On Sexual Harassment and the Religious Pedestal

This is a guest post by Shani Ben Or, the Community Coordinator for Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem’s flagship congregation of the Reform Movement, where she also serves as a cantor, studies Critical, Feminist Pedagogy at the Kibbutzim College, and is a fellow in the inaugural Jerusalem cohort of the Takum social justice beit midrash. Translated from the Hebrew by Aryeh Bernstein.

A few years ago, I volunteered in a youth center for teens at risk in south Tel Aviv.  The constituency served by the center represented the sectors most oppressed and discriminated against by Israeli society.  In many respects, this encounter was life-changing for me, but was also wound up with numerous challenges, among the most significant of which related to gender.  Every week, I was greeted with comments about my appearance, my beauty, and my body.  I received countless “offers”, of varying degrees of obscenity.  It was clear to me that these teenage boys were testing my boundaries in a smart and sophisticated way.  When push came to shove, they touched on my greatest place of vulnerability with regard to them.  In every other way, the power hierarchy in this youth center was clear and priviliged me: I was a volunteer and they were the troubled youth being mentored and counseled.  The power hierarchy in Israeli society was just as clear and to my privilege:  I am an Ashkenazic Jew in Israel from an American background. However, in one respect, the power relationship privileged them and put them in a position of power over me:  I am a woman and they are men.  They tipped the scales of the power balance to assert some power over a person who in many ways has power over them, and it worked:  as a woman, with my own experiences of gender oppression, I was affected by their actions.  They succeeded. More »

Test balloons are for popping

Rabbi Jonah Pesner said he may be interested in running for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat in the special election. Some believe he should jump in with both feet, up to his neck, and go for it with the belief of a zealot. This is a bad idea.

If the report in The Boston Phoenix about this run was a test balloon, I hope this blog post at least starts a leak.

Rabbi Pesner—for all his political maneuvering in the Jewish world—is not a politician. He is a community organizer sure, but a politician with national chops he is not. Blah blah, President Obama, blah, blah. These two men should not and cannot be compared in the same breath. Now that this is out of the way, we will get into the meat of this disastrous move. More »

What if Anat Hoffman wasn’t white?

Anat Hoffman, head of both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement’s action center in Israel, was arrested while saying the Sh’ma with 250 other American Jews from Hadassah. The Reform movement called immediately for an investigation, the Conservative movement called for global Sh’ma flashmobs, and other groups joined the condemnation.  (Jewschool contributor LJCM rightly asks why there aren’t even more, but here I’ll press a parallel observation.) Something is obviously wrong with this abandonment of American Jewry’s pretenses against criticizing the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel.

Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”

As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire. More »

Rabbis Looking to Speak about Occupy Wall Street

Urgent question:  Anyone out there have a concise statement about Occupy Wall Street that would be a show of solidarity with the protesters.  I need one suitable for a rabbi to read to his/her congregants on Kol Nidre this coming Friday night.  The Collective Statement of the Protesters is a powerful manifesto, but the strong tone of confrontation on a night that stresses self reflection does not feel in the spirit of vidui (confessing sins) and forgiveness.  If a well crafted statement that acknowledges the galvanized efforts of people around the country around the issues of economic justice and corporate responsibility exists, it should find its way to many pulpits this Yom Kippur.

Jewish Community Members Against Jews Against Divisive Leadership calls for the end of divisiveness through a divisive public statement

Jewish, New York — In a surprise move another group of Reform Jews came out not so much in support of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has recently endured attacks over his approach to Zionism, but rather against Jews Against Divisive Leadership.

“All of a sudden there is this ad in the print edition of the Jewish paper and we are supposed to see that?” asks youth leader David Stern-Cohen-Burg, a member of Congregation Peace Love and Tzedek who is heading up Jewish Community Members Against Jews Against Divisive Leadership. “But when JTA published that divisive op-ed the other day and it popped up in my Twitter feed, I couldn’t get a group together fast enough through Facebook so I had to actually email a bunch of people.”

This group, mostly of younger Jews who fit into the models that have been presented after actual research (and not edict from traditional community leaders) that note young Jews have trouble associated with a more theocratic and anti-Arab Israel, have called upon the 35 member strong organization against divisiveness, to “shut up.” More »

All you had to do was give Rabbi Jacobs a chance





As you may have heard by now, the Union for Reform Judaism has chosen Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs of Westchester, New York, as its next president, to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is retiring after 16 years. Here at Jewschool, we wish Rabbi Jacobs the best in his leadership of the Reform movement, but we are left with one burning question: We are wondering whether he is related to Gregory E. Jacobs, aka Shock G, the former member of Digital Underground best known for his alternate persona Edward Ellington Humphrey III, aka Humpty Hump.

