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?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Cross-posted. This was originally posted on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog.

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to davidamwilensky.com

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]

More »

Rapper’s Delight is Judaism

Rapper Shyne at the Kotel

Rapper Shyne at the Kotel

(x-posted to KFAR) New York Times has a feature story on Diddy Sean Combs protege Shyne’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

Interviewing him in Jerusalem, where he know lives, Dina Kraft finds Shyne, aka Moses Levi, at the Kotel wearing Hasidic chic, hurring to make a minyan with Ethiopians before Shabbat.

His adherence to strict halacha (Jewish law) appears to be his attonement for his well publicized youthful misadvaentrues which landed him a decade in prison.  Shyne still is recording, however:

“Later, with Mr. Goldsmith in the rental car he uses to get around, Mr. Levi sampled tracks from two new albums, “Messiah” and “Gangland,” that are to be released in a joint venture with Def Jam Records. The deal suggests the clout he holds despite not having released an album since 2004. He put the volume on high as he drove through the traffic-clogged roads of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

In songs like “Am I a Sinner?” he casts his spiritual quest as an escape from prison life and pain, with lyrics like, “Look in your soul and you will find vision that you can’t see through the eye.”

The interview continues over hummus and pita as Shyne prepares for Talmud study session with R. Jeff Siedel. Sounds like Shyne has found a home in the rigidity of Orthodoxy, if not Jerusalem.

His respect for law and Rabbis seem sincere. I’d like to know what these Rabbis feel about the hip-hop music that reflects this journey.  And I’d like to hear it.

On Teshuva: Recognizing Jews who converted to Catholicism

L’kovod the aseres yamey tshuva, I present two interesting writers who converted from Judaism to Christianity. Let’s put it this way: They had to worry about a whole different kind of Tshuva:

jacobo-fijmanJacobo Fijman (1898-1970)

Poet and Madman. Born in Bessarabia, Fijman lived and died in Argentina. Spent much of his life in a state mental asylum. Surrealist poet, gnostic and anarchist. A taste:

Demencia:
el camino más alto y más desierto.
Oficio de las máscaras absurdas; pero tan humanas.
Roncan los extravíos;
tosen las muecas
y descargan sus golpes
afónicas lamentaciones.
Semblantes inflamados;
dilatación vidriosa de los ojos
en el camino más alto y más desierto.
Se erizan los cabellos del espanto.
La mucha luz alaba su inocencia…

nicolae-steinhardt2Nicolae Steinhardt (1912–1989). Theologian and Memoirist. Underground Favorite. Revered in Romania for his Jurnalul fericirii (The Diary of Happiness; 1991), an account of his journey to orthodox Christianity during the years he spent in Communist prisons. A Taste:

Outside a bakery, an old beggar, small, discreet. I give him 3 or 4 lei. He takes off his hat, respectfully, and thanks me for a long while. Why, I don’t know – the memory of my father, the physical resemblance (small and stooping) – his gesture – so polite, the shame of being saluted by an old man for a few lei, the onslaught of images of prison in my memory, revelatory of the human condition’s wretchedness – but I burst out crying in the middle of the street, like a madman.

The vort: Balak – How (not) to be a mensch

(With apologies for such a belated vort)

Looking back at Parashat Balak, one might be compelled to ask why exactly is this story included within the book of Numbers.  In particular, the Moabite prophet Balaam’s peculiar exchange with his donkey seems rather random when considered within the larger narrative arc of the story. 

As the only instance of a speaking animal since the cunning snake in Genesis, one might expect our portion’s donkey to say something of exceeding importance and weight. Instead, she utters something utterly understated and even banal: she asks her master why he struck her three times when she has never wronged him. The simplicity of the dialogue and the repetitive rhythm of the characters’ actions here all suggest an almost fable-like story structure.  As such, we can perhaps most productively view this story as primarily didactic in nature.

