Interfaith and Israel

This is a guestpost by Liya Rechtman.

My family’s Passover Seder this year marked two firsts for my boyfriend: his first time meeting my dad and his first time eating homemade gefilte fish. As we read the haggadah around the table, I felt myself tensing up: ‘oh no, what if he gets that passage about Hillel and Shamai and he can’t pronounce the weird Hebrew town names?’ and ‘Worse! What if he winds up with “Tell me morano, my brother” and he has no idea what it’s about?’ When a reading did finally fall on him, and my boyfriend started on with “I am a Jew because…” I sort of giggled, loudly. My mom, tactful as always, told him that perhaps they would let someone else read the passage and come back to him. The first minor, awkward, interfaith hurdle had been managed gracefully by all parties involved.

The Seder moved on that night, and for several months to come the disparity between my Jewish tradition and his ex-Muslim atheism were significant parts of our identity, but not prohibitively so in the context of our relationship. Our faith/non-faith perspectives consistently yielded to thoughtful, extended discussion and debate about God, materialism, and meaning, among other things. That is, until three boys were declared dead in Israel and I stayed up all night crying. More »

Rachel Azaria’s Solution for Silencing “Antisemites”

You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.

Here’s the conversation as reported by the victim herself which took place on the subway in NYC: More »

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

(More here.)

Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

Why Do Rebbetzins Still Exist?

“See that lady over there? That’s the rebbetzin.”

“Ohhh.” I leaned forward to get a better glimpse at the woman with silver hair sitting in the front row of shul. “What’s a rebbetzin?”

I was about eleven years old, and we had just started going to a Conservative shul. My mother pointed out the rebbetzin at our new shul the way one might point out a movie star or head of state or renowned scholar, but I had never heard of one before.

“A rebbetzin is the rabbi’s wife. She’s a very important person.”

“Why?”

“Well…” my feminist mother, with her short cropped hair and her kippah, struggled to find words to explain. “A long time ago women couldn’t be rabbis, so instead there were rebbetzins. They were very knowledgeable and respected, and people went to them with their problems, and they would advise people in the community. Sometimes people went to rebbetzins with problems they didn’t want to talk to the rabbi about.”

At the time, my mom’s answer was good enough for me. I sat through the service and then ran off with my friends. I didn’t stop to wonder why my mother’s definition revolved around what a rebbetzin used to be, in some vague and distant past (which I now know to be about 1971). I didn’t stop to question what kind of politics were involved around my mother’s hesitation, why this was the only time my mother had defined a woman by her husband’s occupation. I didn’t question what kind of lingering shtetl memories passed down through the generations had fostered my mother’s residual respect for an anachronistic (and possibly sexist) role. I didn’t stop to think about why a rebbetzin is important now.

Then I married a rabbinical student.

Suddenly I find myself much more interested in these questions regarding the modern rebbetzin role.

My own experience of the role involves getting invited to Shabbat dinners and finding myself amidst a social minefield.  Small transgressions like mentioning a moment when I texted my sister on the second day of Passover are met with raised eyebrows, and I often wonder whether I’ve inadvertently jeopardized my spouse’s future career. For the past three years, every time I’ve gone to shul I’ve wondered exactly how much my hemline matters and how many congregants would judge me for wearing the wrong thing. (You wouldn’t. I know. But maybe your aunt would.) I clearly have no idea what I’m doing as a rebbetzin—but I feel like I ought to.

I try to research what to do as a rebbetzin, but everything I read about them references the past, either with reverence or righteous indignation, and nothing is fully in present tense.

Yes, there is something archaic and sexist about the role of the rebbetzin. The idea that someone’s identity, their title in the world, can be defined by his or her partner’s occupation in this day and age is absurd. It’s outrageous. One would think that in our progressive circles we would be finished with such an idea.

However, the rebbetzin still exists.

The rebbetzin role exists when we force it to, by insisting that families of rabbinical students spend a year in Israel/Palestine (as if all spousal careers are nothing important or could magically occur on whatever continent is needed at the time).

The rebbetzin role also exists in our subconscious, when we feel disappointed if a rebbetzin isn’t friendly enough with congregants.

The rebbetzin role exists when shul board members would prefer to hire a rabbi who is already married, when rabbinical students feel more comfortable if they’re partnered, because somehow the partner of the rabbi means something special and important, but we’re not exactly sure what.

