With Partners Like These…

First published on Israel National News / Arutz-7

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the respected Chief Rabbi of Efrat, began his career guiding people towards traditional Jewish observance. Appointed Rabbi of the new Lincoln Square Conservative Synagogue shortly after receiving Smicha (ordination), he quickly persuaded his congregation to drop "Conservative" from both name and practice. Under his leadership, Lincoln Square grew into an early leader in Jewish outreach.

This makes his near-endorsement of a greater Israeli presence for the American Reform and Conservative movements all the more mystifying. While there have been significant changes since he made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in 1983, he emphasizes his own “contact with Reform and Conservative Rabbis” – and thus should remain familiar with their activities and outlook.

One might make a credible argument that access to a public Mikvah (ritual bath) in Israel should be open to anyone, regardless of affiliation or intended use. But that was not Rabbi Riskin's claim in a recent interview with Arutz 7. Rather, he suggested one should permit liberal Rabbis to use Mikvaot (for non-Halakhic conversions, no less) because “they're not our enemies, they're our partners.”

To love and pursue peace is a religious imperative. But as the Kotzker Rebbe once quipped, “when truth is discarded, peace is easily achieved.” The sad truth is that the American liberal rabbis and movements are anything but partners.

Most Israelis are unfamiliar with these groups; when they are introduced, they are often dismayed. Israel's current President, Ruby Rivlin, was invited to visit an American Reform Temple when first elected as an MK in 1989. He told the Israeli media afterwards that "as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… I felt as if I were in a church."

Reform leaders objected and professed insult – yet it was not so long ago that the rabbi of New York's Temple Emmanu-El boasted that "a prominent Christian lawyer… told me that he entered this building at the beginning of a service on Sunday morning, and did not discover that he was in a synagogue until a chance remark of the preacher betrayed it."

So are they encouraging similarity to churches, or not? They want to have it both ways; this is a recurring pattern.

Whereas Jewish tradition frowns upon conversion for the sake of a Jewish partner, the Reform and Conservative movements both actively encourage it. In 1983, Reform went yet further, pronouncing the child of a Jewish father to be Jewish – leading to a precipitous decline in those same conversions for marriage. But even if the mother of an intermarried son now believes that she will have Jewish grandchildren, this is usually wishful thinking: children of intermarriage remain unlikely to identify as Jews.

Having seen the failure of patrilineal descent, the Conservative movement refused that change. In most other matters, however, it has followed Reform's lead – with regards to driving on Shabbat, ordaining women, and even same-sex marriage. The average American Reform or Conservative Jew is today so far removed from basic Jewish practices that, comparing Pew Surveys in both countries, Israel's self-defined hilonim (secular Jews) are observant by comparison – more likely to light Shabbat candles, attend a Pesach Seder, or fast on Yom Kippur.

In 2013 the Pew Survey identified 1.8 million Reform Jews in the US, under 1 million Conservative Jews, and just over a half million Orthodox – but if the birth, intermarriage and assimilation rates of the distinct groups continue apace, the Orthodox will constitute the majority within several decades.

Israelis can certainly see the extent to which the American liberal movements strive for partnership. When Anat Hoffman ran for Jerusalem City Council on the Ratz-Shinui ticket in 1989, her platform was one of anti-Orthodox animus so poisonous that even many secular Jerusalemites condemned her advertising as crossing into anti-Semitism.

The Reform movement enabled Hoffman to rebrand herself as an advocate for “women's rights” – primarily the “right” of American liberal women to disturb the prayers of traditional Israeli women at the Western Wall. Her “Women of the Wall” group claims to merely wish to pray on the one hand, while rejecting alternate locations and expressing the desire to change Orthodoxy on the other. The Reform movement, which rejects the unique sanctity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the Western Wall as a site for prayer, finances her efforts.

The movement pays Hoffman to be the director of its Israel Religious Action Center, which Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum described in 2005 as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” IRAC delayed the building of a religious center in Rechovot for over a decade despite City Council approval, attempted to prevent Chabad from operating at Ben-Gurion Airport, and recently announced that it will sue ElAl to prevent even voluntarily accommodation for hassidic travelers who prefer not to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.

Yet it is not merely the idea that they are partners with Orthodoxy that must be questioned. The liberal movements believe that they know Israel's needs better than those who live there.

The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. On her American speaking tours, Hoffman deliberately distances her audiences from Israel: she claims that women do not have full civil rights, using Women of the Wall's own antics as her prime example. She also points out that American liberal Judaism – that which rejects the entirety of Jewish tradition – is not accepted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate as authentic Jewish practice. “Israel is way too important,” she concludes, “to be left to Israelis.”

The Reform movement erased the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Holy Temple from its prayer books, yet these same liberal groups now threaten the Israeli government with “rupture” should it fail to transform the Western Wall Plaza, at tremendous cost and irreversible damage to archaeological sites, to meet their demands.

Last week they called for a “show of force” at the Western Wall; it drew less than 100 people. Their American adherents rarely visit Israel – would American liberal Jews care at all, were their leaders not fomenting discord?

They are not partners. They are not partners with Israel, and certainly not partners with Judaism.

Political Posturing at the Western Wall

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

Charlie Kalech is upset. Kalech is the Internet entrepreneur who broke Israeli law last year on behalf of the Women of the Wall (WoW), taking a Torah scroll from the men’s section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Those scrolls may not be removed by law, respecting traditional Jewish practice. Kalech broke through the divider between men and women to give WoW a Torah scroll, and he was detained for his trouble. Now he feels betrayed — because WoW announced plans to hold a “birkat kohanot” this Passover, an imitation “priestly blessing” by and for women.