 

What is the relevance of the speaking donkey? The Midrash Rabbah on the book of the Numbers explains that this scene represents the ultimate reversal of nature. Balaam was the wisest of men, and here he is upstaged by his donkey, the lowest of animals.  For a more lofty and respectful view on the man-animal relationship however, let us turn our attention to a more inspiring passage found in the book of Job (Job 12:7-8):

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
 or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you

Here animals can be understood as possessing the very essence and wisdom of our earth.  To communicate with animals is to share in their well-being, which is ultimately our well-being as humans.  Perhaps this ‘dialogue’ does not take place in actual words, as it does in Parashat Balak, but rather, in actions, such as the way we relate to the environment and to our fellow creatures inhabiting this earth.  Animals serve as the index of our respect for our planet, and, as we see from the recent BP disaster, when we turn away from our responsibility, the result to the earth and to the creatures which inhabit it is devastating.

 

If we are thinking about what it means to relate meaningfully to animals, we also must consider what it actually means to be human.  As humans, we possess the intelligence and power to be deliberately holy beings.  From the text alone, it appears the prophet Balaam prophesizes in the name of “Hashem, my God.” The overwhelming majority of the midrashic commentators pounce on this phrase and insist, rather vehemently, that Balaam was not a monotheistic, but rather, an idol worshipper, diviner, and a generally evil person.  (Intriguing evidence of the former can be found in an inscription discovered in 1967  in the plains of the Jordan, at a site identified with Sukkoth in the area of the Jabok river. These fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods”  include a description of a goddess, fear of the havoc she could wreck, and an interesting array of god-names.)

Fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods"

Image of the Balaam Inscription

The overarching message, however, seems clear: whereas animals are all too often subjugated to their masters’ will (or that of other creatures), man possesses the unique capacity both for flaw and transcendent holiness, as we also learn through the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake.  How? Through freedom of choice.

 
Balaam even knew in advance that his attempts to curse the Jews would ultimately prove abortive, but he kept trying—a weakness on his part. Despite his intimate knowledge of God (with God writ large or god in the plural, depending on your understanding of the text), Balaam remained a slave to his own social context. Balaam certainly was capable of achieving holiness, but he failed by succumbing to external pressures until only a donkey could teach him otherwise.

 
Interestingly, all but one of the Biblical characters in the Pentateuch whose names are immortalized as parasha titles are figures born as non-Jews.  In the cases of Noah, Sarah, and Jethro, each drew closer to God in her/his own way through righteous and deliberate actions (Sarah and Jethro being ‘Jews by choice,’ but I contend that in our modern times all Jews are Jews by choice—today to identify actively as Jewish is no small feat). Such is most certainly not the case with Balak, the Moabite king after whom this pericope is named.  All we know of Balak is his fear and desire to thwart the Israelites in their attempt to pass through the land. In this way, Balak seems to forgo our most interesting and empowering birthright as humans: our capacity for choice and constructive conflict resolution.

Which leads into this coming Shabbat’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, which immediately follows Parashat Balak.  The only born-Jew to have a portion named after him, Pinchas, is, in a way,  the Jewish counterpart of Balak, the Moabite king. Here again, we are revealed the disastrous consequences of an over-zealous man whose only response to a perceived threat is violence and destruction.  Ironically, the house of David emerges from a Moabite woman (Ruth), as if to teach us, at this intersection between the Balak and Pinchas narrative, that all Jews originate from non-Jews, and in all cases (whether Jew or non-Jew), holiness is a choice, and constructive co-existence is a worthy uphill battle.

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

(And If you’re a fan of morals and religious teachings embodied through speaking animals, I hereby commend yourattention to 13th century Spanish qabbalist R’ Isaac Ibn Sahula’s wonderfully understated collection of fables, Meshal HaQadmoni, a kind of Jewish, Torah-inspired answer to Aesop’s fables.)

JewsByChoice.org 2.0

Awhile back, I was introduced to a really great online resource for Jews by choice aptly named JewsByChoice.org. It was certainly a great website and I imagine a good resource for those who encountered it. For one reason or another the project was put on hold, now it’s back and better than ever.