If the rebbetzin role still exists, then we need to pay attention to it. Just because something is ignored does not mean it goes away. If we don’t pay attention to roles we rely upon—yet feel vaguely guilty about—we end up doing tweaky things like disrupting careers with Israel/Palestine sabbaticals.

I want to know why we still need rebbetzins. I want to figure out what kind of psychological and economic and gender relationship stuff is going on such that there is still a role out there which is defined by partnership. I want a better answer for my eleven year old self who asked “why” so many years ago—I want an answer that doesn’t start with “a long time ago”; I want an answer that starts with here and now.

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

All That’s Left

This also appears at allthesedays.org

Not too long ago, members of All That’s Left (ATL) wrote about “Who We Are” despite the fact that we decided early on that we were interested in defining ATL’s aims not who ought to be in it. It reads:

All That’s Left members come from a variety of political, ideological and personal backgrounds, including non-Zionists, Liberal-Zionists, Anti-Zionists, Socialist-Zionists, Zionists, Post-Zionists, one, two, some, and no staters and everything in between. The common thread in our work, actions, and connections is our unequivocal opposition to the occupation and our focus on the diaspora angle of resistance to the occupation rooted in the notion that all people(s) are equal.

We wrote the note in order to clarify that the collective is made up of folks from a spectrum of backgrounds who are working to end the occupation. In the end, the “Who We Are” note essentially says: “We aren’t defining who we are.” Instead, we define ATL in a sentence (All That’s Left is a collective unequivocally opposed to the occupation and committed to building the diaspora angle of resistance) in order to create a way for people to self select.

It’s important to note that ATL is not an organization; it is a collective of individuals that come together around our unequivocal opposition to the occupation and focus on building the diaspora angle of resistance. That’s the only statement we have or will make as a collective. All of the actions we do are actions that members of ATL have done, not an ATL organization (no such organization exists). It is an important distinction to make here because I am only really speaking for myself as a member of ATL. I am in no way a spokesperson or official rep.

More »

Throwback Thursday: Kung Fu Jew on “Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News”

Here at Jewschool we have a long, illustrious history, 11 1/2 years of rambunctious, playful, earnest, free-thinking, alternative riffing on contemporary Jewish life.  It’s worth taking stock of where we’ve come from, and in that light, the Jewschool editors are now inaugurating a new feature:   Jewschool Throwback Thursdays.  Every week, one of us will dig up a classic post from the Jewschool vault that we think is still timely and relevant, or that would benefit reconsideration, with some years of growth and maturity.

One of the signature features of Jewschool culture is criticizing things we think are destructive in the Jewish world, airing our dirty laundry out of the belief that it can be cleaned.  This becomes especially contentious when it comes to criticism regarding Israel. In recent months, the Jewish world has seen a  great deal of mudslinging and controversy over “Open Hillel” battles, un-invitations of speakers deemed too critical of Israel, or not critical enough of advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, etc., and Jewschool has covered this closely.  For this kick-of Throwback Thursday, we bring you a classic piece from five years ago by our current Editor-in-Chief articulating, in as clear and forceful a way as I know, why we criticize the Israeli government when we feel it deserves it.  The piece drew a blizzard of comments in its time; we hope it stokes conversation again now:

Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News

by Kung Fu Jew, Thursday, February 19, 2009

More »

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.

 

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.

AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.

In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.

We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.

AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.

 

On Heroes and Villains and when They’re the Same: Thoughts on Rav Ovadia

“Chain gleaming, switching lanes, two-seater.
Hate him or love him for the same reason.
Can’t leave it; the game needs him.
Plus, the people need someone to believe in.”
–Nas, “Hero” (2008)

In the past couple of days, since Rav Ovadia Yosef died at 93, the Jewish media, both published and social, have been abuzz with tributes about his towering scholarship, bold rabbinic leadership, controversial political and cultural impact, and his frequent episodes of vituperative and hostile verbal violence, especially late in his life.  I have also seen comments by progressive Jews expressing surprise that so many progressive friends of theirs were showing the love to Rav Ovadia.  As one friend put it:  “My FB page is full of love for Ovadia Yosef-from lefty people? I thought he was kind of terrible?”

