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ABLE Act’s Senate Passage a Moral Victory for People with Disabilities

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 14:25

In response to Senate passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014, Barbara Weinstein, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

“We applaud the Senate for passing the ABLE Act and look forward to President Obama signing this important disability rights legislation into law. Twenty-four years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ABLE Act builds upon its foundation to enhance the economic security of people with disabilities. The ABLE Act empowers people with disabilities and their families by allowing them to make contributions to tax-exempt accounts, which can build up to $100,000 in savings to help pay for long-term expenses without risking losing government benefits.

Our longstanding advocacy for passage of the ABLE Act is rooted in the words of Leviticus 19:14 that “you shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). While the passage of this bill represents an important step in the long struggle for disability rights in the United States, there are additional opportunities for the nation to lead on disability rights internationally. We encourage the next U.S. Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to ensure that the protections Americans with disabilities enjoy at home are shared by people with disabilities around the world.”

To learn more about the intersection of Jewish values and disability rights, check out the RAC’s disability rights web page. If you are interested in making your Jewish institution and community more inclusive of people of all abilities, explore the new URJ-Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center. In addition, take action now to support the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Australia Commission To Probe Chabad Sex Abuse Scandal

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:10

An Australian Royal Commission will investigate how rabbis and senior leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Sydney and Melbourne handled the child sex abuse scandal.

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Australian commission to probe how Chabad handled abuse claims

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 07:59

SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) – An Australian Royal Commission will investigate how rabbis and senior leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Sydney and Melbourne handled the child sex abuse scandal.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse confirmed this week that Chabad in Sydney and Melbourne will be the focus of a public hearing starting Feb. 2 in Melbourne. Some of Australia’s most senior Orthodox rabbis have already been subpoenaed to supply documents ahead of the hearing.

The hearing, which will be streamed live online from the County Court of Victoria, will examine how rabbis and other senior officials dealt with allegations of sexual abuse against three former employees in Melbourne and one in Sydney.

Manny Waks, the only Jewish victim in Australia to have gone public with his story, said he would be testifying.

“Many victims from these institutions, myself included, our families and most of the community are looking forward to these institutions being held to full account for their actions and inactions over many years,” he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Chabad in Sydney told JTA, “We’ve been in contact with the Royal Commission and we are cooperating fully with them.”

The Royal Commission began last year. More than 20 cases have been investigated thus far.

 CORRECTION: The original version of this item included paragraphs about the cases of the individual employees. The one on David Cyprys had two errors:  He was sentenced to prison for multiple sex attacks – including several counts of rape on one victim, not one count of rape – and for crimes against nine victims, not more than 12.

The Hanukkah Model of Sustainability

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 09:00

By Rabbi Kevin M. Kleinman

Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, and yet it takes place during the darkest time of the year. The Hanukkah story told in the Babylonian Talmud and repeated from generation to generation centers on the great miracle of light. The oil used in the menorah to rededicate the Temple after the Maccabbees’ victory was supposed to last for only one night, but instead it lasted for eight nights.  I’ll rephrase it this way: one day’s worth of oil provided eight days of light. Halleluyah!  It was a miracle indeed. A miracle of conservation. Who knew that Hanukkah could provide us with a model of sustainability?  Move over Tu B’shvat, Hanukkah is joining you on the climate justice train.

Jewish environmental leaders have been using this teaching about Hanukkah for several years to encourage households to switch from incandescent to compact florescent light bulbs during Hanukkah. RAC legislative assistant Liya Rechtman wrote about this connection on this blog a few weeks ago. Looking for a last minute holiday gift? How about giving the gift of reducing carbon emissions, in the form of a light bulb?

These same wonderful eco-colleagues of mine, who have been tirelessly leading the Jewish community towards thinking about our individual and collective environmental responsibility, have recently formed a new organization called Shomrei B’reishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth. More than just a Facebook group, Shomrei B’reishit is an international, multi-denominational network of rabbis and cantors providing a Jewish voice on climate change and environmental justice. Shomrei B’reishit members helped to organize the Jewish contingent at The People’s Climate March in New York. We are writing and teaching about our religious mandate to be guardians and stewards of the earth wherever and whenever we can.