Incorporating aspects of community blogs and social networking, JewsByChoice.org is an incredibly useful and dynamic website which provides a space for an online community dedicated to Jews by choice to network and share experiences, in addition to providing a vibrant potential for online learning and the sharing of knowledge and information. Regular visitors and contributors to the site come from a very large spectrum of Jewish observance and familiarity.

The website intends to target a trans-denominational audience, and while it is also intended for those in our community who are Jews by choice, it also has an active, and can only assume passive, readership from those of us who are Jews by birth.

In its own words…

JewsByChoice.org is a Trans-denominational grassroots, peer run, blog and online resource, providing Jews by choice (as well as other interested parties) with opportunities for exploring, discussing and engaging with Jewish Identity, Tradition, Culture and Religious Observance.

Our core mission activities include:

Technology: Harnessing the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies in order to provide Jews by choice with improved online opportunities for: social networking, community building and learning; as a means of facilitating greater Jewish literacy and engagement.

Discussion: Providing a forum for dialogue and discussion where Jews by choice from across the denominational spectrum can (respectfully) discuss and exchange ideas with one another on a variety of Jewish topics.

Engagement: Creating opportunities for Jews by choice to deepen their understanding, connection and commitment to Jewish religion, culture and community.

Advocacy: Empowering Jews by choice to better identify and address issues which act as barriers to their engagement and integration into Jewish life and Community.

In my opinion, the most productive way to encourage inclusiveness and acceptance on a genuine and integral level for all denominations and flavors of Jewish lifestyle, belief, practice, observance and thought involves striving to understand the perspectives and experiences of individual people who walk in all of these different forms of Jewish identity. The type of online community which JewsByChoice.org is creating provides the opportunity for people to connect as individuals and share information and knowledge by utilizing technology and relying upon the motivation of any person who chooses to join the community for their contribution.

I highly recommend jumping over to the site, registering with them and surfing around, start a blog, join some groups and share your thoughts. It’s really a fabulous resource that I hope continues to be utilized and continues to grow.

Haredi in Haiti?

scumbagIt sucks when Jews commit a hillul hashem and the news picks up on it.  We all suffer, especially if they’re observant and it smacks of hypocrisy.

But what about when it’s a poseur?

Amidst the feel-goods about IsraAID and JDC helping out on the ground in Haiti comes a story of a shady character named Jorge Puello. He’s a “legal advisor” to the 10 missionaries accused (and now cleared) of smuggling children into Dominican Republic. He’s also wanted in connection with a human trafficking scandal that spans Central America. He reportedly ran a brothel out of his home in Miami, luring Caribbean women with promises of modeling work only to traffic them into the sex-trades. It gets stranger. Puello apparently served a stint in jail for narcotics, served in US Army Intel, and worked for Homeland Security. Is nobody doing background checks anymore?

Oh yeah, and there’s this: he sports a beard, velvet kippah an claims to be ”president of the Jewish Communities of Dominican Republic.”

AP  reports:

About four years ago, he emerged in Santo Domingo saying he wanted to establish a Sephardic Jewish community. Cerminara and Ana Puello said everyone in their family is Catholic and that Jorge Puello’s converted on his own. “He is Jewish by conviction,” she said. “He practices the religion and believes it in his heart.”

The Dominican Republic is home to about 50 Jewish families, a tightly knit and low-key community that includes Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and some had doubts about the new arrival, said Isaac Lalo, secretary of the Centro Israelita de Republica Dominicana, the main synagogue.

“This guy has nothing to do with our community,” Lalo said. “Sephardic Jews don’t just set up a community out of the blue.”

WTF?! Like we don’t have enough Madoffs in our midst, people gotta pose as us and do their evil deeds?  

Hat tip to failed messiah.