Large crowds come to the Western Wall twice each year for birkat kohanim, the Jewish priestly blessing. The blessing itself is hardly extraordinary — kohanim in Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues perform it on each holiday in the Diaspora; Sephardim do it daily, as do all traditional synagogues in Israel. The special event at the Western Wall, however, held during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, began less than 50 years ago.

It was initiated by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner of blessed memory, based on an 800-year-old teaching that when 300 kohanim deliver their blessing together, it is a sign that the Holy Temple will soon be rebuilt. This is why nearly 100,000 Jews now come to receive the priestly blessing from hundreds of kohanim. There is no mandate in Jewish law for this service or for conducting it at the Western Wall, and no reason besides simple convenience to do it specifically during the holidays. Yet this is what WoW aims to mimic.

Kalech is agitated because Israel’s Conservative Jewish movement does not approve of women performing this ceremony, and therefore WoW’s “birkat kohanot” will not be “inclusive.” In actuality, this particular idea is equally offensive to every denomination.

There is, of course, no way to reconcile“birkat kohanot” with traditional Judaism, which defines kohanim as male descendants of Aharon, the original high priest. But the Reform movement also rejects birkat kohanim when conducted by anyone. They point out that priestly status itself is not egalitarian: it separates the kohanim from other Jews.

So WoW plans to show preference to daughters of kohanim over other women in a way unsupported by any version of Judaism, doing a “Jewish” ritual supported by no version of Jewish ritual, in imitation of a ceremony that aims to restore Judaism’s doubly undemocratic Holy Temple. And it claims to be doing all this in the name of egalitarianism.

If that reads like self-parody, so does Kalech’s complaint. He decries WoW for “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism,” and declares that the group has been “usurped by those who disregard halachic (Jewish legal) observance for their own political agenda.” Apparently he did not recognize this last year, although their “birkat kohanot” is no more or less religious, and conversely no more or less political, than their use of a Torah scroll. Kalech is absolutely right, save for his use of the word “usurped.”

The correct term is “founded.” From its inception, the Women of the Wall have demonstrated “blatant disregard for respect of different streams of Judaism.” Their behavior towards those praying at the Western Wall belies their claim to merely wish to pray in their own fashion and their own style.

One of their most active members uncomfortably admitted that her WoW colleagues consciously deviate from any normal style of prayer. On the contrary, she wrote, “they may not pray every morning at all. Some women pray/sing at the top of their lung [sic] in an operatic voice. I don’t think they would do that at home or in their local beit knesset (synagogue).” Another WoW member stated openly that she doesn’t even know how to pray, and that she came to “choose a potential victim to argue with” from among the traditional women there for prayers.

All of this is relatively obvious to anyone who has witnessed their behavior. Besides the aforementioned singing “at the top of their lungs,” they have 10 women blow shofar in unison before Rosh Hashanah, wave their prayer books overhead, and in general do as much as possible to attract attention. Although the new “Ezrat Yisrael” egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall is sufficient for a group many times WoW’s size, it sits empty — WoW comes only to where traditional women are praying, and many of its members declare that they will accept no alternative.

This conduct reflects the expressed belief of WoW leaders that change must be forced upon other women. Bonna Haberman claims that WoW “catalyzes engagement in healthy democracy” by ensuring that “ultra-Orthodox” women are “aroused by the subversive possibility of women’s autonomous public prayer.” Anat Hoffman says that WoW’s presence in the women’s section is about “bringing about change in the Orthodox world,” while Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut wrote that WoW will “shock” traditional women and “change their world view.” WoW’s agenda is politics, not prayer.

Perhaps it was possible until now to ignore these statements, and credibly believe that WoW simply wished to conduct their own services. But only an alternate agenda demands that they continually push the envelope — by, for example, inventing an entirely new “Jewish” practice. It is simple political theater, busing in women to ape Orthodox men, with a performance as foreign to atraditional movements as to the most ardent traditionalist.

Perhaps WoW has finally taken things one step too far. Perhaps the media will finally ask why a group claiming to simply wish to pray “in its own fashion” keeps making its “fashion” more and more extreme. Perhaps people will wonder about a purported spiritual need for “birkat kohanot” found nowhere else in the Jewish world.

Even previous supporters of WoW must be discomfited, as Charlie Kalech is, now that WoW’s true agenda is manifest and undeniable: forcing feminism upon women who simply wish to pray peacefully, in their traditional fashion, at what they regard to be the holiest place for their prayers. The Western Wall is a religious site, and not the venue for WoW’s feminist politics.

A Declining Reform Movement Wants To Reform Israel

A recent Pew survey brought disheartening news to the American leaders of Reform Judaism: despite investing decades and millions of dollars to increase their presence, they are making little to no headway in Israel. reform-e1459122897687 A mere 3 percent of Israeli Jews identify with the movement, and even fewer attend one of the only 42 Reform congregations in the country. Even members may have little understanding of the Reform philosophy, only that it is atraditional and advocates for complete personal autonomy.

Reform is not simply a different nusach (prayer service), a different minhag (custom), or merely about men and women praying without a mechitzah (gender separation). In terms of Jewish practice, Israeli hilonim (non-observant) would be surprised to learn that compared to Reform in America, they are practically haredi. Even half of self-described “secular” Israelis claim to light Shabbat candles (at least sometimes), and one-third keep Kosher at home. Among American Reform Jews, only one in ten usually lights Shabbat candles, and only 7% keep a Kosher home. Hebrew Union College Rabbinical students claim the college itself serves non-Kosher meat.