And we are leading by example: Each member of Shomrei B’reishit has personally pledged to become carbon neutral over the next two years through conservation, purchasing offsets and seeking to reinvest our own financial portfolios from fossil-fuel investments to sustainable-energy investments. We also pledge to encourage our own Jewish institutions to pursue equivalent actions and to advocate for meaningful climate-change legislation in local and national governments and international bodies. In addition, we are calling on world governments to transition to non-carbon based energy over the next 10 years and to sign and act on a new climate change treaty in 2015.

These are lofty goals, but through our extended networks we believe we move ourselves, our nation, and our world toward carbon neutrality and a more just approach toward resource use and development.  It really can happen one light bulb, one carbon offset at a time. This Hanukkah season, let’s light up the world with our desire to heal our fractured earth. Let’s join our light with environmental leaders from other faiths who share our common goals. Let’s rededicate ourselves and our synagogues to learning about and applying our wise Jewish environmental values that call us to be mindful masters over and sustainable developers of earth’s precious, finite resources.

If you’re interested in doing more for energy efficiency and social justice around Hanukkah, check out Sustaining the Light: A Social Justice Guide for Hanukah. Also, talk to your congregation about enrolling for GreenFaith’s Energy Efficiency Certification and register for the GreenFaith Energy Stewardship webinar series. You can take a look at my Green Tishrei Challenge to stop using plastic bags and Green Cheshvan Challenge to turn down your thermostat for more greening ideas!

To join Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the earth, click here.

Kevin M. Kleinman is the Associate Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He is a former Greenfaith Fellow and participant in the RAC’s Rabbi Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Seminar.

How an Okie Named Woody Guthrie Became Our Best Hanukkah Tunesmith

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 05:00

An unlikely person is the mastermind behind several beloved Hanukkah songs: folk music icon Woody Guthrie, who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

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For Jews of Lugansk, Empty Schools and Frigid Synagogues as Winter Arrives

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 14:15

In an unheated synagogue with no running water, a dozen Jews are trying to keep warm as temperatures here veer toward the single digits.

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Phil Stern, Photographer to Stars, Dies at 95

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 09:33

Photographer Phil Stern, known for his candid shots of Hollywood stars and jazz musicians, has died.

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Steven Sotloff’s parents to light public menorah in his memory

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 06:52

(JTA) — The parents of Steven Sotloff, the Jewish journalist who was beheaded by a member of ISIS, will light a public menorah in Miami in his memory.

Arthur and Shirley Sotloff will light the first candle of Hanukkah on Tuesday night at the Chabad center.

“Steve was a proud Jew who always enjoyed the holidays,” Arthur Sotloff told Chabad.org. “It was one of his defining characteristics.

“Hanukkah is a time we commemorate the vanquishing of our enemies who tried to deprive us of our right to live with Torah. The Maccabees fought for Judaism, and Steve fought for the values they endowed us with.”

The directors of the Chabad center in Miami, Rabbi Yossi and Nechama Harlig, got to know the Sotloffs during the shiva period for their son and decided Hanukkah would be the appropriate time to honor the slain journalist, “who sought to bring a little more light and truth to the world,” according to Chabad.org.

On Sept. 2, ISIS released a nearly three-minute video showing the beheading of Sotloff. He had been abducted on Aug. 4, 2013, after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey.

Sotloff, 31, who grew up in Miami, had articles from Syria, Egypt and Libya featured in publications including Time.com, the World Affairs Journal and Foreign Policy. He also freelanced for The Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report magazine.

It was revealed after his death that Sotloff held Israeli citizenship. His connections to Israel and the Jewish community reportedly had been sanitized from the Internet and social media in order to keep the information from his radical Islamic captors.

Sotloff, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, made aliyah in 2005.

His parents have established The 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation to provide scholarships for journalism students.

The Great Food Fight of 1883

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 05:00

The ordination of America’s first class of Reform rabbis was celebrated with a — yes, you guessed it — ‘trefa banquet.’ Was the non-kosher menu an accident?