Rabbi Locks Door To Conversion, Keeps Key In His Pants

Haaretz reports,

It is hard to imagine a more embarrassing situation in which to find an exclusive ultra-Orthodox organization – a group that was a standard-bearer in the fight against “breaches in the wall of conversion” and “the penetration of complete gentiles into the vineyard of Israel.”

These breaches pale into insignificance in comparison with the accusations against the man who heads the organization itself: according to the claims, Rabbi Leib Tropper of Rockland County abandoned the apparently stringent Halakhic standards of his Haredi organization and established a conversion process based on his most private impulses.

A report in the New York Post earlier this week revealed a sensational story about “a prominent Orthodox rabbi has been caught on tape discussing his apparent love affair with a shiksa he was converting to Judaism.”

The woman involved is 32-year-old Shannon Orand of Houston, who still seeks to convert from Christianity to Judaism. The bulk of the report deals with embarrassing comments that the rabbi made during a phone call, during which he was recorded demanding the woman perform a number of sexual services for himself and his friends in exchange for granting her a conversion certificate.

Rabbi Tropper’s stated goal in founding the Eternal Jewish Family was to “fortify the walls of conversion,” amid an ideological debate between the Haredi and national camps in Israel. …As such, the doors of senior Haredi officals were thrown open to him…. because of his efforts and comments against conversions by the Conversion Authority, against the “infiltration” of gentiles into the people of Israel.

Full story.

(HT to Tzemah for story and title.)

The Best Penis Jokes From Suburban Philly to Downtown Jerusalem

People ask me, “How Catholic were you?” Catholic enough to know I was going to hell. So I switched religions!

-Yisrael Campbell in Circumcise Me

I just saw Circumcise Me, the autobiographical one-man comedy show from Yisrael Campbell of Jerusalem (formerly Christopher Campbell of suburban Philadelphia). Born to a “manic-depressive Italian woman and a pathologically silent Irishman,” by the time he hit his twenties (I think), he was already a recovering alcoholic and drug addict living in L.A.

There, he converted to Judaism with a Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Jim, and got circumcised. Eventually, he wanted more, so he joined a Conservative shul and got circumcised again. Eventually, he moved to Jerusalem where he got a third circumcision.

If this isn’t a recipe for the most original hour and fifteen minutes of dick jokes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. More »

Spot the Error — or, Arutz Sheva Can’t Read the Bible

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

Arurtz Sheva, the news service of the West Bank’s settlers says:

In a powerful echo of the Biblical story of the patriarch Abraham, a Mumbai doctor smashed his father’s idols and eventually decided to become a Jew in the Land of Israel.

Abraham was born Vagirds Frads to a Hindu cleric who worshipped idols, and a mother who prepared food for them.  As did the Biblical Abraham, young Vagirds could not understand how his father could honor a man-made statue, nor why his mother would cook for them. “Sometimes I eat it in secret,” he confided…

What’s wrong with this? Special Thanksgiving Turkey points to the first person who gets it right.

The full article is here. Hat-tip: Yid By Choice.

Rabbi Funnye’s Message of Inclusivity

When I heard the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was hosting an event featuring Rabbi Capers Funnye, I wondered how they would frame the program. Would the Council see this as an opportunity to foster discussion, encourage member synagogues to engage with diversity in the Jewish community? I hoped that the event would be a starting point, a chance to reflect on how we can better include Jews of all colours in our community, then start discussing what actions to take. At worst, I feared this evening would be purely congratulatory, a pat on the back that, just by inviting Rabbi Funnye to talk, our synagogues are obviously inclusive and welcoming!

Luckily, the introductory remarks by members of the Synagogue Council executive set the right tone: Representing 120 synagogues across Massachusetts, the Council encourages learning and dialogue, embraces diversity, and promotes pluralism. Officially, their website notes that they “nurture a respect for diversity within our Jewish community.”