Israel’s current President, Ruby Rivlin, was a freshly-elected Likud MK in 1989 when Reform Rabbi Uri Regev brought him to the United States to learn more about American Jewry. Upon his return, he told the Israeli media that “as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… Any connection between [Reform] and Judaism didn’t approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church.”

From its beginning, the Reform movement rejected essentially all that we have called Judaism for millenia. The Torah is hardly the final authority for its version of Judaism. Its founders dispensed with the entirety of Jewish Law as found in the Talmud and later authorities, and also severed the historic connection between the Nation of Israel and the Land of Israel. The 1843 Reform Declaration of Principles stated that “we know no fatherland except that to which we belong by birth or citizenship.” Or, put more succintly by leaders of that day: “Berlin is our Jerusalem.” Prayers for return to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, and the restoration of a Jewish government, were among the first deleted from their prayer books.

Nearly 100 years later, faced with surging anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazi Germany, the movement reversed course. Its 1937 platform endorsed “the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren” in Palestine, and called upon all Jews to “aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.”

At no point, however, did the movement make aliyah a priority. Even today, the ReformJudaism.org web page on aliyah says only that the movement encourages Jews to “strengthen their ties with Israel” and to participate in “organized visits” (especially under Reform auspices). Reform encourages congregants to visit Israel as tourists, while the overwhelming majority of American olim are Orthodox.

The movement also seems to be openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs and the dangers of terrorism. The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the leftist and pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund which donates to organizations supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Jacobs strongly advocated for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to accept J Street as a member, and even threatened to withdraw the URJ from the Conference after it declined to do so.

These attitudes, to be sure, affect the membership of Reform congregations. A previous head, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, admitted that Reform has produced the most Jewishly ignorant generation in history; in a recent column, Caroline Glick tied this ignorance directly to Jewish leadership in today’s anti-Israel movement.

In addition to all of the above, the Reform movement is also in precipitous decline. Besides having merely 1.7 children per family, 60% of recent marriages have been with non-Jews. Only one of every five intermarried parents raises children as Jewish (more than one in 4 raise them “partly Jewish by religion and partly something else”). Looking at the comparative birth and intermarriage rates, it appears likely that the Orthodox will constitute the Jewish majority within several decades.

While one might expect Reform leaders to focus upon their internal issues, or at most to simply try to expand their Israeli presence, instead they seem bent upon fighting the Orthodox. The movement sponsors the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an organization described in 2005 as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” At that time, it was suing to prevent building of a religious center in Rechovot – one which had already won City Council approval in three separate votes, and which was supported by 1000 residents’ letters in favor of its construction vs. 200 opposed. That center finally opened last year, after over a decade of harassment.

More recently, IRAC announced that it would be suing ElAl. The announced reason was that when a male Chassidic Jew requested an accommodation so that he would not be seated next to a woman, the helpful steward asked the woman in the next seat if she would prefer an open seat closer to first class. If that sounds like shaky grounds for a discrimination case, that is only because you are not Anat Hoffman, the current director of IRAC. To her, any accommodation for observant Jews is good reason for a lawsuit.

Hoffman began her career running for the Jerusalem City Council on the radical left Ratz-Shinui ticket. Her campaign distributed an orange map of Jerusalem with black splotches representing Orthodox “encroachment” into various neighborhoods. Even many secular residents were incensed by a depiction that, used against different communities, would have been termed racist or anti-Semitic. She was unapologetic; her own informal poll confirmed that they had captured the anti-Haredi vote in that election.

One thing, though, is certain: a properly-motivated person can do far greater damage to the rights of the religious through Israel’s leftist-dominated court system than on a democratically-elected City Council. What is perhaps surprising is that a movement which in America touts its commitment to tolerance, pluralism and liberal values, hired as Director of the Israel Religious Action Center a woman who built her political career upon anti-religious bias.

Hoffman is also the Director of the Women of the Wall, the ideal platform from which to claim to crusade for women’s rights while trampling the rights of thousands of women to pray undisturbed, in traditional fashion, at the Western Wall – a site which she previously stated she would like to see converted to a (secular) monument, with neither mechitzah nor prayers. Women of the Wall arranges monthly disturbances in the women’s section, singing loudly and shouting in an effort to force change upon other women. The organization dismisses and denigrates as “controlled by ultra-Orthodox rabbis” the much larger group of traditional women who pray regularly at the Western Wall and who oppose WOW’s politically-motivated provocations.

The Reform movement funds Ms. Hoffman’s speaking tours of America, in which she distances her Reform audiences from Israel. In her speeches she claims that women do not have full civil rights in Israel, using Women of the Wall’s own antics as her prime example. To be certain, she also points out that American Reform Judaism – that which rejected the entirety of Jewish tradition – is not accepted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as authentic Jewish practice.

Two examples illustrate the extent to which Hoffman and her Reform colleagues will exploit what they consider long-discarded Jewish religious symbols for political gain. First, the Reform movement calls its American synagogues “temples” as a conscious repudiation of the special holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem. As recently as 1999, Israel’s Reform rabbis reaffirmed that to them, the Temple and the Western Wall have no special sanctity. Yet Hoffman and the American Reform movement are demanding that the Israeli government provide a plaza for their use, equivalent to the one provided for those who revere the Temple Mount as the holiest place on earth.

And just this week, the Women of the Wall announced that they plan to hold a “Birkat Kohanot” this Passover, with funding from the estate of the late actor Leonard Nimoy – who used the Kohanim’s parting of the fingers while portraying an alien on the Star Trek TV show – to advertise and bus women to the Kotel from across Israel. Yet the Reform movement proudly “rejected the notion of priestly status,” and states that Birkat Kohanim “is not seen in Reform synagogues.” Why are they twisting a traditional practice which they do not follow, and doing so in the faces of traditional Jews whose practices they denigrate and lampoon – if not because WOW hopes to provoke yet another riot, to exploit for future public relations in America?