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Bite Their Tongue: Perhaps Unrestricted Free Speech Isn’t Such a Good Thing

A guestpost from FoJS, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman

I, like most children of liberal Jewish parents born on the coasts, have long held the first amendment to the constitution to be sacrosanct: just barely below the 10 commandments and slightly higher than a hot pastrami with brown mustard. It is that important. And it was the 1st Amendment ‘Freedom of Speech’ that was always the most cherished of those rights.

But recent events have started to make me question this deep-seated belief. I’ve started to consider whether maybe it’s time we restricted free speech. Let me explain. More »

Conflict and its Discontents: Revisiting the Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”

–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009

We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight.  The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty.  The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha.  This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.

“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account.  Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself:  I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)

We live in a conflict-averse world.  Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked.  In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words:  true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence.  The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b).  Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”.  If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.

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A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Endeavor to Repair

Credit: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Used with permission.

One of my best friends went dark when Hurricane Sandy crashed into the States. I kept her Twitter and Facebook open, vainly hoping for an update. Pushing refresh on her pages. Checking my text messages, voicemail, e-mail. Anything. I couldn’t think of a good prayer. I said the Sh’ma, to reassure myself. To remind myself of holiness even in a very scary, terrible, fearsome time. When she called Wednesday, I cried. She was unharmed during the storm, but had been without power and any way to contact the outside world.

 


The aftermath of Sandy is everywhere, including the Jewish press. JTA’s been liveblogging Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath. JD Forward’s done some stuff already. Torah scrolls have been damaged, mezuzot retrieved from who knows how many doorways already. And only G-d knows how many have been destroyed or lost in the storm.

Homes were destroyed. Places of worship. New York and New Jersey and Staten Island and Coney Island are just a few of the places that got hit. A part of the places the dead of Hurricane Sandy called home.

I’ve never been to Haiti,Jaimaca, Cuba, the Bahamas. They were hit. Death tolls and damage numbers are things that stretch—and they never seem to go down. Only up.

I know you’re aware of places you can donate money. That you are smart enough to vet relief funds on a basic level so you know your money is going to where the need is.

I know not all of us are on east coast. Or even in the States. But giving aid, comforting the sick and dying, doing right by the people around us. Those are Jewish values. I’m a big believer in prayer, and hope. In doing what you are able to, and to the best of your ability. I expect no one to give more than they can, and if you look at the tradition of charity, we are not to give so much of ourselves, particularly monetarily, as to beggar ourselves. But we live in a modern era.

Money is not the only thing we have to give.

Ask other people to give a shit—and to get together with you to help.

Write an e-mail. Send a text. Pick up a phone. Follow an east coast newspaper on Twitter, or Facebook, and keep up with what is going on right now, on what is going on months from now—and  how much or little has changed. Join the conversation and become knowledgeable about the scientific, fiscal, and cultural issues that must be faced.

Do whatever it is you are good at, that you can give of yourself, to help the people left in devastation’s wake. Most importantly, do not harden your heart to this. Don’t just let Hurricane relief become something you let go of, like a trend.

Do one thing, one real thing, to help.

You start in whatever way you can, in the Jewish community, outside of it, whatever place you can take the first step to act with compassion. Ask for donations, cook meals, give blood, find ways to put people with money or resources in touch with the people who need them so much right now.

And after that first step, you don’t stop walking. If you have never been involved with tikkun olam, or if you think it’s dumb to say hurricane relief helps repair the world, I’m asking you to consider something.

When we rebuild a city, we rebuild the spirit and hearts of its inhabitants. If we aid them rebuild, and do not harden our hearts to their voices, we have started to understand what it truly is to repair the world.

Where Were You?

On Monday, October 22, more than 120 viewers logged on to watch a ProZion UK live webcast of Anat Hoffman being interviewed by Deborah Blausten. All over the world, watching and listening, live tweeting and asking questions, people watched Hoffman talk about religious freedom, women’s rights, and democracy.

Anat Hoffman is part of Women of the Wall, a women’s prayer group that started in Israel in 1988. Arguably, she is the most recognizable face of WoW, particularly in the Diaspora. She is the woman whose name I’ve been hearing since my teens, connected to concepts like equality, religious freedom and religious pluralism. She is the one whose name I remember connected to repeated arrests, because a woman praying in a tallit is so threatening as to be a crime. More »

Is honest disagreement and debate still a Jewish virtue?

