Friday, February 27, 2015

Is This a Declaration of War?

I often talk about the extreme portions of Orthodox Jewry. Sometimes about the left and sometimes about the right. Unfortunately the left has gone too far in some areas making their legitimacy as an Orthodox movement questionable.  And while the right has not gone too far to make their Orthodoxy questionable, I often feel more of a kinship with the left than I do with the right.

Orthodoxy as I have always said is primarily defined by 2 things: Adherence to Halacha and the belief in the Torah narrative that the events at Sinai actually happened.  While the left accepts the former, it allows questioning of the latter. The right on the other hand accepts both Halacha and the Torah narrative with respect to Sinai actually happened. And  yet some of what they say and do makes me - and many other Orthodox  Jews - run as far away from them as we can.

This might seem counter-intuitive. But if one factors interactions with fellow Jews that are not part of their ‘club’ (Bein Adam L’Chavero);  interactions with non Jews (being an Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations); the extremes of Tznius (modesty) causing them to force their views on others - one might understand why many of us feel that way.

The increased enforcement of Tznius standards by  right wing extremists in religiously multi cultural cities like Bet Shemesh is a case in point. Let us not forget the incident of a few years ago where certain citizens of Bet Shemesh taunted a 7 year old girl from a Religious Zionist family calling her a whore because she did not measure up to their modesty standards.  Or the harassment of a book store owner  in Meah Shearim for refusing to carry modesty signs in his window. Or the torching a few years ago of a clothing store in the nearby Geula because they sold women’s clothing that did not meet their modesty standards.

These may have been criminal vigilantes that had no sanction from their rabbinic leadership to do what they did. But there is not a question in my mind that their actions were based on the modesty values of their extremist community.

Recently they had come out with a bunch of rules about what is and isn’t permitted to be advertised. Images of even a Shaitel (wig) or women’s shoes are now considered immodest.  A  women’s health clinic in Bet Shemesh had the word the word  Isha (women) spray painted.  A recent ad for Purim costumes for children featured pictures of boys in costumes and girls costumes sans girls. Some of the bolder business people did put girls in their ads for Purim, but blurred out their faces.

This is nothing new. Extremists on the right have been eliminating pictures of women altogether no matter how modestly they are dressed.  One might recall the now infamous redaction of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from a photo of Obama administration officials viewing the assassination of Bin Laden. This kind of thing keeps happening. And mainstream Charedi publications have decided to honor those standards – no in order doubt to increase their circulation among that demographic.

How this affects a young girl growing up in that world cannot be positive.  They are taught that men see them only as sex objects. That is the sum and substance of their existence. As such they may never be seen in any form. They are to avoid being in public as much as possible. And if they must. They are to play down their sexuality to the point of being shapeless and skinless. So fully well have they taught this modesty lesson that it should be no surprise that Burkas are now being worn by some women.

This is not a group that I would in any way want to be a part of.  On the other hand they seem to feel that their ways are the only Torah true ways.

I am happy to report that a group of non extremists have taken it upon themselves to counter this trend. They have come up with a poster that shows a young girl asking her Charedi mother the following question: ‘Mommy, why did they erase the little girl’s face?’

There is no blurred out face in this poster. And I assume it is being put up all over Bet Shemesh.

But I am worried. It is not beneath any of the extremists to deface or tear down those ads.  And because they are ‘true believers’ who think that what they are doing – they do for God, they will not compromise. For them it is a war they are fighting for God. You don’t comprise when you are fighting for God.

I’m sorry. This is not the Judaism of our forefathers. This is not the way religious Jewry behaved even a century ago. It is the way extremists who are isolated from the rest of the world behave. The values they are taught do not have any counter- balance.  All they see is their own world.  A world that to me – despite their observance of Halacha and belief in the Torah, I want nothing to do with. I only wish that the moderate Charedi world would stop catering to them!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Win for Herpes