This is the “contribution” that Reform is making in Israel: denigrating Jewish tradition, fighting religious organizations and the rights of religious Jews, all while making Israel look bad in the eyes of American Jews and a world already delighted to misportray the Jewish state as bigoted. In America, the movement honors intermarried congregants and their non-Jewish spouses as it presides over what sociologist Steven Cohen termed “a sharply declining non-Orthodox population.” Must we wonder why religious MKs are alarmed by the thought of official recognition of the Reform movement as legitimate “Judaism” in Israel?

This article first appeared on Arutz-7.

Someone Should Remind the University of California Regents That It’s Purim

This coming Thursday, March 24, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Purim. This holiday does not commemorate the inauguration of a new country, a great victory for freedom, or even the birth of a great leader. Rather, it celebrates the reversal of a decree of genocide against the entire Jewish nation. No other ethnicity or nationality has such a celebration – primarily because there is no other nation or ethnicity pursued globally by those seeking its eradication.

Following the destruction of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem nearly two millenia ago, Jews have lived in communities scattered around the earth, and been subjected to bigotry and persecution. The Holocaust was unique only in its magnitude and modernity. The world has largely forgotten the Crusades, Expulsions, Inquisitions, Pogroms, and Arab riots that annihilated Jewish populations, destroyed their synagogues and displaced their survivors from the seventh century through as recently as the 1960s.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, coincident with Purim, as it happens, the University of California (UC) Regents will debate and vote on a “Report on Principles against Intolerance,” one which aims to address the latest iteration of that same ancient hatred – as it has expressed itself in a disturbing wave of anti-Semitic incidents across numerous UC campuses.

The Regents boldly identified and condemned “anti-Zionism” as little more than a cover for bigotry against the Jewish people: “In particular, opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance towards Jewish people and culture. Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”

Just as many people fought against references to anti-Zionism in the report of the U. S. State Department’s definition of antisemitism — according to which some forms of anti-Zionism constitute antisemitism — so this part of the report has proven controversial, as there are many discomfited by the inclusion of anti-Zionism as a manifestation of discrimination. Nonetheless, this statement in the report is not merely accurate, but a prerequisite for any substantive effort to combat the antisemitism facing Jewish UC students, staff and faculty. Without mention of hatred masquerading as mere “anti-Israel” protest, what will be left is a meaningless condemnation of antisemitism that omits its primary campus stimulus.

Particularly damaging opposition to this necessary statement comes from scholars like Eugene Volokh, a legal expert on the UCLA faculty, a writer generally recognized for clear thinking, and one who describes himself as not only “ethnically” Jewish, but pro-Israel. Writing in the Washington Post, he claims:

Whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss — just as it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss whether Basques, Kurds, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Northern Cypriots, Flemish Belgians, Walloon Belgians, Faroese, Northern Italians, Kosovars, Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Transnistrians, Chechens, Catalonians, Eastern Ukranians and so on should have a right to have independent states.

This is true – it is appropriate to analyze whether there should be an independent state for Jews just as for the others. It is appropriate when it is at the same level, and arrives at the same objective results. When it fails this test, however – when discussion of the Jewish right for self-determination is guided by standards different from discussion of others’ rights – it becomes clear that this particular “discussion” is a mask for bigotry. This leads to an objective conclusion which is the converse of Volokh’s own.

No one but the dictators of mainland China – and their equally anti-democratic allies – begrudges the Taiwanese their independent country. Had the Scots voted for independence last year, neither the British nor anyone else would have denied them self-determination. Were the Tibetens, Chechens or any of the others to democratically secure their own independence, the civilized world would greet this with universal acclamation.

The Jewish people went through all appropriate diplomatic and democratic processes to secure a modern state to call their own. The British, whose mandatory Palestine covered both ancient Judea and a much larger territory to the east of the Jordan river, concluded that a modern Jewish state was desirable and appropriate. A plan for independent Jewish and Arab countries was endorsed by the United Nations itself, granting the modern state of Israel an unparalleled level of legal “legitimacy.” Israel’s borders expanded only when it successfully defended itself against threats of annihilation. Yet today, no one questions why the vast majority of mandatory Palestine was given to an undemocratic Hashemite clan stemming from Saudi Arabia; only the Jewish democracy is condemned. This is anything but “just as” the way other indigenous populations are treated.

These are double standards applied to Zionism, pure and simple — invocation of which the State Department’s definition rightly categorizes as being antisemitic, and the Regents should do as well.

A recent report from AMCHA Initiative, an organization combating campus anti-Semitism, demonstrates the strong correlation between so-called “anti-Israel” activity and open bigotry and even violence. Only one-third of the over 100 colleges surveyed had anti-Semitic activity in 2015 – unless there were calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. 95 percent of schools with BDS activity had anti-Semitic expression, and with greater frequency.

The study concluded that anti-Zionist student groups and faculty who call for an academic boycott of Israel are “very strong predictors of overall antisemitic activity” – and that “BDS activity is the strongest predictor of incidents that target Jewish students for harm.” In short, the anti-Israel movement is the only “humanitarian” cause whose activities lead directly to open bigotry and discrimination.

Even if you think that anti-Zionism isn’t necessarily antisemitic, it’s incontrovertible that it directly leads to and fuels straightforwardly antisemitic speech and behavior.

