BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — A representative of Hungarian Jewry criticized the organizers of a rabbinical conference in Budapest for not postponing the forum with national elections nearing.
Andras Heisler, president of the Mazsihisz Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, leveled his criticism in a statement sent Monday, the opening day of the two-day biannual convention of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe.
“Mazsihisz is looking with concern at the rabbinical conference, which is planned at the peak point of an elections campaign,” Heisler wrote, referencing the April 6 election.
Mazsihisz is embroiled in a dispute over Holocaust commemoration issues with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose center-right Fidesz party is expected to be reelected easily, according to recent polls.
Mazsihisz boycotted government-led plans to unveil on the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion into Hungary a statue that depicts Hungary as an innocent victim on Nazism because the federation said it obfuscated the nation’s Holocaust-era complicity. The monument, described as a tribute to all victims of Nazism, makes no mention of the Hungarian government’s complicity in the murder of 586,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
The rabbinical conference featured a memorial ceremony on Monday on the banks of the Danube River. Hungarian Defense Minister Csaba Hende and Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos, both of the Fidesz party, were among the 1,000 participants but did not speak.
Rabbi Shlomo Koves, a co-organizer of the rabbinical conference, told JTA he believes any concerns that the conference will be used in the campaign is unfounded, since “the event is not aligned with any party and is meant to celebrate Jewish life in Hungary and show solidarity with the local Jewish community.” He also said he supported Mazshihisz’s criticism of the monument, which Koves called “misleading and very problematic.”
The organizers took journalists to meetings with government officials as well as key opposition figures, including Viktor Szigetari of the newly formed Together opposition party. Szigetari accused Fidesz of “mainstreaming radical anti-Semitism notions with projects like the monument.”
But a Mazsihisz spokesman told JTA the organization feared the rabbinical conference, which includes many rabbis from the Chabad movement, would be used by the government as election propaganda to downplay the dispute with Mazsihisz, and that it would also serve the propaganda machine of the xenophobic Jobbik party, whose rhetoric often features negative references to so-called Jewish interests in Hungary.
“Our concerns are connected to inconsistent information and news coming up in the media concerning the rabbinical conference’s goal,” Heisler said in his statement. “We asked organizers to postpone until after the elections but they refused.”
NEW YORK (JTA) — The Jim Joseph Foundation awarded $7.8 million in its latest round of grants for Jewish educational efforts in the United States.
The largest grants from the San-Francisco-based foundation include $1.4 million to Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston over four years for a communitywide teen initiative; up to $3 million over three years to Repair the World for a fellowship program and efforts to expand Jewish service-learning opportunities; and up to $1.4 million over three years to the Israel Institute to expand and enrich Israel studies on college campuses.
Since 2006, the foundation has invested more than $300 million in Jewish education.
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NABUGOYE, Uganda (JTA) — On Fridays at sundown, the Jewish residents of this village set amid the lush hills of eastern Uganda gather in the synagogue to greet Shabbat.
The room is bare, the light is dim and the Conservative prayer books are worn. But the spare surroundings do little to diminish the enthusiasm of the men, women and children who sing psalms, clap and dance while a few in the front strum guitars and play drums.
Two days later and an hour away in the village of Putti, a handful of men wake at sunrise and trudge into a narrow room lit only by sunbeams streaming through the nearby banana trees. Those who have tefillin wrap them, while the rest sit on hard benches behind oblong wooden desks reading from traditional Orthodox prayer books with crumbling bindings. A sheet hung by a string demarcates an empty women’s section. At the front of the room hangs an Israeli flag.
Until the early 2000s, the two communities were one. Known as the Abayudaya, the 2,000-member group has practiced Judaism for about a century, owing to a former community leader who read the Bible and adopted the religion.
Now, despite being led by cousins and sharing other ties, the communities are split and barely speak to each other. Even in the mountains of rural East Africa, there’s the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t.
In the late 1990s, Conservative movement leaders began to visit the Abayudaya and, in 2002, many community members underwent conversion by a Conservative rabbinical court. Gershom Sizomu, the Nabugoye group’s American-trained rabbi, calls it a “confirmation.”
But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Keki Maniah, soon learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative conversions, so he and a handful of followers declined the confirmation, opting instead to practice Orthodoxy. In 2003, they left Nabugoye for Putti.
“The goal of our grandparents were not [just] to be here as Jewish people but to be known as Jewish people,” Maniah said. “All along, our grandparents had a dream to go to Israel.”
Although the communities are a short distance apart, they have mostly lost touch. Sizomu and Maniah used to share a home, but aside from attending a recent wedding, Sizomu no longer visits Putti. Nor do the Putti Jews come to celebrate Jewish holidays in Nabugoye, where some of them once lived.