And then we launched into the main event. Rabbi Funnye was there to talk about his journey to, with, Judaism. In telling it, he suggested that his story could actually be that of many African-American Jewish converts. And that story started with a cruise. A “free cruise,” organized by a “travel agent,” with too many people in too small a space (and the food wasn’t good either). At the conclusion of the trip, they were given new names, and introduced to a new G-d who, coincidentally, looked a lot like their new captors. Within the span of three minutes, Funnye wove his personal journey in with over 100 years of African-American history. Ending in the 1960’s, Funnye talked about how reading up on civil rights led to re-reading the bible with an understanding that these stories weren’t just happening to an abstract people, but was the history of a people with whom he felt a connection, an understanding.

Throughout, his talk was punctuated with humour. At first, these jokes were met with silence. Slowly, the audience started chuckling quietly. It was as if the audience, mostly white folks in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, were afraid to laugh. But Funnye was funny. And, slowly, the audience realised that they could relax and enjoy his message while also learning from it.

Funnye had the great ability to weave a story that included not only a version of his own personal journey, but also that of Jews in Africa today. Through his work with Be’chol Lashon, he’s travelled to many countries in Africa to work with the local Jewish populations. Explaining the differences between American and African Jews, he told a story of a woman who was her village’s mohel (the person who performs the bris milah – circumcision). This particular Nigerian community was described as being somewhere within the realm of Orthodoxy by American standards, and yet a woman was the mohel. When Funnye asked her about that, she explained that as a woman she couldn’t read the Torah, she couldn’t sit with the men in synagogue, she was not required to perform as many commandments as the men, but it said in the Torah that she was to circumcise the men. Her proof? Tziporah, Moses’ wife, a Cushite woman, was in charge of circumcising their youngest son.

So what was the point of these stories? Throughout the talk, Funnye repeated his message of the need for inclusion, acceptance, and a better understanding of how a diverse Jewish population can learn from each other. He gave examples of how African-American Jews can help build bridges between synagogues and churches and mosques. He spoke to the importance of welcoming all Jewish souls and hearts to Judaism, and the reasons why we need to have more welcoming, while still halakhic, conversion processes. And he spoke to the Jewish establishment needing to see and serve the full range of colours that Jews come in. (As an example of the shortcomings of Jewish institutions, Funnye talked about his small rabbinical school in Queens, NY that serves the African-American Jewish community. It was started when an African-American Jew, who had two degrees from Yeshiva University, was denied entry to their rabbinical school because of his skin colour).

I have no doubt that the audience was moved by his talk. I just hope that conversations continue, individual members of the Jewish community, congregations, and the Council alike all put plans in place for ensuring that our community is actually as welcoming as the audience was last night.

I should apologize for the crap quality of the video. Arriving 15 minutes early, I found a seat at the back and on the far left side of the sanctuary. And using this Flip camcorder for the first time, I didn’t know how poor the sound quality would be. (Crank up your volume.) That said, what a fun gadget! Once I rig up a tripod for it, it’ll be much more useful.

Loving the Stranger, Even When He’s Estranged

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed some radical reconfiguring of my own views on inclusivity and exclusivity in Jewish community and Jewish tradition. I’ve become much more conscious of the ways we speak about Jews of multiple heritages, Jews born into other faiths, etc.

From the time I was a kid (I’m going to guess the seventh grade, when we spent a year of Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust), I have been very uncomfortable by any reference to Jews as a race. (“That’s how Hitler defined us!” I was trained to think.) But I never really thought about the concept of “Jewish Blood” as anything other than metaphor until BatyaD objected to the phrase in a comment on this blog.

Her comment got me thinking about the way we speak of converts. There’s a somewhat accepted, conventional (dare I say “traditional?”) narrative of the “Jewish soul” that many people use to conceptualize conversion into the Jewish faith. Somehow, the idea that converts were born Jewish but just didn’t know it yet is supposed to make someone feel more comfortable about including them in the Jewish people. This bothers me. If someone finds that the teachings of Judaism feel like the appropriate framework for her life, and wants to cast her lot in with the Jewish people, I don’t know what benefit there is to say “it was predestined.” Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway.