They share more than a last name: As a number of news reports have noted, Rabbi Jacobs is doing a Ph.D. in ritual dance, and Mr. Jacobs has “even got [his] own dance“. Rabbi Jacobs leads one of the largest Jewish congregations in America; both how Mr. Jacobs is living and his nose are large.

Whether or not they are related, we hope Rabbi Jacobs’s tenure at the URJ will be committed to the Reform Jewish values of informed autonomy (“No two people will do it the same”), inclusivity (“Anyone can play this game”), intellectual honesty (“Oh yes ladies, I’m really being sincere”), and social justice (“Peace and humptiness forever”).

New website is really into denominational trichotomy

71 panelists? Like the Sanhedrin? Really?

There is a new website (newish–It says it launched in 2010, but it’s not clear exactly when…) called Jewish Values Online, subtitled multi Jewish perspectives on morals and ethics. At JVO, you can do a search for an answer to your question or ask new questions.

Let’s set aside their missing hyphen and the fact that their list of categories goes far beyond morals and ethics. Let’s check out their panel of 71 experts:

First of all, they’re all rabbis. There are no Jewish scholars of any other sort of training, no cantors nor any academics.

Second–and more egregiously–the rabbis are listed as being in one of three categories: Conservative, Orthodox and Reform. There are no Reconstructionist, Renewal or unaffiliated rabbis on the panel of experts.

Aside from the exclusion of Jewish voices that don’t fit into the trichotomy, it may also make some people cling to one panelist’s answer, ignoring other answers because they’re from another denomination.

I took a look at a few questions on the site and found that, in many cases, I would have been unable to determine which rabbis were from which denomination based on the answers they gave.

For instance, check out this question about marijuana and the three answers to it.

Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!

A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:

Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.

This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn’t quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.

–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I’ll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Institutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it’s people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don’t mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.

Now I’ll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not.
More »

Rabbi Yoffie endorses flexitarianism, the “kashrut establishment”

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Last week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in past years, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next two years.

The sermon began with a great shout-out to the Biennial’s host country:

We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. [...] I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?

Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service – all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.

This American (who can name the last three Canadian prime ministers and knows all the words to “O Canada”) says hear hear! (However, I was surprised that this was the only mention of health care, an issue that was featured so prominently two years ago, given that this sermon was just a few hours before the House passed the health care bill.)

The major initiatives are about food and technology. David A.M. Wilensky has already weighed in on the technology part, so I’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to say about food; I’ll just focus on two points.
More »

Yoffie, don’t abandon human rights entirely

Rabbi Eric Yoffie at J Street, photo courtesy of Dan Sieradski

I suspect we direct our most bruised anger at those most likely to be our supporters…who don’t. That “self-hater” is such a cutting insult is part and parcel of that emotion. And it’s why it’s taken me a couple days to come down from the anger I felt towards Rabbi Eric Yoffie following his speech at J Street.

On Tuesday, he spoke strongly and provocatively. He did not shy from controversy and never wavered. He has the prophetic instinct to make himself unwelcome in his own house, which I support and commend. It’s a talent I value, admire and aspire to. Kol hakavod to him.

Most of his speech was right on the money, leading me to applaud many times, but two moments left me seething, ready to verbally skewer him and decry him as a traitor. Thanks to Noam Shelef of Americans for Peace Now, I now have a term for my eagerness to briefly disown Yoffie: the narcissism of small differences. I have since cooled off my anger and I wish to give Yoffie a second chance. More »

URJ President Yoffie booed at J Street, I smirk

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

Maybe there’s some hubris involved when I chime in on the ongoing J Street conference. I’m not even there and we’ve got four or five Jewschoolers there covering it quite capably here and at Twitter. But when Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shows up at J Street and gets booed by a crowd, I’ve got to say something. After all, I’m the self-proclaimed URJ expert here at Jewschool. Indeed, one of our guest posters has already written about this beautiful moment in this post, but I’ll take a very different angle.

To recap the relationship so far between the URJ and J Street: although Yoffie and the Religious Action Center (a DC lobby affiliated with the URJ) were initially quite warm to J Street, Yoffie lost his cool with J Street during the Gaza shit early this year. He disagreed vehemently with J Street’s assessment that Operation Cast Lead was a bad idea in this Forward op-ed. Here is J Street’s response to the piece.

But now, it seems that Yoffie sees that J Street agrees with him on more than it disagrees. And it seems J Street sees the value in having the leader of the largest Jewish religious organization in America present at their inaugural conference.

Here’s the text of his address to the J Street conference yesterday. An excerpt: More »

Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.

One of BZ’s long-time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right define them. BZ’s new op-ed in The ForwardReframing Liberal Judaism, addresses the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:

[...] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.

Check out the whole piece here.