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Women of the Wall snuffed out in request for Hanukkah candle-lighting

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 17:30

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A request by Women of the Wall to hold a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in the women’s section of the holy site was denied.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbinic authority of the Western Wall and holy places, denied its request, Women of the Wall said in a statement Sunday. According to the group, Rabinowitz said the menorah lit on the men’s side can be seen by all.

“It is difficult not to suspect that Women of the Wall’s real intention is not prayer but rather their determination to change the customs at the Western Wall at any cost, while offending many of the masses of those who pray at the Western Wall and the traditions developed there over hundreds of years of prayer,” Rabinowitz wrote in his denial letter.

In its statement, Women of the Wall said its members will bring their own menorahs to the wall on Thursday evening and light them together in the women’s section. The group meets at the Western Wall once a month for prayers for the new month.

Women have the same obligation as men to light a Hanukkah menorah, the organization pointed out.

“Unfortunately, Rabinowitz does not recognize the genuine intention and right that Jewish women have to heartfelt prayer at the Kotel,” Women of the Wall wrote. “He has chosen to respond negatively to such a basic request for Women of the Wall and many other women to hold a Jewish ritual at the Kotel, which is permissible and required of us according to Jewish law.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declined to respond to the denial, Women of the Wall said in its statement. Writing to Netanyahu last month, the group asked that a large menorah equivalent to the one lit in the men’s section be placed in the women’s section, allowing the women to hold their own public lighting.

Netanyahu transferred the letter to Vice Minister of Religious Affairs, Eli Ben Dahan, who passed the letter on to Rabinowitz.

Female rabbis at forefront of pioneering prayer communities

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 16:19

Clockwise from top left, Rabbi Lori Shapiro of Open Temple, Rabbi Lizzie Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the Kavana Cooperative, Rabbi Noa Kushner of the Kitchen and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva. (Photos courtesy of the congregations)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — A decade ago in Los Angeles, two organizations opened their doors with a call to prayer — or they would have if they had any doors to open.

Ikar, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, and Nashuva, led by Rabbi Naomi Levy, were conceived separately. But when they launched in 2004, both offered a novel, and in many ways similar, approach to Jewish spirituality and community — regularly scheduled, rabbi-led services that were not affiliated with any movement or institution, that met in rented space, and that were avowedly not synagogues.

“We were trying to walk into the conversation about Jewish identity and community and ritual without preconceived ideas about where we would land,” Brous told JTA, describing the beginnings of Ikar. “What we were trying to do didn’t follow any model that already existed.”

Since then, however, the format pioneered by Nashuva and Ikar has become its own recognizable model, and similar spiritual communities with a noticeably common style have sprung up in a number of other cities across the country.

Prayer is designed to be heartfelt and arouse the spirit. Often there is clapping, dancing and singing without words. Worshipers tend to skew young, informal and hip. The groups don’t own buildings; typically they meet in up-and-coming or already desirable neighborhoods.

The communities are led by charismatic rabbis who stress innovation and outreach to Jews who feel alienated from existing Jewish institutions. They are nondenominational. They often don’t know exactly how to describe themselves.

And most, but not all, have one more common element: They were founded, and are still being led by, female rabbis.

In 2006, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum launched The Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. In 2011, Rabbi Noa Kushner opened The Kitchen in San Francisco and Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann initiated Mishkan Chicago in the Windy City. In 2012, Rabbi Lori Shapiro started Open Temple in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice.

The celebratory mood at Mishkan Chicago services. (Courtesy of Mishkan)

This new paradigm represented a sharp break with the past and has found a receptive audience among a younger cohort.

As noted by David Myers, the chair of the history department at the University of California Los Angeles, 20th-century American Judaism was defined in large part by building brick-and-mortar institutions. But the new rabbi-led communities are part of a 21st century spate of innovation outside the the established boundaries of Jewish institutional life.

“[Younger] people feel that it’s much more important to find their spiritual voice than to build up an institution for the institution’s sake,” Myers told JTA.

Thus, these communities founded by women are part of a much broader landscape.

A number of male rabbis also have formed and led innovative spiritual communities. Two are in New York: Rabbi Andy Bachmann founded Brooklyn Jews in 2003 and later folded it into the borough’s Temple Beth Elohim, and Rabbi David Ingber started Manhattan’s Romemu, a Jewish Renewal shul, in 2006.