But there’s another problem with this creepy Jewish soul business. Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?) are those insisting that if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish no matter whether you renounce Judaism or take on some other religion or no religion or what have you. This, to me, feels hypocritical. I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path. Either souls can get born into the “wrong” religion or not. Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not.

I know I’m largely (but not entirely) preaching to the choir here, but I had to get this off my chest. I feel better already.

Is Britney good for the Jews?

I’m not one to dabble into gossip tabloids, but when this came across my Facebook newsfeed, I couldn’t resist (from The Sun):

BRITNEY SPEARS has never been one to take things slowly when it comes to relationships.

So it’s no surprise she’s considering converting to Judaism to show her commitment to new bloke JASON TRAWICK.

The singer has been spotted wearing a necklace with the Star of David symbol on during her world tour.

She has even recruited a rabbi to help her study the faith.

A source said: “Britney wants to try the religion Jason was brought up with.”

Brit, who had a Baptist upbringing, also dabbled in Jewish spin-off Kabbalah in 2005 after MADONNA suggested it.

I wonder how long it will be before the Scientology reps come knocking?

So the question is, is this another star toeing in the water of pop-culture Kabbalah, or is this a serious endeavor at becoming a giyoret? More »

…Oh, what the hell, Just don’t bother….

Since Israel doesn’t really think anyone in the Diaspora should convert, apparently the Conservative movement, in a very non-typical move, has decided to accept this ruling and no longer bother.

After several years of actively attempting to encourage intermarried families to become “one-faith families,” since the efforts made to stem the rather strong social forces we live with in the Diaspora didn’t have immediate and overwhelming success, and were even faced with contradiction from within their own movement by its own Men’s Club, in the Men’s Club “Keruv” program, they just decided to move on to other important topics, such as whether or not New York City is actually the center of Judaism and the original site of the Temple.

These different approaches to the intermarried caused such concern among the other arms of the Conservative movement that a committee was established in an attempt to find common ground. The result is a pamphlet that will be distributed in the coming days in which all arms of the Conservative movement speak with one voice — decidedly softer in tone on conversions — in spelling out their principles on outreach:

-All are welcome.
-There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life.
-Interfaith couples are welcome.

There is “nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish partners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish community and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion.”

…It was also a compromise that all arms could live with; an initial draft didn’t even contain the word “conversion.”

Is it just me, or is someone from the Onion contributing to JTA these days?

New Jews, stay away!

Converts in the diaspora are still having trouble getting citizenship in Israel. We’ve been seeing this going on for years, of course, but every time the soup simmers down, someone throws in a new bone and turns up the flame.

Seems that the Interior Ministry has changed the rules again. Of course, the new rules haven’t actually been approved, but that hasn’t stopped the normally rule-bound Israelis (can you detect the sarcasm? Okay) from employing them.

Critics say the new rules are too stringent and are disenfranchising Diaspora Jewish communities that approve the conversions, ultimately making it harder than ever for converts from the Diaspora to immigrate to Israel. Supporters say the new rules are meant to separate genuine converts from those interested in little more than a quick path to Israeli citizenship.

Yes, of course. It has nothing to do with the battle between certain of the power-holding Orthodox and everyone else.

According to the new regulations — they have not been approved officially but already are being employed, according to advocates who deal with converts — converts to Judaism from the Diaspora must remain for at least nine months before and after their conversions in the community where they converted before they can immigrate to Israel.

The rules also mandate 350 hours of classes and hands-on practice for converts in the Diaspora (modeled on standards set in Israel for its official conversion institute) and bar any convert who has a non-Jewish relative living in Israel and anyone whose stay in Israel was previously deemed illegal for any period of time.

My favorite part is that if you have a non-Jewish relative living in Israel you aren’t eligible to be Jewish. WTF? Yes, I’m aware that there are foreign workers living in Israel who might want to -God forbid- become Israeli. And we all know that OF COURSE there could only be ulterior motives.