This is no coincidence. The leading speakers of this movement repeatedly present ancient anti-Semitic canards of Jewish claims of superiority and control of banks and the media to impressionable students. They repeat old and deadly fictions of Jews poisoning wells from the era of the Black Plague, and the blood libels of Jewish murders of children. They assert false claims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and “state-sponsored terrorism” against Israel, and then incite violence with calls of “we support the Intifada” – a program of knifings, bombings and other acts of terror directed against Jews in Israel and around the globe.

The Regents’ Working Group must be heartily commended for recognizing the true nature of anti-Zionism and condemning it as such. It would be a tremendous disservice to beleaguered Jewish UC students – and to the cause of truth and justice – were this language to somehow be dropped from the final, ratified version of the Report.

On Purim, we Jews celebrate the end of an unbridled attack on our national identity.

This Purim, with the Regents’ vote, may we be able to do the same.

This article first appeared in the Algemeiner.

Point Counterpoint: Keep the Focus on Jewish Substance

To the editor,

Rabbi Steven Wernick’s response (“Rebranding helps USCJ envision its future in a rapidly changing Jewish world”) to my op-ed, “Conservative Jews deserve more than PR,” is very interesting — yet saddening. Rabbi Pesach Lerner and I wrote about Jewish substance, and he differentiated between PR and branding. Regardless of that narrow distinction, neither can save a company selling a product of little interest to consumers.

His quote from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is apt indeed: “We will win Jewish (and universal) allegiance if Judaism is robust, if Judaism augments human life” (my emphasis added). It’s not about PR or branding, it’s about Judaism.

In that vein, Rabbi Wernick points out that “those impacted by Conservative Jewish communities” are “more likely” to be Jewishly educated and involved. More likely than whom — those who connect with no Jewish community at all? He makes a tremendous leap, making the bold assertion that these Jews are “highly engaged.” All the evidence at hand refutes that claim entirely.

He similarly states that we “denigrate” what he describes as a “diversity of Jewish wisdom and practice.” Yet we spoke of the beliefs, standards, and educational opportunities that the Conservative movement itself once considered mandatory. Diversity in Jewish practice is found in flourishing Jewish communities of North African, Iranian, Yemenite, German, Lithuanian, and Hungarian origin — often within blocks of each other, or side by side at the holy Western Wall.

Laxity vs. involvement is a poor-man’s diversity, and neither PR nor branding offers a rich solution.

—Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis – Torah.org and co-editor of Cross-Currents.com

Conservative Jews Deserve More than PR

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

Responding to a dramatic decline in membership, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm has hired the Good Omen PR agency to survey hundreds of its members and “develop a new ‘position statement’ for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.” Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.” The problem, however, is far more essential than branding.

According to the Pew Survey, the once-dominant Conservative movement has lost one-third of its members in the past 25 years.1 It now comprises merely 18% of American Jews – and only 11% of those under 30. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census determined that Schechter school enrollment plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Rabbi Wernick responds to these daunting numbers by saying, “we need to stop shraying our kups about everything that is bad, and get to work.” But will they do what must be done?

The movement has traveled this road before. Less than 30 years ago, there were early indications that the movement was past its heyday.2 At that time, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue formed a joint commission to create a statement of principles for the future of the movement – a document called “Emet Ve’Emunah.”

It was hardly the success they touted it to be; the commission was unable even to agree upon Who or what it worships. Instead it validated perceptions of G-d as divergent as the Supreme Being found in the Bible, and a vague “god” who is “not a being to whom we can point,” but simply a force “present when we look for meaning.”3 The movement discarded previous standards and offered no guidelines – it simply endorsed the disparate views of its members.

Immediately prior to the establishment of JTS in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein wrote that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.” Throughout its history, the Conservative movement has attempted to span the chasm between the commitment to tradition of Orthodoxy and the open pursuit of American liberalism found in Reform — and has proven Rabbi Eisentein’s words prophetic. As the Reform movement moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservative “middle” followed it further out to sea.

Consider how Conservative Judaism has progressed from mixed pews to the present day. It now endorses same-sex marriage, and although it continues to prohibit intermarriage, it dropped its ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders just last year. If formal acceptance of intermarriage is subject to ‘rebranding’, is the conclusion in doubt? By following a poll of members, the PR-driven ‘brand’ of 2016 will be still more nebulous than the ‘principles’ of 1988. This may improve short-term retention, but will only hasten the movement’s decline.

This tragedy hits home. Just over a year ago, Daniel Gordis, grandson of the Chairman of the Commission that wrote Emet Ve’Emunah, authored “Conservative Judaism: A Requiem.” He wrote poignantly of the implosion of the Conservative movement, which he termed the direct consequence of “abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance.” In order to stand for something, a religious movement cannot rely upon “interviewing hundreds of [members]” to determine its standards. On the contrary, it must make demands.

In my youth, I (YM) was inspired by Solomon Schechter students who knew how to read Hebrew prayers. But in college I quickly realized that in order to find people who took Judaism seriously, you prayed with the Orthodox. And then I visited Jerusalem. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fifty years ago, much of American Jewry believed that the Orthodox were a dying vestige. Rather than accommodating its members, Orthodoxy did the opposite — expecting full-day Jewish education for every boy and girl. Every PR firm would have derided this as ridiculous. In just the past twenty years, however, enrollment in traditional Orthodox day schools has more than doubled.

The Conservative movement could still choose Jewish substance. At its founding, the movement unabashedly professed belief in the Diety Who gave our Torah, hired some of the greatest Talmudic scholars to teach at JTS, and expected a baseline of true Halachic observance from every Jew. Effort spent upon branding could be far better spent upon increasing the educational opportunities for its members, especially the declining numbers of young adults, to help them meet this standard.