The group in Nabugoye models its practices on those of the liberal Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has received material support from Conservative Jews in the United States and Israel, as well was from the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports far-flung Jewish communities.
“Our children are growing with interest in Judaism, with love for their tradition,” Sizomu told JTA. “I only hope that my people get access to the outside world, where they’ll get more Jewish experience.”
Even with support from the Diaspora, the community remains poor. All the members are farmers, including Sizomu, who despite his rabbinical degree from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, grows plantains to support himself.
The smaller community in Putti relies on private donations from abroad and lacks some of the amenities of Nabugoye, though it is building a new synagogue, health clinic and a school named for Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli commando who died in a 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
Still, accessing world Jewry is the group’s top priority. Only a handful of members have converted under Orthodox auspices, but the community of about 100 practices Orthodoxy and, after conversion, hopes to move en masse to Israel.
“I would go around each community telling them if you want to be considered by the Israeli state, it’s better to follow the Orthodox route,” Maniah said. “We didn’t have any grudge with anyone. We knew it was our choice.”
Maniah’s dream of conversion and immigration to Israel is inching forward. Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has visited Putti twice and brought two of its residents to study at his yeshiva, where he converted them to Orthodoxy. Maniah’s family also converted under Riskin’s auspices.
“I was amazed with what I found, the old shul and the new shul,” Riskin told JTA, referring to the Putti community’s new synagogue. “The whole town came out. They sang Hebrew songs. They’re learning, teaching, keeping mitzvot.”
Under Israeli law, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize Riskin’s conversions because he doesn’t sit on any of its official rabbinical courts. But a law expected to pass the Knesset later this year would give Riskin that authority and set the community on the path to conversion.
In the meantime, Riskin has converted only the few community members he knows well. One is Moshe Yashirah Madoi, who studied at Riskin’s yeshiva and has returned to Uganda, where he lives with his family in a small house a short drive from Putti. It is his home, but Madoi says he longs to live a Jewish life in the Jewish state.
“It is my dream, my goal because Judaism is a very strict faith,” Madoi said. “The environment has to be favorable. In Israel it is the most favorable environment. Sometimes we are forced to eat in restaurants that are not kosher. Everywhere you walk [in Israel] there is kosher. Shabbat everyone is observing.”
Like his Conservative counterparts in the United States and Israel, Sizomu rejects the Chief Rabbinate’s injunction that Conservative conversion is somehow insufficient to establish Jewishness. But though he’s proud to be Conservative, he regrets that denominational battles have splintered the once united community.
“Inside us we still think we are a unique African-Jewish community,” Sizomu said. “We don’t want to amplify our association to any of the Jewish movements. We feel bad that these Jewish movements have the effect of dividing up the Jewish people. We don’t have to compete with others.”
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(JTA) — An Israeli television celebrity said the Chief Rabbinate is refusing to convert her to Judaism because of her acting career.
Alin Levy, a 24-year-old reality TV celebrity whose Ukraine-born mother is Christian and whose father is Jewish, discussed her situation with Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview that aired earlier this week.
She said she received a call from the rabbi handling her conversion informing her that dayanim, or rabbinical judges, decided to stop her conversion because they had learned details about her acting career and acting school, and decided they were incompatible with conversion.
Levy, who immigrated from Ukraine to Israel with her parents when she was 4, was a participant in the Israel’s “Big Brother” reality TV show and is studying acting at the Yoram Levinstein acting school, according to Channel 10.
She said she had opened a file to undergo Orthodox conversion and told the rabbinate about her acting. The report did not say which office of the Chief Rabbinate handled her request and did not name the rabbis handling her case.
A spokesperson for the Religious Affairs Ministry told Channel 2 that conversion requires a fundamental change in an applicant’s lifestyle. The response, as quoted by Channel 2, did not contain any specific reference to Levy’s case.
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JERUSALEM (JTA) — Hundreds of Palestinian youth rioted on the Temple Mount in protest of a visit by Israeli lawmaker Moshe Feiglin and a group of supporters.
Two Palestinians were arrested for throwing rocks, and Feiglin and his entourage were ordered by police, who were protecting them, to leave the site, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims.
“If there is a reason for the Temple Mount to be a powder keg, it is because it has been proven that violence pays off. Weakness invites more violence,” Feiglin said in a statement that was posted on Facebook.
“By cutting the visit short and extracting the Jewish visitors from the Temple Mount while leaving the Muslim rioters, the violent party prevailed, which invites the continuation of violence and its escalation. Those who ask why the Temple Mount is a powder keg had their answer today, in the Israeli government’s policy of withdrawal from the Temple Mount,” he said.
