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NFTY at 75 – Think Big

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 05:00

By Rabbi Josh Weinberg

A Jew who participates in the suffering of his nation and its fate, but does not join in its destiny, which is expressed in a life of Torah and mitzvot, destroys the essence of Judaism and injures his own uniqueness. By the same token, a Jew who is observant but does not feel the hurt of the nation, and who attempts to distance himself from Jewish fate, desecrates his Jewishness.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Kol Dodi Dofek, (based on RaMBaM’s Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:11)

At the first CFTY leadership training institute that I ever attended, I took away a simple and direct meta-message: Think big. Don’t settle for mediocrity, and stop doing the same things over and over again. It was an exciting time, just days after the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton as they came together to sign the Declaration of Principles – part of the Oslo accords. CFTY quickly got organized and put together 5,000 signatures on our “Megillat Shalom,” which affirmed our commitment and support for (what we thought would be a lasting) peace in the Middle East. Signatures in hand, we took our scrolls to New York. With the help of then ARZA Director Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, we presented them to both the UN’s Israeli Ambassador and the UN’s official Palestinian Mission.

For a youth movement, ‘think big’ means not accepting the status quo. During my NFTY years, and especially while I was president of the Chicago Area region, we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to be a Reform Jew. We debated the oft-quoted seemingly cliché catch phrase “choice through knowledge.” We realized that for most of our peers, that phrase symbolized a convenient way to rationalize a do-whatever-you-want approach. In our attempt to ‘think big,’ we wondered what it would mean for members of our movement to take on more ritual observance. Would NFTY make it possible for teens to attend events if they preferred not to drive on Shabbat? Would NFTY accommodate those who kept a different and more stringent policy of kashrut? Would NFTY engage Hebrew speakers or did “inclusion” encourage, if not enforce, a lowest common denominator approach to Jewish life? I knew that the next chapter in my life would be dedicated to answering those questions.

Of course, instead of answers, came more questions. Much has been written about the effects of long-term Israel programs on Jewish identity and involvement. For the past 14 years, the Birthright Israel program (not a long-term experience) has defined the success of a visit to Israel as a force in creating Jewish identity, the core motivating factor behind the existence of the program. My time on EIE and subsequent return visits turned out to be the most meaningful and formative of my identity. I came to feel that we in the Reform movement had missed the boat, and were playing ‘catch up’ to the greatest drama of our people’s collective existence ― one that I wasn’t going to miss. Zionism, for me, became the manifestation of my identity search. Identifying with Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ben Gurion, Kook, and Magnes, I found that there is no Judaism without Israel, and that Israel is a deeply Jewish entity.

In Israel, I found a place where the meta-narrative of the Jewish people is common knowledge, and where the Jewish public culture eliminates the age-old Diasporic minority complex. It was NFTY that brought me to Israel, and it would be through NFTY that I would attempt to impart my love of the Land, the importance of peoplehood, and a deep connection to Jewish culture, literacy, and tradition, by leading trips and teaching Jewish history to younger NFTYites.

I was fortunate to have mentors who taught me how to teach, including Baruch Kraus, Rabbis David Forman z”l and Lee Diamond, Uri Feinberg, and Amy Geller. They showed me what it means to care deeply for what Israel is, and even more for what it could be.

Having come on aliyah, I realized that simply living in Israel was not, as some may argue, a substitute for Jewish living, engagement, and mitzvot. It was incumbent on me to figure out where my ‘red lines’ were and what being Jewish would look like in Israel. Would I still go to synagogue? Would I drive on Shabbat? Would I make ritual and observance decisions differently in Israel than I would have stateside? My answer was yes.

Joining the Reform movement in Israel and congregation Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, I assumed a different level of knowledge and background. Welcomed into a community of youth-movement graduates who had come to Israel looking for the same things that I was seeking, I felt at home. I wanted to become part of this movement that had so much to offer, not only to an ex-Patriot Zionist olim like myself, but to Israelis, for whom the old-time polarizing dichotomy between religious and secular no longer answered the needs of the mainstream.

As I sung Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” while leading Kabbalat Shabbat in a Kiryat Gat boarding school it hit me. I realized that this familiar melody I had grown up with at camp and NFTY, composed by a Reform cantor, was evoking similar feelings in a group of Israeli kids of Ethiopian, North African, and Russian origin ― who had never been part of NFTY, gone to camp, or heard of the composer. At that moment I understood that it was time to take my Reform Zionism to another level. Aliyah was one step. Though I was a century too late to drain the swamps and build the kibbutzim, it was the time to join our movement to help build Reform communities in Israel and offer religious alternatives to those who were searching.