Yes, returning to such high expectations will undoubtedly inspire the Jewishly uninspired to leave — but this has happened repeatedly throughout our history. Only those who retained “Jewish substance” retained Jewish grandchildren.

It would be tragic indeed if the movement were to try to hide its decline behind a marketing blitz, rather than refocusing upon the core tenets that have made Judaism relevant for thousands of years.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

1 I no longer have the original source for our statement. I am aware that Steven Cohen, a respected sociologist and HUC professor, reports a smaller but still dramatic decline of 21% among “American Jewish adults who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue,” but that, of course, does not contradict a claim that self-identifying Conservative Jews have gone down over 33%.

Our statement is in accordance with the survey data, or could even underestimate the decline. The 1990 NJPS identified a “core Jewish population” of 5.5 million Jews, and 40.4% of households were identified as Conservative (p. 33), which would lead to an estimate of 2.23 million Conservative Jewish adults and children. The 2013 Pew Report used a somewhat different methodology to identify 6.7 million Jews, of whom 18% were identified with the Conservative movement, or 1.2 million. This would reflect a decline of over 45%, and adjusting the total population as determined in either 1990 or 2013 (as few believe the total Jewish population actually grew 20% during that 23 year interval) would only make the decline of those identifying themselves with the Conservative movement even steeper.

2 See statement of Robert Gordis, Chairman, on p. 14: “it is frequently proclaimed that Conservative Judaism is in decline.”

3 See pp. 17-18. Kassel Abelson, then President of the Rabbinical Assembly, writes on p. 6 that “we succeeded in setting forth various viewpoints in the same document without papering over our differences” and “we found ways to include multiple opinions without indicating a preference for one view over the other, since they were all legitimate points of view in Conservative Judaism.” Clearly, the very nature of G-d is among the areas where “multiple opinions” were deemed legitimate.

The Symptoms are Not the Problem

Doctor_discusses_x-ray_with_patientIn the wake of the declaration by the leading rabbis of Agudath Israel of America (a body called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages) regarding Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, many seem to have confused issues of Jewish practice with Jewish doctrine.

The JTA’s article about the Council’s statement concluded by noting that “it comes days after the RCA formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis,” thus connecting and implying a close relationship between the two. The Jerusalem Post discussed the Agudah and RCA statements within one article, further blurring key distinctions. Many comments in social media, as well, focused upon women as rabbis or other particular observances of Open Orthodoxy as issues of concern to the Agudah Council.

The Forward, always anxious to cast Charedim as angry or violent, declared that “Agudah Rabbis Declare War.” Asher Lopatin, Dean of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), wrote a response to the statement in which he argued that Open Orthodoxy stands for “creating an inclusive, welcoming, open community, where passionate Jews can, and should, disagree, but should never seek to impose their own ideas on others…” and will “continue to build an Orthodox community which brings us together rather than divides us.”

The Moetzes, however, made no mention of women rabbis. It did not discuss observance of particular elements of Halacha, Jewish law. And, of course, it said nothing about political control or impinging upon the right of any Jew, passionate or otherwise, to disagree. A medical analogy is apt: if someone has headaches due to a life-threatening illness, Tylenol will not cure him; attention must focus upon the underlying disease.

Lopatin is being less than forthright. For better or worse, “Orthodox” is a moniker with meaning. In the common vernacular, Orthodox Judaism is understood to be that “form” of Judaism committed to the credo maintained by Jews for thousands of years. Just as the Reform movement sought to unilaterally change the definition of Judaism 200 years ago, Open Orthodoxy seeks to impose a new definition upon the word “Orthodox” (and has even attempted to stifle dissent as it does so).

The statement of the Moetzes addresses one issue, and one issue only: that Open Orthodoxy and its institutions “reject the basic tenets of our faith,” and therefore “is not a form of Torah Judaism.” It is not about specific Open Orthodox practices, which Halachic opinions it follows, or who they do or don’t count for a minyan. The issue, said the Council, is what Open Orthodoxy believes.

As the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told the media, this is something the rabbis were “mulling around for months.” Nothing that they said is either surprising or new to those who have followed discussions of this new movement.

Over two years ago, Zev Farber, recipient of the highest form of ordination from Chovevei Torah and the former coordinator of the Vaad HaGiyur, the Conversion Council of Open Orthodoxy’s “International Rabbinic Forum,” wrote that “the Deuteronomic prophet,” whom he pointedly did not identify as Moses, “was still a human being” of “limited scope… [who] could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.”

Needless to say, this is to traditional Jewish belief as a ham sandwich is to kashrus.

Yet rather than condemning this statement outright — much less questioning the validity of conversions conducted under Farber’s supervision — others within the Open Orthodox community called this merely “a non-conventional answer” at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject.”

The above is but one example. What the Moetzes concluded, after examining statements and conduct across the range of Open Orthodox institutions, was that it could not remain silent, hoping that this sort of excess would disappear and more sober opinions, ones consonant with traditional Judaism, would dominate. On the contrary, representatives of Open Orthodoxy continue to state, and educate others to adopt, beliefs not merely at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” but several light years beyond.

There are those, particularly in the Reform movement, who advocate for a “big tent,” in which most anything can claim to represent “Judaism.” Traditional Judaism has always taken a different approach, requiring observance of 613 Commandments and a similarly comprehensive list of beliefs, thirteen of which are so fundamental that Maimonides identified them as mandatory for anyone wishing to self-identify as a “Torah-observant” Jew — that which we have called “Orthodox” in recent centuries.