Other models have proliferated, too.

Kehillat Hadar, founded in 2001, helped launch a movement of independent, lay-led minyanim that formed in cities throughout the country to pray without clergy or professional staff. The 6th & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, restored and relaunched in 2004, is now among several organizations housed in former synagogue buildings that host a combination of prayer services and community events.

Well-established synagogues also have experimented with prayer services featuring nontraditional music, looser structures and an emphasis on a warmer, more communal feel. In Denver, for example, Rabbi Bruce Dollin of the Hebrew Educational Alliance synagogue instituted a second service — with drumming and a “davening team” to help lead — that took a page from independent spiritual communities.

But rabbi-led spiritual communities, unaffiliated with a movement and untethered to a single home building, has become one part of the Jewish world where female rabbis have not only found a foothold but have taken the lead as pioneers and innovators.

Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva band drum playing on the beach. (Phyllis Osman)

It hasn’t been easy. The women who founded these communities have struggled to build organizational structures from scratch, to scrape together funds to rent space and pay salaries, and to connect with a target audience that often is disconnected from the normal channels of the Jewish communities.

Some have even had to bypass roadblocks set up by existing Jewish institutions and colleagues who have seen them as rivals.

“It’s a double-edged sword because on the one hand, the excitement of creating something from nothing is that you don’t have to deal with, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way,’ ” Levy told JTA.  “The frightening part is not having any structure. When we started Nashuva, we had no money, we had no staff, we had no people. There was no community.”

Yet the enormous challenges also provide the opportunity for women to revolutionize spiritual and institutional life.

“Many women aspire to leadership, but they also aspire to change how leadership is offered,” said Shifra Bronznik, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting female professionals in the Jewish world. “That’s actually easier to do if you’re building from the ground up.”

As noted by a number of the rabbis, as well as a number of Jewish communal professionals, traditional Jewish institutions — and the lead roles in them — have been shaped largely by men. Thus, the increasing prevalence of female rabbis opens up the space to rethink certain patterns.

“By definition, having a woman rabbi in your community means you’re not going to do things the way they’ve been done for the last 2,000 years,” Ikar’s Brous, 41, told JTA. “That creates a space for fluidity in organizational life.”

The Kitchen celebrating Sukkot at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. (Elizabeth Waller)

Some of those changes involve aspects of organizational life with a gendered component to them — for example, the role of a rabbi as the traditional male “breadwinner,” with a wife to take care of the family.

“There’s an old-school model where the rabbi is married to the congregation,” said Nussbaum, 38, of Kavana. “That’s the rabbi’s first priority, and the role is sort of boundless around that.”

In other ways, that sense of reimagining can also penetrate approaches to the religious texts as well.

“Women need to reinvent Judaism in order to see themselves reflected in the Jewish narrative,” said Bronznick, who has worked with several of these rabbis on issues related to women’s organizational leadership.

“They’re creating something that never was, which is a Jewish narrative authored in the voice of woman,” she said.

Strikingly, many of the innovative female rabbis come from the Conservative movement, the most recent of the denominations to ordain female rabbis, in 1985. Levy, Brous and Nussbaum all were ordained by Conservative Judaism’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, while Heydemann, 33, attended the movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Kushner, 44, ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is a Reform rabbi like her father, Lawrence Kushner, who is also an author, while Shapiro, 43, was ordained at the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Not all of the female-led communities have broken the mold in the same way. Thus, for example, Ikar and Nashuva, the two early innovators in the field, have taken somewhat different paths.

Levy, 52, describes Nashuva as “a spiritual outreach community” aimed squarely at Jews who feel disconnected from Jewish life. Nashuva operates on a shoestring budget, with a payroll consisting only of Levy and the members of its eight-piece band, and most of the year meets just twice a month — for Friday-night services at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church and on a Sunday for a community service event.

This is precisely as Levy wants it — she says she has no desire to open a religious school, expand her staff or institute any kind of membership model. Instead, Nashuva raises money only through voluntary contributions, including a suggested donation of $350 for the High Holidays.