Today, as the President of ARZA, I think back to the simple direct message I got as a teenager. We must think big; we must not settle for mediocrity, and we must utilize our strengths ― to build community and find the right formula for religious existence. Learning from the magic and strength of Israel we must build a Jewish society, and continue to challenge and further what it means to be Jewish in the Jewish state. Fortunately, we can do this together, since our relationship with our Israeli movement is growing and becoming stronger. My single dream for every Jewish high school student is to receive the same gift that I was given – the gift of time and study in Israel. Let’s use these experiences to build and to be built, and not take “no” for an answer.

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

Krakow Chief Rabbi Irks Many Poles With 'Don't Like Jews' Remark

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 14:18

On the way to his first appearance as Krakow’s new chief rabbi, Eliezer Gurary passed a group of young demonstrators holding signs with messages of affection for Jews. Not everyone is so pleased with him.

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Biblical Fiction Epic "The Lamp of Darkness" Wins the...

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 11:44

Rabbi Dave Mason's highly acclaimed novel The Lamp of Darkness, book one in The Age of Prophecy series, will be honored at 18th Annual IPPY Awards ceremony Wednesday, May 28th in Manhattan on the...

(PRWeb May 21, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/05/prweb11872230.htm

'Bearded Lady' and 'Gender Terrorist' Take Performance Art Beyond the Fringes

Mon, 06/23/2014 - 06:00

What does doing a strip tease as a rabbi or working under the stage name ‘bearded lady’ have to do with Judaism? For two ‘extreme performance artists,’ faith is everything.

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French Jews Elect Haim Korsia as New Chief Rabbi

Sun, 06/22/2014 - 16:26

The Jewish community of France elected Rabbi Haim Korsia, the French army’s Jewish chaplain, as its new chief rabbi.

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French Jews elect new chief rabbi

Sun, 06/22/2014 - 15:14

(JTA) — The Jewish community of France elected Rabbi Haim Korsia, the French army’s Jewish chaplain, as its new chief rabbi.

Korsia, 51, defeated Rabbi Olivier Kaufmann, an interim chief rabbi, in a 131-97 vote on Sunday to win the seven-year term, the French news agency AFP reported.

Kaufmann, the head of a French rabbinical school, was one of two rabbis who filled in for Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim following his resignation in April. Bernheim admitted that he had plagiarized in two books and an essay as well as claimed unearned academic titles.

The vote by a committee of the Consistoire — the French Jewish institution responsible for providing religious services — comes amid a spate of anti-Semitic attacks against French Jews.

105-Year-Old Chinese Synagogue Reopens After Renovations

Sat, 06/21/2014 - 07:46

The Chinese city of Harbin reopened a 105-year-old synagogue to the public after an extensive restoration.

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105-year-old synagogue restored in China

Fri, 06/20/2014 - 17:24

(JTA) — The Chinese city of Harbin reopened a 105-year-old synagogue to the public after an extensive restoration.

The Main Synagogue on Harbin’s Tongjiang Street was reopened last week after 12 months of renovations at a festive ceremony featuring a performance by the String Quartet of the State Glazunovs Conservatory from the city of Petrozavodsk in Russia, the Xinhua news agency reported.

In 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Jews immigrated to the northeastern city of Harbin to escape persecution in Europe and Czarist Russia, establishing there one of the largest Jewish communities in the Far East.

The Chinese government conducted the restoration project with help from Dan Ben-Canaan, an Israeli scholar who has lived in Harbin for more than decade and works there as director of Heilongjiang University’s Sino-Israel Research and Study Center.

The restored synagogue, he told Xinhua, “looks exactly the same as when the synagogue first opened in 1909, making this a unique location.”

Once an Orthodox synagogue seating up to 450 people, the building’s exterior boasts a Star of David sitting atop the rooftop dome.

Inside, the women’s gallery on the second floor, the men’s prayer hall and rabbi’s bimah platform have all been restored, complete with safety rails featuring elaborate decorations that combine Jewish and Chinese symbols.

However, the reopened synagogue is not meant to function as a place of worship but as a concert theater, according to Xinhua.

The synagogue was damaged in 1931 by a fire that, according to Ben-Canaan, was started by gangs of anti-Communist Russians. It was renovated after the fire and closed down in 1963. It was converted into a hospital and a hostel, leaving its interior badly damaged, the report said.

Divestment Vote Undermines Presbyterian-Jewish Relations

Fri, 06/20/2014 - 17:06
Rabbi Jacobs: "We need to be working together on this vital issue and there cannot be a true partnership when one side endorses positions that delegitimize the other's rights and core values"

Endangered Churches

Fri, 06/20/2014 - 12:01

Across the nation, declining church membership is taking its toll on the physical state of houses of worship. In Philadelphia, churches are venturing into new partnerships to try and preserve their historic buildings. “Congregations have shrunk so much and budgets have shrunk so much that it’s hard for congregations to keep up with their buildings,” observes Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, who calls the neglect of houses of worship a national crisis. “Unless they do something creative and bold, many of them will close or merge in the next ten, twenty years,” he adds.