Um, they DO realize that this is counter to halakhah, right?

War Crime Dictator: Jew Edition

I know we’re a progressive Jewish blog, and have made arguments in favour of welcoming Jews of different flavours before. But there’s got to be a limit, right? This is that limit.

Charles TaylorThe headline is slightly misleading (“Charles Taylor converts to Judaism“), but Charles Taylor, the former dictator of Liberia currently being held in prison, awaiting trial, in the Hague on charges of war crimes, has told his wife he is now a Jew.

He’s still a Christian, but he’s a Jew too. Because of that whole Jesus thing…

Q. So he’s now a practicing Jew?

A. He’s now a Jew. He’s practicing Judaism.

Q. Tells us about that? What led him to that?

A. Because of the difficulties, he always wanted to know God in a very different and special way. From a very small boy — because we talk about his childhood a whole lot — he asked himself questions about Christianity. Too many questions about why certain things happened. And why, this one and that one. Just too many question in Christianity and the whole thing about Christ because he does believe in Christ. When he got to the Hague, he got to know that he really, really wanted to be a Jew. Wanted to convert to Judaism. And that…

Q. Does that mean he has rejected Christianity then? Because that’s quite a radical departure.

A. No, no, no he hasn’t rejected Christianity. He has always been a Christian. He just decided to become a Jew. He wants to follow the two religions.

Transcript of the BBC radio interview courtesy of Joshua Keating at the Foreign Policy blog.

As Joshua writes, “Madonna [becoming a "Jew"] was bad enough, but this is really beyond the pale.” Seriously. What’s with celebrities taking on Judaism (or, faux Judaism – as in the case of Madonna)? Madonna’s version of Kabbalah is not what Jews study; Taylor’s version of Judaism isn’t Judaism. What part of his history as a mass murderer – ethnic cleansing style – made him think, “You know, my ethics and practices align with Christianity so well, I should also embrace Judaism?” You’d think after he failed at many of the ten commandments he would have quit there…

Converting the Heathens

There are Jewish organisations, including the JCCs of North America and HUC, offering scholarships to American rabbinical students who wish to become military chaplains. The US Army’s chaplain recruitment webpage states,

“Army Chaplains are expected to observe the distinctive doctrines of their faith while also honoring the right of others to observe their own faith. The Army is a pluralistic environment. “

Honouring the right of others to observe their own faith. That seems key to me. Both for the individuals in the armed forces, and the citizens on the countries they invade. If chaplains from different faiths are expected to work side by side, and serve that “pluralistic environment” of different faith soldiers, how can the following be permitted?

U.S. Soldiers have been encouraged to spread the message of their Christian faith among Afghanistan’s predominantly Muslim population, video footage obtained by Al Jazeera appears to show.Military chaplains stationed in the U.S. air base at Bagram were also filmed with Bibles printed in the country’s main Pashto and Dari languages.

In one recorded sermon, Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, the chief of the U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan, is seen telling Soldiers that as followers of Jesus Christ, they all have a responsibility “to be witnesses for him”.

“The special forces guys — they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down,” he says.

“Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business.” [read more.]

Unacceptable. The army’s mandate is not to convert, not to be missionaries, not to proselytise. If a military chaplain of a different faith were to encourage soldiers to act on a similar mission (say, convert everyone to Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism), this would be a giant story, with the majority of Americans angrily protesting. But converting to Christianity? No one makes a stir.

Okay, okay, not “no one.” “Some of the Soldiers” were reprimanded, and the army confiscated some of the Bibles that had been printed in Pashto and Dari (Afghanistan’s main languages). We know that this is bad for US diplomacy, it’s unconstitutional, and the Army doesn’t allow it… So why isn’t it being fully investigated? Why aren’t all of the soldiers being reprimanded? How come this was allowed to happen in Iraq as well? And why does hasn’t that chaplain been reprimanded?