A Kavana Cooperative neighborhood meet-up. (Courtesy of Kavana)

Although Nashuva remains nondenominational, Levy has retained close ties to the Conservative movement. A member of the first class of women admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinic program, she served on the executive council of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and she travels regularly to speak at synagogues about how they incorporate some of Nashuva’s innovations into congregational life.

Ikar, by contrast, has expanded rapidly. Brous is now one of two full-time congregational rabbis, along with a permanent staff of 14, plus seasonal and teaching staff, and Ikar operates a preschool and religious school. It offers tiered membership plans and charges non-members for High Holidays tickets. (This reporter has been a member of Ikar since 2009.)

In certain ways, Ikar also has served as the mother ship of the rabbi-led spiritual community movement and helped create a mentoring network among several of the congregations.

When Nussbaum left her suburban Seattle congregation to start Kavanah, she sought out Brous for advice. And when Kushner decided to start The Kitchen, she spoke to Nussbaum and Brous. Heydemann, in turn, served as a rabbinic fellow under Brous at Ikar, and already had known Kushner at Stanford University while she was an undergraduate and Kushner was the Hillel rabbi.

Each of these communities, in turn, has developed its own distinctive shape and culture.

Kavana is based on a cooperative model in which members are expected to take an active volunteer role in helping to put together and run events, and are encouraged to attend at least one community event per month.

The Kitchen has embraced an experimental, start-up ethos. The founders partnered with a design firm, IDEO, to help think through not only a design aesthetic for the community’s materials (modern typefaces, no Judaica motifs), but also the service itself from the ground up. As befits its name (chosen to suggest an open, familiar place to experiment and try things out), The Kitchen has also made a point of partnering with trendy local restaurants for Shabbat meals.

Mishkan Chicago has established itself as a younger-skewing congregation particularly focused on singing and prayer.

Open Temple holding its family Rosh Hashanah service. (Jordan Teller)

Several of the communities are moving toward affiliating with one another in a more formal way.

In May, Brous, Kushner, Nussbaum and Heydemann — along with Romemu’s Ingber, Amichai Lau-Levie of Lab/Shul in Manhattan and Rabbi Scott Perlo (a former rabbinic intern at Ikar) from Sixth & I Historic Synagogue — met at the Leichtag Ranch north of San Diego to discuss ways to work together more closely and potentially articulate a common vision. The group’s participants, who jokingly call themselves the G7, said the discussions had not yet turned into anything concrete, but suggested that something more definite would be forthcoming in the coming weeks and months.

They all stressed that they were not looking to form any sort of movement.

The innovative communities and their rabbis are increasingly being cited as models for the Jewish future. Several were honored in the Slingshot Fund’s newly issued directory of innovative Jewish organizations, and Levy says she travels on a monthly basis to speak to synagogues about spiritual outreach and creativity.

How precisely these communities will evolve remains an open question. And in certain ways, they already have — adding new services as the congregations grow and as members’ needs and desires change. Kavana has created a Hebrew immersion preschool and religious school, and has added adult education programs as its cohort of older congregants grows. The Kitchen’s “Shabbatify” program organizes Shabbat dinners of 12 to 20 people in participants’ homes, and the community is in the process of opening a store to sell its self-designed prayer books and a Passover game.

But Myers, an Ikar member from its early days, says that as the communities grow and evolve, those that wish to survive in the long term will inevitably need to develop their institutional forms and find new ways to generate and harness energy.

Ikar celebrating Havdalah to close out Yom Kippur. (Courtesy of Ikar)

“Ironically, the way to marshal and galvanize that new energy is probably to get a building,” he said.

Indeed, Ikar for the past several years has been looking into buying or constructing its own building. That would represent a profound symbolic move from its early days.

“Ikar,” Myers says, “was the anti-building form of spiritual community.”

But ultimately, the rabbis argue, the measure of their success or failure has nothing to do with buildings, denominations or labels. Rather, staying true to their mission involves not differentiating themselves but staying relevant.

“I don’t think I’m re-creating Jewish world,” Kushner told JTA. “I’m doing my part for my generation. These ideas of trying to bring immediacy, relevancy, meaning — these are not brand new ideas. They’re ideas that every good rabbi struggles with.”