Bris Milah - the circumcision ceremony  (photo credit: Forward)
The pressure from the Charedi world was immense. And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to have succumbed to it. From the New York Times
The city is seeking to waive a rule that requires parents to sign a consent form before the ritual, which involves the circumciser using his mouth to suck blood away from the incision on a boy’s penis. The ritual is common among some branches of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
 Administration officials on Tuesday announced a new policy that they described as a compromise between reducing health risks for infants and protecting the religious freedoms of those who cherish the ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, or oral suction.
The policy, which must be approved by the city’s Board of Health, involves a series of medical tests when a baby is found to have herpes. A circumciser who is proved through a DNA match to have the same herpes strain as the baby’s would be banned for life from the practice. 
Chasidim believe that Metzitza B’Peh (MbP) is an essential part of the circumcision ritual. As such they felt that even a warning to a parent of the possible hazards was an infraction of their constitutional right to practice their religion freely. And although the Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of religion does not extend to practices that are harmful, Chasdim maintain that the incidence of a child becoming infected with Herpes via MbP from a Mohel is yet to be proven. And in any case it is so rare, that health concerns are hardly a significant worry.

As I have stated in the past. There are a variety of Poskim on both the right and left, both past and present that have clearly Paskined that Metzitza (drawing the blood out of the circumcision wound – a practice our sages required as a health measure)  may be done by more sterile methods, like using a sterile pipette, or using gauze. The Mohel’s lips need not touch the baby’s open wound. So I would have no personal problem with abolishing the practice altogether. But I also respect that there are others who disagree… and say that without MbP, the circumcision is ritually invalid.

So for me the obvious and best compromise was the New York Board of Health’s requirement for informed and  written consent by any a parent before allowing MbP to take place. That – combined with the relative rarity of a child contracting an infection via MbP sufficed in my mind as both protecting freedom of religion and at the same time making sure that a parent is aware that the medical profession has determined MbP to be  a serious risk to the child’s health.

I’m sorry to see this reversal of what I thought was a sound policy of compromise – even though it was probably observed by Chasidim and many Charedim more in the breach.  But at least it was on the books. Parents deserve to know what the best medical minds in the country have to say on the matter. That they may not care is up to them.

Opponents of informed written consent claimed that even though MbP was not banned, the scare tactics of reading and signing a document that put MbP in such a bad light was in itself a violation of their religious rights. 

I can’t really say I blame them. Who wants to see the government warning you that a religious practice you consider to be inviolable - is considered dangerous to one’s health?! Agudah  Executive Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel called this requirement profoundly offensive to his community

Nonetheless, the health of the child comes first. Way ahead of how offended someone feels about it. When it comes to Sakana - danger to one’s health, there is no Halacha (aside from the 3 cardinal sins) that cannot be violated. Indeed they must be violated when it comes to health!

I suppose a recent test using DNA technology might have had something to do with de Blasio’s decision. It was determined in the case of one Mohel strongly suspected to have transmitted a herpes virus to a child he circumcised (who subsequently died) that he a was not the source. And to date, as far as I know there has been no direct link made between an infected Mohel and a child that contracted herpes.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen... or can’t happen in the future.  The Gemarah (Kesubos 23a) tells us: Lo Roinu Aino Rayah - Not seeing something  is not proof that it didn’t happen.

So I am disappointed in the mayor of New York. I would like to believe that he did this because of his sensitivity to his constituents’ religious rights, which was his stated reason. But I am a bit more cynical than that. He promised Chasidic  voters during the election that he would get rid of the informed consent requirement if he were elected. They voted for him. So now -even though he personally believes that MbP is a dangerous procedure, he is keeping his promise. But it is a decision based on politics, not on good government.

I don’t see how anyone could say it isn’t dangerous to place a mouth on an 8 day old baby’s open wound. Would anyone in his right mind approve of a surgeon sucking the blood out of an incision of that same infant undergoing surgery? Even if he rinsed out his mouth with Listerine?

I suppose that half a loaf is better than no loaf as someone so wisely reminded me recently. So testing a Mohel suspected of transmitting herpes to a baby he circumcised and banning him for life if he is proven to have had it - is a plus. But that will not prevent a Mohel that has never been tested from transmitting it.

Hopefully there has been so much public discussion about the dangers of MbP that most parents are now aware of it and will think twice about doing it. But for those who haven’t heard about it, the danger still remains or those who have but don’t care, the danger still remains..

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Highest Level of Spiritual Purity

A typical Charedi elementary school classroom
Update
I have been informed by someone that was there that the story I was assured was an accurate description of events - did not quite happen the way it was described to me. Usually a very accurate source, this time he was not.