There are several practical ramifications of the Council’s statement, all of which are straightforward. Graduates of Open Orthodox institutions (regardless of gender) should not be considered Orthodox rabbis, at least as the term Orthodox is commonly understood. Orthodox synagogues should not appoint Open Orthodox rabbis to lead them. Communal organizations should not present lectures by “Orthodox” rabbis who are, in actuality, “Open Orthodox.” And, perhaps most critically, the media should no longer claim that “Orthodox” rabbis are entertaining a new idea or change in Jewish practice that only Open Orthodoxy could possibly condone.

In the end, it’s not about women, exclusion, or politics; it’s about truth in advertising. It’s about ensuring that when people are told that a particular opinion is “Orthodox” or grounded in traditional thought, it actually is. And in that regard, the Agudah’s Council has done the Jewish public a great service.

The Har Nof Massacre, Knife Attacks, and BDS

After nearly a year of fighting for his life, a fifth rabbi just passed away, murdered during morning prayers last November. The terrorists of that morning did not target a discotheque, settlement or military base, but a synagogue in West Jerusalem. They proudly desecrated a Jewish House of Worship in order to murder religious leaders, American, British and now Canadian, all men who came to the Holy Land only to immerse themselves in learning and teaching.

The Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” Arab leader, celebrated the “martyrs” who butchered these innocent scholars.


Just two days prior to the Rabbi’s passing, a pair of knife-wielding assailants stabbed an eighteen-year-old charedi (ultra-Orthodox) man outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh – the latest in a wave of violence against Jews in Israel. Ponder this ghastly detail: witnesses saw the attackers attempt to board a schoolbus filled with charedi children.

There is a pattern to these attacks. The Jihadists have not, as some argue, targeted Israelis at random. An extraordinary number of the victims have been in uniform – but not that of an IDF soldier, symbol of the “occupation” they purportedly oppose. Rather, a disproportionate number of those targeted – as in the examples cited above – have been visibly Jewish, clad in the distinctive attire of Orthodox Jews.

For numerous reasons, a terrorist concerned about the current political dispute would view Charedi Jews as unfavorable targets. Peaceful scholars of ancient texts, the charedim are underrepresented in Israeli’s military. Jews of the “old Yishuv” moved to Jerusalem long before the Zionist movement existed, without a scent of nationalist aspirations. Mainstream charedi Rabbis have consistently approved the principle of ceding land for true and lasting peace.

There is even the infamous “Niturei Karta” fringe group that calls for the destruction of Israel – though rejected by other charedim, they at least dress the part. This being the case, a terrorist attacking someone in charedi garb might conceivably be assaulting a political ally.

Yet despite all of the above, stabbers excessively target Orthodox neighborhoods and Orthodox Jews. This is not the “Intifada of the Knife,” but the “Intifada of Unmasked Anti-Semitism.” It is not about occupation or even about Israel; it is about Jews.

Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel claim to be different, modeled upon the boycott of South Africa. This, however, is belied by troubling facts. No one during that era picketed individual South African businesses, or threw their products off store shelves. No one contemplated requiring an artist of South African descent to disavow South Africa’s open racism before performing. And, of course, no one paraded through streets lifting knives overhead, like a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders proudly did at a recent BDS demonstration in London.

This is not to say, however, that it is challenging to find a previous boycott endorsing hatred and even violence towards Jews – given the Nazi boycotts of the 1930s. That is the accurate paradigm. Again and again, today’s purported “anti-Israel” demonstrations slip into a familiar and ugly pattern of anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why are the Regents of the University of California forced to address increasing acts of anti-Semitism at campuses statewide? It is no mystery. At UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis, BDS campaigns immediately and inevitably led to anti-Semitic vandalism and posters – swastikas, grafitti such as “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and “grout out the Jews,” even flyers blaming Jews for 9/11. At UCLA, divestment activists questioned the eligibility of a candidate for student government solely because she is Jewish. For weeks following BDS events, Jewish students report verbal and even physical harassment for wearing signs of Jewish identity, whether skullcaps or Magen David necklaces.

BDS activists can neither claim that this is mere coincidence, nor that they are uninvolved. Attendees at divestment meetings note the repetition of common anti-Semitic canards such as Jewish control of government and wealth, and claims that marginalization of Jewish students is justified by the Mideast conflict. Invited speakers characterize grisly murders of Jews as a “response to occupation,” claim to be merely “anti-Israel” while posting anti-Semitic memes to Facebook, and whitewash Hamas – a terror organization whose charter calls for genocide, and whose leaders openly celebrate the murder of Jewish civilians and even children – as a “progressive, left-wing” organization merely leading the “resistance” against Israel.

Precisely because honest criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, the BDS campaigns of today must be opposed and condemned. Groups sponsoring these events appear unable to tell the difference, and routinely feature speakers who cross the line from one to the other. “Anti-Israel” cannot continue to serve as a code phrase for incitement and anti-Semitism – precisely what is found so pervasively today.

The Non-Jewish AIPAC

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests. Thank you for your interest, and thank you to the editors of Ami Magazine, Rabbi & Mrs. Yitzchok and Rechy Frankfurter, pdf-icon for permission to post.

Please see also the “Q&A with Rav Scheinberg,” or view the full-color PDF (of both story and interview) at right.

A glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms is provided at bottom.

The Non-Jewish AIPAC
A Philo-Semitic Christian organization helps ensure the safety of Jews and the People of Israel

This past Wednesday, August 12, the members of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, an Orthodox congregation of 300 families in San Antonio, Texas, woke up to a disturbing surprise. Anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and vandalism defaced cars and buildings surrounding the shul.

“This is not the San Antonio community,” averred Rav Aryeh Scheinberg, who has served the congregation for forty-five years. “The religious community, the civic community, the law enforcement community have all been terrific.”

