home from a meeting in Tel-Aviv (yes, the other part of the country). I have successfully maneuvered putting all three children, ages four years, two years, and three-month-old, to bed. Going over emails is getting boring, and suddenly there's that sound. It takes a split-second to recognize it, since I hear it over and over again in my head for the past four years ever since my oldest son was born (a few months before Operation Cast Lead, December 2008), so I need to confirm that I'm not just humming that old tune. But, alas, it's that same siren. Yup, and it's definitely coming from our town, not from one of the regional councils a few miles away. And now comes the tricky part. Since it's a first for me.
Which child do I pick up first? 
It's a first for me, since I'm alone, with three children at home, all asleep, none in a protected area (i.e., clear of windows and external walls). Do I go for the baby? Last time I grabbed him out of his crib and woke him and decided that this is how traumas begin, so I told myself that next time I'd just wheel him in with his carriage, so as not to interrupt his peaceful baby sleep. But what about my two-year-old daughter? She's the one who's really having a hard time, stopping short every time an ambulances passes, mistaking it for a siren. After sitting up with her an hour-and-a-half after the last mid-night siren, I told myself that next time I'd carry her in gently, so as not to wake her at all. But what about my oldest son—the one who has been living for four years under the missile threat, who is most aware of the situation and reminds me every time we visit our parents, that there, up north, we are safe—forget the emotional consequences, he's on top of a bunk-bed I can't climb up!
This all takes a split-second. I don't have much more than that. A little more than half-a-minute before the rocket lands. I run for my oldest, hoping to wake him to get him to climb down the ladder. Yea right. I climb up the ladder, pull him by the leg towards me, hold him carefully as I run toward safe area, and lay him gently on the carpet. Back to kids' room, have no idea how I got number two out of the tractor-turned-bunk-bed trenches below. Bring her into safe area. On my way to my room to get the baby I note to myself that the siren has stopped. Grab stroller and wheel into safe room just as loud explosion is heard. 
We're safe. For now. Two oldest are still sleeping. Baby stirring. He'll need to wait a minute or two since I can't really stop this thumping in my chest, and I’m not sure how that tastes. Then I'll calm him down, put him back to sleep and remind myself that next time I should try to be a little more gentle with him. 
Back to those boring emails. Boring is good.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Double Siyum in Omaha

Today was a double siyum!

Daf Yomi completed massechet brachot, the first installment of the new cycle.

Also, our Thursday morning class just finished the book of Yirmiyahu.

Sacred Ground - the affectionate title of our class that features Torah and freshly ground coffee - has been meeting every Thursday for the almost 8 years.  We started out with the book of Yehoshua and instant coffee.  Since then we have completed Yehoshua, shoftim, Shmuel, Melachim, Trei Assar, Shir Hashirim, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, Ezra, Nechemia, and now Yirmiyahu.  We also have upgraded to freshly ground coffee made in our amazing new coffee makers.

Yirmiyahu was really challenging.  We have been studying it for about 9 months.

I think we are going to move on to Mishlei for our next challenge.

May we continue to move through the books of Tanach and may Hashem bless us all with good health to continue learning together for many years to come.