The post Endangered Churches appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Endangered Churches

Fri, 06/20/2014 - 12:01

Across the nation, declining church membership is taking its toll on the physical state of houses of worship. In Philadelphia, churches are venturing into new partnerships to try and preserve their historic buildings. “Congregations have shrunk so much and budgets have shrunk so much that it’s hard for congregations to keep up with their buildings,” observes Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, who calls the neglect of houses of worship a national crisis. “Unless they do something creative and bold, many of them will close or merge in the next ten, twenty years,” he adds.

The post Endangered Churches appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

What Does Korach Teach Us?

Fri, 06/20/2014 - 09:35

By Leah Citrin

When “Ken” grew up in northern Kenya, he faced many hardships. In a part of the country that is not agriculturally productive, the people in this region often felt neglected by the government. As a society of nomadic pastoralists, Ken’s community lived without internet, phones, or access to education. The culture around him viewed LGBT issues as “western” and individuals who came out as gay were met with violence and discrimination. As an LGBT activist, “Ken” must mask his name and the name of his organization to avoid imprisonment or even death. In order to express one part of his identity, he must hide a different part of it.

Like “Ken,” Korach, the main character of this week’s Torah portion, sees an injustice and calls the people to action: “All the community—all of them—are holy,” Korach challenges Moses and Aaron, “and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” Korach’s challenge, that each person has value and holiness, resonates with us today. We, as American Reform Jews, value each individual and his or her abilities and contributions. We believe that there are different kinds of leaders and we fight for justice in the form of equality. In living out these beliefs, we eliminated the ritual hierarchy in Judaism by erasing the distinctions between Priests, Levites, and Israelites. So we can empathize with Korach.

Moses also saw value in Korach’s argument. In response to the challenge that Korach poses, Moses falls on his face (Lev. 16:4). This sign of humility gives credence to the challenge Korach voiced. Yet, based on the consequences Korach endures (i.e. being swallowed by the earth), we learn that he did something wrong. Where did he err? Many suggest that Korach was not truly seeking the democratic society that he described in his initial challenge. Rather, Korach wanted to be the top of the hierarchy and his vision for change was motivated by personal interest and a quest for power.

What we learn from Korach, then, is that we must raise our voice in the fight against injustice. However, we must also be conscious of how we participate in the fight. “Ken” emphasized the importance of making decisions about policies in Washington, D.C., in consultation with individuals on the ground and pointed to the International Human Rights Defense Act (S. 2472) as an important example of impactful legislation. Introduced by Senator Markey (D-MA), this bill directs the Department of State to make preventing and responding to discrimination and violence against the LGBT community around the globe a foreign policy priority. With 24 original co-sponsors, the IHRDA is an important step towards ending discrimination and violence against the LGBT community worldwide.

“Ken” seeks to change perception in Africa about LGBT issues. In partnership with people like “Ken,” we too can make a difference. We can channel the positive aspects of Korach’s challenge. And we can act with respect for the rights and needs of others.


Leah Citrin will begin her 5th year as a rabbinical student this fall at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati.  This summer, Leah is proud to be a Summer Legislative Assistant/Rabbinic Intern at the RAC.

How Prayer Can #BringBackOurBoys

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 15:00

Critics say prayer won’t bring the in the three kidnapped Israeli boys home. But Avi Shafran turns to Jewish tradition — and declares that every plea to God makes a difference.

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After Scandal, Should Claims Conference Shift Focus to Holocaust Education?

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 14:26

A special panel tasked with examining the governance and strategic vision of the Claims Conference is recommending that the organization shift its long-term focus to Holocaust education and remembrance, JTA has learned.

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The Orthodox Monopoly on Marriage in Israel

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 14:00

I was not at my son’s official wedding.  Ariel and his wife got married in Cyprus. They made this choice not because of the country’s wonderful sights and romantic scenery, but because they wanted to be able to marry outside of the framework of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on all Jewish marriages in Israel. There is no civil marriage, which leaves an Orthodox marriage as the only option for Jewish couples in Israel.  This means that the ceremony is often performed by a rabbi who does not know the couple personally. It means stringent gender roles including pre-marital classes for women, and no option for LGBT marriages.

Ariel’s marriage is part of a shift we are seeing in Israeli society of thousands of Jews who choose to be married outside of this system.  “I was born in Israel, and fulfilled my obligations –I served in the Israeli army and paid my taxes. Why was I not given the right to decide how to get married in Israel? Why do I need to lie about our lifestyle and about something as intimate as the first day of my wife’s period to get married?”