David Saperstein Wins Confirmation to Religious Freedom Post by 61-35 Senate Vote

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 08:12

The U.S. Senate approved Reform movement leader Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department.

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Learning To Wear Shlomo Carlebach's Vest

Sat, 12/13/2014 - 07:04

For Josh Nelson, playing Shlomo Carlebach in a production of ‘Soul Doctor’ has been a life-changing experience. He explains what it means to play a spiritual icon.

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Rabbi David Saperstein confirmed as Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 17:55

Today, the Senate voted to confirm Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center to the post of Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. Since his nomination in late July, Rabbi Saperstein has continued to represent the Reform Jewish community, and celebrated 40 years of service in September.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued a statement in response, excerpted here: “There is no more lasting a legacy than what David has built: the Religious Action Center is a firmly established leader in Washington, D.C. pursuing justice, in our prophetic tradition, on a range of crucial public policies. It is the centerpiece of our Movement’s commitment to tikkun olam, and our dedication to moral advocacy and activism. As a Reform Jew and as a citizen: David, b’hatzlacha (good luck) and while we will miss your devotion, intelligence and passion – we know you will bring these same qualities to your government service.”

Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis concurred:

“Rabbi David Saperstein’s appointment is a tribute to him as a person and as a leading Reform Rabbi in the United States and throughout the world. In this new role, Rabbi Saperstein can be expected to amplify America’s voice forcefully on behalf of men, women, and children across the globe who face discrimination, degradation, and violence because of their religious beliefs and practices. While he will be sorely missed in our own institutional leadership, we are delighted that Rabbi Saperstein is Reform Judaism’s gift to those around the world who need him most.”

'Sephardic Vogue' Drives Revival of Spanish Jewry

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 15:52

While setting up a synagogue at the American naval base where she volunteers, Ahuvah (Amanda) Gipson made something of a bitter-sweet discovery.

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Met Council official steps down

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 13:12

NEW YORK (JTA) — The chief financial officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has resigned after two years with the organization.

Melvin Zachter, a former partner at the accounting firm Loeb & Tropper who had been the Met Council’s CFO since 2012, stepped down in late November, the Forward reported.

The Met Council, which offers support for poor New Yorkers, is still recovering from a large embezzlement scandal that led to the arrest of its former executive director William Rapfogel in September 2013. Rapfogel, another former executive director, David Cohen, and former chief financial officer Herb Friedman all pled guilty to stealing more than $9 million in from the charity. In July, Rapfogel was sentenced to 3 1/3 to 10 years in prison.

Zachter’s resignation comes less than four months after the announcement that current Met Council CEO David Frankel will resign as soon as the organization finds a replacement for him. Frankel’s replacement has still not been named.

Hanukkah Reignited at Jewish Theological Seminary

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 12:01

Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights, begins next Tuesday night (December 16). It remembers the time long ago when Jews wanted to purify their reclaimed temple in Jerusalem by burning ritual oil. They only had enough oil for one day, but miraculously that small amount lasted for eight. Earlier this month, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York assembled prominent scholars and others to explore new themes for the Hanukkah celebration.

The post Hanukkah Reignited at Jewish Theological Seminary appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

What makes Hanukkah great in America

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 17:17

The sights of Hanukkah, a special time for Jewish-Americans. (Shutterstock)

CHERRY HILL, N.J. (JTA) – As Hanukkah nears, let the grousing begin.

Too much is made of a holiday that Judaism ranks as a minor festival — one whose rite takes no more than five minutes to complete each night — some American Jews will say. Some will complain about the season’s excessive commercialism or materialism.

Yet most Jews will also participate in at least one of the many customs developed by American Jews to augment the holiday’s simple rite and express the enhanced place of Hanukkah, which this year falls on Dec. 16, on the American Jewish liturgical calendar.

In addition to exchanging gifts (or giving them to children), they will decorate their homes, eat fried foods, sing songs, listen to holiday music and attend one or more of the many holiday festivities held at Jewish community centers, synagogues, Jewish-themed museums and Jewish schools.