Yet Rav Scheinberg reserved special praise for the response of one particular close friend and supporter: Pastor John Hagee, founder and senior pastor of the nearby Cornerstone Church. As soon as Pastor Hagee learned what had happened, he dropped his busy schedule, and he and his wife came to join Rav Scheinberg for two hours at the shul.

The investigation is ongoing; officers believe it unlikely that any organized hate group was involved. Nonetheless, Pastor Hagee was happy to send a message: “If a line has to be drawn, draw it around Christians and Jews. We are united.”

Pastor Hagee was not alone in his concern for Rav Scheinberg and his congregation. Gary Bauer, a Southern Baptist, Domestic Policy Advisor to Ronald Reagan and a past Presidential candidate, shaken, called Rav Scheinberg. Author and Pastor Victor Styrsky sent a text message, reluctant to call and disturb the Rabbi during that busy time.

What do Pastor Hagee, Gary Bauer and Pastor Styrsky share in common, besides their evangelical Christian faith? They are key officers of an organization founded by Pastor Hagee over ten years ago: Christians United for Israel.

Continue reading “The Non-Jewish AIPAC”

Q&A with Rav Aryeh Scheinberg

With special permission from Ami Magazine, I am posting this earlier than expected in response to many requests, along with the cover story.

How long have you known Pastor Hagee?

We have a 34-year relationship, a 34-year friendship.

That is when he decided to run a Night to Honor Israel. Did you know him before then?

We had only met once prior, at a community event. We began to share time together when the Night to Honor Israel was emerging in response to criticism of Israel. He wanted to promote the wonderful favor that Israel did for the free world in bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor. And we began to speak with each other on an ongoing basis.

Did you have conversations about his idea before suggesting to the Federation that they should talk with him?

Yes, I had heard him out myself. My feeling was not based on discussion with others or extensive research, just the feeling that you get about a person when you meet them.

In the first years, until people learned to trust him and believe that he had no proselytizing agenda, and that he was what he said he would be, I had to represent him to different communities, to different Jewish leaders. I gave them my personal testimony, if you will, of his sincerity, the authenticity of his support for Yidden and desire to help Eretz Yisroel.

After a while, he became a known commodity. People in the national Jewish leadership came to recognize his idealism and altruism. So my role became less intense, less constant in the need to represent him to others.

I still say I’m a gatekeeper and advisor, because there are people always trying to reach him. He has to know who he needs to see. He relies on my advice and the advice of some others.

It’s an unlikely alliance.

The whole movement is “unlikely,” but it’s happening. It’s happening and it is something which has to be Yad HaShem. MeAyin Yavo Ezri. CUFI is a growing force for political advocacy at a time when we have no friends in the world outside North America.

Non-frum Jews need them in another way, also: their belief in Scripture. They say, “Eretz Yisroel belongs to you because the Torah says so.” We don’t have to believe their Bible, but they believe ours. We should hope that non-frum Jews will think about what he’s saying.

He’s a person, obviously, of power. He has strong, passionate beliefs. And he’s a visionary. He’s not politically correct. He acts based on what he thinks G-d wants, which is consistent in most areas of political and social life with what an Orthodox Jew should want.

What about the obvious religious chasm?

We’re both aware of that; obviously we all think of our own Acharis haYamim. But when we open the Wall Street Journal and look at the political scene, we don’t think about the end of days, but what is going to happen today or tomorrow. We have so many issues that we need to be active about now.

Why should we talk about the end of days when we have such concern about next week, or next month? When we have such concern about Iran and the well-being of the United States, are we growing stronger or weaker – there are just so many issues of the survival and security of the present that eschatological discussions are a luxury.

But “sof kol sof” doesn’t he believe you need to accept their religious founder to go to Heaven?

He has already worked that out, and gone on record saying that that’s not the case, that Torah-True Jews will have a “special grace.” Bottom line, he does not believe that our salvation depends upon a change of faith.

How do you view his personal interactions with the Jewish community?

I’ve seen him in very sensitive, tender moments. I’ve seen him with genuine tears at Yad VaShem. I’ve seen him being courteous to an elderly person who came to him when thousands were waiting.

I’ve seen his sensitivity to my needs, to Orthodox needs. Whenever there is any event, he’s concerned about Kashrus. Wherever I go with him, or any even where there are going to be Jews, there’s going to be a Kosher meal. Even for Jews that haven’t seen a Kosher meal in a long time.

He visited Jonathan Pollard in jail when few paid attention to his case. He sat in jail with Pollard for three or four hours. I viewed him as a visionary doing epic things, changing the feelings of Christians for Jews. And then I saw the lengths to which he was prepared to go to encourage and diminish the pain of a single Yid.

Whenever we go to Eretz Yisroel together we stop at the Wall and pray for each other’s well-being, as well as Eretz Yisroel and Klal Yisroel.

Why did he come to Rodfei Shalom after the vandalism?

There was no agenda, he didn’t know the media would be here. He came to ask what he can do, and how they can help – to be mechazek by standing with us. He conveyed the feeling that we are family. He supported our building campaign in 2007, and even told me that we didn’t need to recognize it – though we did, putting his name on the board room, where we meet. But he responded Wednesday as if it were his own church that had been attacked.

It’s clear that he cares about the entire Jewish community, but has a special relationship with you.

He has often said publicly that I’m the closest of all his friends among the clergy, Christian and otherwise. We’ll talk about things of a personal nature that may not be a topic of conversation with others. If there’s an issue that is vexing or troubling to him, he will call and ask for my prayers.

Ours is a mutual relationship. It just happened. It developed on a basis of mutual trust, respect and love.