Here is what happened. There was a weekend event by Pirchei (Agudath Israel’s youth division) that celebrated a Siyum Mishnyos. Students from all the day schools in Chicago and beyond that participated in the study of the six orders of Mishnayos were invited to attend. 

Pirchei used a camp facility outside of Chicago to have this event. The Charedi schools and the Centrist schools ended up in separate buildings. Some of the rooms in the Charedi building were at some point early on trashed. There were accusations floating around that it was students from the Centrist school that were responsible. One of the Centrist students made an offhand comment that was interpreted by the Charedi students as admitting that they did it.

And that led to a huge flap where both sides did not behave in ways that students steeped in the values of the Torah should behave. This included some of the Charedi students accusing the Centrist students of not being religious enough in various ways. (Which is where I suppose the error about the cause of the fight was made.)  But there was plenty of bad behavior on both sides.

This was not a case of bullying at all.

So I have to retract this post as originally written. Although I do feel that as a general rule - telling your students how holy they are in comparison to everyone else is a bad policy that can result in some pretty bad behavior, this was not an incidence of that.

I know that a lot of parents are upset by what happened last weekend. And I'm sure that each side has its own version of exactly what happened. But the individual I spoke to moments ago was there and knows exactly what happened. There is enough blame to go around on both sides.

I apologize for reporting a story based on the word of one source. I tried to find other sources to tell me what really happened, and got nowhere. So I went with my trusted but (in this case) erroneous source. A source that is himself Charedi and had every reason to deny what happened. That's what gave him extra credibility and why I went with it.  Once again I truly apologize.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Breaking the Chains

Lipa Schmeltzer (Gothamist)
I remember meeting him for the first time. It was at least 20 years ago. He was the ‘Badchan’ at a Chicago wedding that I recorded in my capacity as a videographer. A Badchan is basically a comedian hired to ‘sing-song’ praises of people honored to do a  Mitzvah Tanz with the bride at the end of Chasidic weddings.  No one had ever heard of him. My immediate response was that this impish young Chasid  was going to be a major star someday.  He was bright, funny, and quick on his feet. I asked him his name, he said, ‘Lipa Schmeltzer’. I will never forget that moment.

Little did I know just how prescient I was. He is perhaps the biggest musical star in Jewish entertainment today, by far. His music is played and sung everywhere by virtually all Jewish bands at weddings and all kinds of Simchos. There is a story about him in the Gothamist that got me to reflect on his career and the fate of his former community, Skvere.

Lipa has been in the news a lot over his career. And not always in a positive way. His music is viewed by his own community of Skvere as not very Jewish. They see it as using lyrics taken from biblical sources and setting them to the tune of  rock and roll music. His hit song called ‘Abi MiLebt’ (Yiddish for ‘as long as we are alive’) was sung to the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’  - a popular rock and roll song from 1961. It was immediately condemned and banned by his rabbinic leaders in Skvere among others.  

Not long after that Lipa was to perform at a concert, called ‘The Big Event’. That too was condemned and shut down before it happened. Investors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Lipa promised not tos sing songs like that ever again. But since that time he has given up trying to keep his promise. The public demand for it was too great. He wanted to satisfy his fans. Which caused one prominent Rabbi to embarrass him at wedding at which he was hired to perform. Even though the songs he sang there were well within the comfort zone of his righteous critics.

Skvere is not a very tolerant town. They do not suffer dissent lightly. That said, the Skverer Rebbe is a very caring individual and goes out of his way for his Chasidim. He famously met with President Bill Clinton just before the latter left office to beg for mercy for some of his Chasidim. They were convicted and sent to prison for using federal grant money for purposes which it was not intended. The President was so impressed with the Rebbe that he ended up commuting their sentences to time served.

But don’t let anyone cross the Rebbe. That can have some pretty severe repercussions carried out by Chasidic vigilantes for his honor. Sometimes ending up with expulsion. Or worse. In one case a Skverer Chasid who tried to set up a Minyan for a hospitalized friend. He suffered 3rd degree burns in an arson attempt at the hands of the Rebbe’s young personal valet. Who on his own decided to defend the honor of the Rebbe. It was against the Rebbe’s rule of ‘no separate Shuls in Skvere under any circumstances’. As was the Rebbe’s wont, he went to bat for the young Chasid who was arrested for that. But the Chasid that suffered burns at his hand was to the best of my knowledge completely ignored.