It is no secret that Jews like a good debate. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture. I once heard Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz say that as much as the Talmud (a repository of disagreements and debates) is a product of Jewish culture, it has as much of an influence in shaping Jewish culture. We call an honest debate in Judaism a machloket l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. In other words, we don’t have to agree with someone’s opposing viewpoint, but we do have to respect the person.

Matt Abelson, a JTS rabbinical student, recently completed his year of study in Jerusalem. Perhaps one of the most challenging years in rabbinical school for a whole host of reasons, it is nearly impossible to return from the experience unchanged. Abelson wrote a post in which he slams the Encounter program for encouraging students to disengage from traditional Zionist ideology when it comes to their relationship with Israel. This is a “problem” that has been gaining increased attention in the last few years. It is a tense subject for many. As I have mentioned at other times on this blog, there were figures who sought to end my own career before it even began because, despite not even knowing me in real life, they decided I was anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. I responded to Rabbi Daniel Gordis here when he brought up the issue last year.

I do not have a problem with the fact that Matt Abelson has a problem with Encounter. I do have a problem with how he misrepresents their program. I won’t go into those details here, because I already responded to his blog post there (I included my comment below the fold). I also have a problem with the notion of shirking the responsibility for responsible debate because an issue elicits strong emotion. However, I do want to pose the question, is it an acceptable response to “opt out” of a difficult discussion because it makes you uncomfortable? Go and check out his post and come back here to comment. More »

May First and Repairing the World

It won’t come as any surprise that the mission of repairing the world takes on many forms, including that of advocacy for the social rights of various groups. We have historically seen Jews and Jewish organizations at the forefront of rights based campaigns. In the 50s and 60s it was in the civil rights movement. More recently, we have been active in support of Darfur in opposition to a 21st Century genocide.

A century ago, we’d be talking about the Jewish role in the fights for labor rights, the 8-hour working day and workplace safety. But rather unlike today, those fights were not for some other oppressed group, but by and for Jewish workers, as part of the American labor movement.

In recent years, a thriving social justice movement has emerged that includes service-oriented Jewish organizations. These include Avodah and Bend the Arc, who joined previously established groups like the Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Labor Committee, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Recent campaigns that received support from Jewish organizations include the fight for a domestic workers’ bill of rights and for agricultural workers raising tomatoes in Florida. More »

ZOA response to my ‘irresponsible’ op-ed: I am ‘young and inexperienced,’ my writing ‘amateurish’

Crossposted to New Voices and davidamwilensky.com

Not to get too overwrought, but here’s my blog post in response to a Zionist Organization of America press release in response to my JTA op-ed in response to their JTA op-ed. Throughout the press release, notice how many of my points are avoided by going on an ad hominem rampage against me.

NEW YORK, May 1 – David Wilensky’s op-ed on “the correct use of Title VI” (Apr. 27, 2012) was an amateurish attempt to condemn an important new legal tool for Jewish students who are now protected from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  He claims that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) – which spearheaded the effort to achieve this civil rights protection – is misusing Title VI “to stifle legitimate discourse” and as a “bludgeon” to advance “far-right political viewpoints.”  These ridiculous charges are baseless.  Wilensky cites no evidence for his claims, merely engaging in silly name-calling.

I don’t know where they got “‘the correct use of Title VI’” from, but it doesn’t appear anywhere on the version of it on the JTA website. Given that they got the date wrong by about week (it was published on 4/18, not 4/27), I’m gonna guess that the mystery phrasing and the incorrect date were taken from the publication date and headline that accompanied my op-ed in one of the local Jewish papers that runs JTA material on about a one-week delay. (I could take a cheap shot at the ZOA for being so web incompetent that they don’t have a Google alert set up for the name of their own organization, but that would be “silly name-calling.”)

Speaking of which, can anyone point me to the part of my op-ed where I engage in “name-calling” of any sort — “silly” or otherwise? (Rest assured, when I do engage in name-calling I take it quite seriously.)

As for my writing being “amateurish,” I guess the “-ish” suffix lends that some validity as an opinion. As it turns out, I make my living doing this writing thing so I’m technically the opposite of an amateur. I hasten to point out that Klein and Tuchman are the amateurs here. I don’t know much about Tuchman, but she’s lawyer. Klein on the other hand is a well-known pillar of the professional reactionary community. I don’t think much of this screed, but since I’m no professional paranoia-peddler, I’ll refrain from passing judgement on its level of amateurishness. More »