Feiglin had made monthly visits to the Temple Mount before being prevented by police about a year ago due to fears of Muslim violence.
The site is overseen by the Muslim Wakf, the Muslim religious administration charged with managing the Temple Mount site, which is holy to Jews and Muslims. Jews generally are not permitted by the Wakf to pray or bring any ritual objects to the Temple Mount.
Knesset debate initiated by Feiglin was held last month to discuss applying Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and allowing Jews to pray there. Palestinian youth rioted then at the holy site in protest of the session.
Feiglin was detained by Israel Police in January 2013 for praying on the Temple Mount, as well as three months earlier. In December 2012 he led a minyan at the site that was caught on video and widely distributed.
In trying to ascertain the number of rabbis who will be getting ordained by U.S. rabbinical schools this year, I was having trouble with one holdout: Yeshiva University.
The trouble in nailing down that number is that students complete Y.U.’s ordination program, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary, on a rolling basis. Ordination is granted once a student has fulfilled all the necessary requirements and passes the appropriate exams, which take place all the time and focus on Jewish law.
Some students are full-time, some are part-time. The program is free, and much of it is independent learning done in the beit midrash study hall. Some students get ordination because they need the degree to advance their rabbinical career, others do it simply because they want to study Torah in a rigorous environment, and formal ordination as a rabbi is the cherry on top.
Every four years, RIETS holds a Chag HaSemikhah to celebrate those who received their ordination over the previous four years. The next one is on Sunday, when 230 recently ordained rabbis will be feted. That celebration will also honor the Chag HaSemikhah class of 50 years ago: 100 rabbis, half of whom now live in Israel, according to Y.U. officials. (Among them is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, on the West Bank.)
So, just how many rabbis is Y.U. ordaining this year? According to the Y.U. officials, the number of new rabbis between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014 will be 75.
To put that number in some perspective, that’s more than all the other U.S. rabbinical schools affiliated with other denominations combined.
Here’s the tally:
Yeshiva University: 75
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform): 35
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies (Conservative): 17
Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative): 14
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College: 6
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (Orthodox): 2
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During the 125th annual Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Convention, more than 60 Reform rabbis will shave their heads to raise awareness of and funding for pediatric cancer research. As the religious leadership of Reform Judaism, the CCAR Rabbis strive for justice and wholeness and health in the world in for all people. At the same time, through the CCAR, the rabbis support one another in their rabbinic and personal lives. Shave for the Brave has been a catalyst in uniting members of the rabbinic community who have lost children and brought the entire community together to support each other.
The convention brings together members of the CCAR, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, with more than 2,000 Reform rabbis providing religious leadership in all walks of life. The connection between the Reform rabbinic community and pediatric cancer advocacy began with the story of Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer (pictured here), the son of Reform rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer. Sam succumbed to leukemia in December 2013. The Sommers documented Sam’s battle with cancer on their blog, Superman Sam.
The shave will take place on the evening of April 1st at the CCAR Convention in Chicago, following a service on loss, healing, and hope led by Rabbi Rex Perlmeter. Rabbi Steven A. Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, said,
We are proud and honored that the CCAR Convention could host this inspiring event, which fosters our goal of rabbis supporting rabbis and building relationships throughout our communities. One of the many roles of the rabbi is to strive to change the world for the betterment of all peoples, be it the health and well being of members of our society or social justice for all. The ‘Shave for the Brave’ event allows rabbis to do that, by raising awareness of pediatric cancer and helping to work towards a cure. This event is an example of CCAR rabbis acting on our moral commitments.
Rabbi Fox also noted that the CCAR has been at the forefront of religious leadership advocating for healthcare for all people everywhere. As early as the 1940s, the CCAR declared that “Every individual should have access to medical care and the most advanced medical research regardless of his economic circumstances.”
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, the Shave for the Brave” organizer, said of the event,
Seven families lose a child to cancer each day, yet only 4% of US federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers. We can’t bring Sam back, but we can help other families. By taking such visible action, these rabbis are serving as role models in their communities and raising awareness among their congregants. It’s an amazing way to bring out the best in people and strengthen the community.
The rabbis’ Shave for the Brave fundraiser benefits St. Baldrick’s, a charity committed to funding childhood cancer research. Originally conceived of in the hopes of convincing 36 rabbis to help raise $180,000, the group has grown to 66 rabbis and is on track to raise $360,000. The “shavees” consist of 53 male and 13 female rabbis. In addition to the group shaving at the CCAR Convention, there are additional rabbis shaving in their home communities, including Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis who were inspired to support their rabbinic colleagues. The outpouring of support demonstrates how a tragedy can unite people across denominations to act on shared values.