At these and other venues, they will join in more elaborate versions of the domestic customs. They will light holiday candles or watch them be kindled, sing more songs than they do at home, snack on potato pancakes or jelly donuts, chat with their friends and neighbors, watch or participate in amateur theatricals on the holiday’s theme — generally have a good time.

Beneath the lighthearted celebrating, however, more serious meanings are often conveyed through the holiday’s songs.

The word Hanukkah means dedication, and the holiday has always highlighted occasions when Jews overcame challenges to their continued religious commitment. Hanukkah commemorates the rededicating of the Jerusalem Temple in 165 BCE after a band of Jews led by the Maccabees retook it from the Syrians, who had conquered Judea.

Generations of Jews retold that story at Hanukkah and thanked God for helping their ancestors to prevail. American Jews found additional reasons to reaffirm their dedication at Hanukkah and often voiced those reasons in original songs.

Since 1842, American Jews have been singing Hanukkah songs that expressed the complicated experience of being Jewish in the United States. That year, a new hymnal for Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, S.C., included a special hymn for Hanukkah that reassured congregants that the God to whom they prayed forgave their sins and continued to stand by them. The hymn countered the energetic effort by local Christian evangelicals to convince them to worship Jesus.

Yet because it reassured Jews living anywhere in a largely Protestant America, the song appeared in hymnals used by both the Reform and Conservative movements as late as 1959.

In the 1890s, two American Reform rabbis, in New York City and Philadelphia, wrote a new English version of “Maoz Tsur,” a song that Jews have sung at Hanukkah since the 13th century. Titled “Rock of Ages,” the new song kept the melody of its predecessor, which thanked God for saving Jews in the past, but in its shortened version substituted a homey image of domesticity bright with lights and joy and promised a future that would see “tyrants disappearing.”

“Rock of Ages” offered Jews an emotional link to past traditions through its melody while reminding them of the tyranny currently besetting their coreligionists in Eastern Europe. As 2.3 million new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America over the next 30 years, the song grew popular. It became a fixture at American Hanukkah celebrations following the rise of Nazism in 1933, when the hope for a world free of tyranny seemed even more desperate.

Rewrites of older prayers or songs often appeared in the first half of the 20th century. One Hanukkah rewrite published during World War II offered a new version of an older prayer that described God’s saving power. The rewrite, offered in Hebrew as “Mi Yimalel?” and in English as “Who Can Retell?,” has a lively melody that fits its lyric, which aims to rouse Jews to act politically, militarily and philanthropically.

Although a “hero or sage” always came to the aid of needy Jews in the past, it says, the current problems facing Jewry require more. Now “all Israel must arise” and “redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.” The crises facing Jews during those years influenced the ideas and emotions that they expressed in this Hanukkah song.

The experience of unity and strength that is felt in group singing may have assuaged Jews’ fears during those decades of disorientation and anguish. Hanukkah provided an occasion for singing songs that voiced old and new hopes while building new communal alliances and bonds.

And that, perhaps, helps explain the broad and continuing appeal of Hanukkah for American Jews. Hanukkah allows Jews to join in the national merrymaking occasioned by Christmas, but also to rededicate ourselves to Judaism.

In homes, synagogues, museums, community centers and schools, it provides us with an occasion for gathering, singing, eating, lighting candles in the evenings of the shortest days of the year, exchanging gifts, voicing religious commitments and values, and enjoying being Jews.

(Dianne Ashton is the author of “Hanukkah in America: A History,” which was published last year by NYU Press, and a professor of religion studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.)

Stabbed Chabad Rabbinic Student Improves

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 14:22

The condition of the Israeli rabbinical student who was stabbed at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn was upgraded.

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Will Chabad Rethink Open Door Policy After 'I Will Kill Jews' Attack?

Wed, 12/10/2014 - 12:49

The large synagogue at the heart of the international Lubavitch movement, called 770 after its address on Eastern Parkway, is busy around the clock, with people coming and going to pray and study religious texts. No one was prepared for what happened late Monday night, when a visibly agitated man walked in, reportedly yelled “Kill the Jews!” and immediately stabbed a young student in the head.

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