At least my son had a choice. The many restrictions imposed upon marriage and the lack of a civil marriage option in Israel means that hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens whose Jewish status is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate are unable to wed legally in their own country. This situation is unparalleled in any other democratic country.

Over 20,000 Israeli couples get married outside of Israel every year.  On their flight to Cyprus, Ariel and his wife observed that the plane was filled with Israelis who were also going there for a civil marriage.  The Israelis waited in line together, took photos of one-another, and sat together at a nearby Haagen-Dazs for celebratory ice cream afterwards.

IRAC knows that Israelis want and deserve control over one of the most important aspects of their life. IRAC has introduced various marriage bills in an effort to permit Israeli couples to marry outside of the religious establishments.  Last night, Einat Hurvitz, the head of our legal department, and Shelly Yechimovitz, the former head of the Labor party, spoke about the necessity of freedom of marriage to young Israelis in Jerusalem.  They need to know; it doesn’t have to be this way.
P.S. I am seeking a large used ship, a captain, and a few willing rabbis to launch a loveboat that will travel in and out of Israeli territorial waters to perform marriage ceremonies until our law passes in Knesset.

Rabbi Rejects Apology From Bleach-Tossing Attacker

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 10:08

A rabbi who advocates against child sex abusers refused to accept an apology from a Hasidic man, the son of an accused abuser, who threw bleach in the rabbis’s face.

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N.Y. rabbi refuses apology from man who threw bleach in his face

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 08:54

(JTA) — A rabbi who advocates against child sex abusers refused to accept an apology from a Hasidic man, the son of an accused abuser, who threw bleach in the rabbis’s face.

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg told Brooklyn state Supreme Court Judge Joseph Gubbay, who asked Meilech Schnitzler to make the apology in court on Wednesday, that he would not accept the apology because “you didn’t harm me. You harmed all the children I represent,” the New York Post reported.

In December 2012, Rosenberg on his blog for sexual abuse victims accused Schnitzler’s father of being a child sexual molester. As Rosenberg walked past Schnitzler’s Brooklyn fish market, Schnitzler ran toward him with a cup of bleach and threw it in his face. Rosenberg, of the same Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, was treated for burns on his face, around his eyes and in his left eye.

The incident came a day after Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar Hasidim leader, was convicted on 59 counts of sexual abuse of a then-18-year-old woman when she was between the ages of 12 and 15 and went to Weberman for counseling. Rosenberg supported and assisted the victim throughout the judicial process.

Gubbay on Wednesday sentenced Schnitzler to 5 years’ probation for the attack. Schnitzler had pleaded guilty to the felony charge of “Intent to cause physical injury with a weapon” at a hearing in April.

Rosenberg reportedly read an impact statement in the court but, according to the Failed Messiah blog, was not allowed to read some of the parts that criticized the DA or the plea deal.

According to a copy of the statement obtained by the blog, Rosenberg said that the “plea bargain has compounded the damage of my assault.” He said the day after the plea deal was announced he was pelted with rocks by teenage boys outside of a Satmar synagogue in Williamsburg. One of the teens yelled, “Ha, Ha, Schnitzler is going free!”

“The reign of violence in my community aimed at children and their protectors must be ended. Those of us in the Hasidic community willing to cooperate with the criminal justice system are entitled to protection from violence and intimidation. If not for my sake, for the sake of our children, please let the world know that our children will not be abandoned to those who would abuse them and protect their molesters. Please help make all of Brooklyn a safe place for children and those who fight for them,” he said.

Rosenberg runs a website and telephone hot-line for sex abuse victims.

European rabbis, congregants call for release of abducted teens

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 07:03

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (JTA) — Dozens of young rabbis serving in Europe gathered at an Amsterdam Holocaust monument to protest the abduction of three Israeli youths.

The rabbis, members of the Young Rabbis Forum of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, gathered on Wednesday at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a former theater turned commemoration site because the Nazis used it as a central dispatch point of Jews to death camps shortly after their invasion of the Netherlands in 1940.

Also attending was executive director of the Netherlands-based organization Christians for Israel, Roger van Oordt.

The rabbis carried a large banner reading “#Bring Back Our Boys” and a Dutch-language translation in reference to Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, who were last seen on Dec. 12 at a hitchhiking post near Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement bloc in the West Bank, and whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said have been kidnapped by terrorists presumed to be Palestinian.

The gathering in Amsterdam was part of a number of activities by Jewish communities in Europe on behalf of the three youths.

France’s Consistore, the Jewish community’s body responsible for religious services, called on congregants to convene at Paris’ Grande Synagogue de la Victoire on Thursday for a mass prayer for the youths’ safe return and instructed synagogue throughout France to say a special prayer for their release.

In Munich, emissaries of the Torah MiTzion movement organized a rally in Munich featuring similar signs at the city’s Marienplatz, the news site nrg.co.il reported.