The control exerted by Skvere over its Chasidm does not end with requiring attendance at the Rebbe’s big Shul. The control in that town was described by both Shulem Deen and Lipa Shmeltzer as total.  There is apparently no such thing as getting an education outside of Skvere. They have little use for any kind of secular education that would prepare them for a decent job. The Chasdim of Skvere are left to fend for themselves with little to sell in the job market.  When one considers the Chasidic ban against any birth control except for reasons of health, a family of 12 or 13 children is not that a uncommon. But the kinds of jobs available to them do not even pay enough for two people to live an even lower middle class lifestyle.

An example of what their financial lives are like was described by Shulem Deen in his (about to be released) book. He was once a religious studies teacher in one of their elementary schools. They were paid in ‘school money’. That is basically scrip printed up by the school that parents are required to buy and use for groceries and the like from vendors that agree to accept it in lieu of real money. The vendors then trade it in for cash at a discount. (Usually something like 90 cents on the dollar.) Of course banks do not accept scrip to pay off mortgages. How teachers got money for that is a question I can’t answer.

And yet this community of about 7000 people is very successful. Thriving in fact. For me, there is not enough money in the world to live like that. But Shuelm Deen’s tells us that Skverer Chasidim seem to love it there.  Shulem Deen who completely lost his faith sometimes misses what he once had. I guess I can understand it up to a point. There is a sense of belonging; a sense of joy in serving God, a sense of camaraderie; an uncomplicated and structured way of life; arranged marriages; and the knowledge that if you play by their rules, someone will have your back. Including (and perhaps most importantly) the Rebbe himself.

But the human spirit will not be denied. When given the opportunity, it yearns to be free. How free is up to the individual. For Shulem that eventually meant breaking free of all the chains of religion. He found his ‘truth’ in atheism. But for Lipa, it meant breaking free of the restrictions of a sect. A sect that denied him the both the education and the tools to get one. He has broken with Skvere and at age 36 is now working towards a degree at Columbia University. But he retains his beliefs, his observance of Halacha, and some of the traditions of his Chasidus.

Lipa is lucky. His talent and success has enabled him to break those chains. But I have to wonder just how many others there are like him that have no realistic options. How many Skverer Chasidim yearn to live better lives? And have no way of achieving it? Were they even to try to get a secular education like Lipa, would they be expelled from their communities or worse? Even if it were to be in a school like Yeshiva University? …which they might see as a greater threat than a secular university? …because it grants what they consider an illegitimate mantle of religious approval for something they consider forbidden?

I am happy for Lipa. But what about everyone else in Skvere and communities like it? These are the fastest growing segments in all of Jewry. And they are the most insular, restricted, and uneducated. And the poorest. Will the bubble burst? Or will they continue to grow internally via a birthrate that will increase their numbers exponentially over the next few generations. How will these future generations feed their children? Will they still be the happy campers that Shulem Deen described in his book? Or will there at some point be a massive revolution? I guess only time will tell.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dov Lipman - Telling it Like it Is

Guest Post by Rabbi Dov Lipman
Israeli MK, Rabbi Dov Lipman
My admiration for Dov Lipman is well known to readers of this blog. He is a man of great courage. Where others speak… he does! He not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. Given an opportunity to serve his people… and his country he jumped at the chance. There too he walked the walk.Where some beg for charity to help the needy, he legislates opportunities for them to help themselves.

And what is his reward for all this? Scorn! He is scorned, ridiculed, and even condemned for apparently not walking in lockstep with the Charedi leadership; for joining hands with the ‘devil’ - Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, the political party Charedim see as anti Torah.

While it’s true that Yesh Atid is not a religious party and some of its agenda is not necessarily Torah based, it is also true that it is the party that has been in the forefront of trying to bring the Charedi world into 21st century Israel… and participate as responsible citizens along with fellow Israelis who are not Charedi.

Who is Dov Lipman? What is his background? Does he really have the credentilas to speak as the Charedi  he often says he is? Here is a brief bio from the Wikipedia entry on him: 
Dov Lipman was born in Silver Spring, Maryland... He attended theYeshiva of Greater Washington in his hometown and completed his rabbinical studies at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore while in a concurrent program with the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a master's degree in education. Lipman received ordination (smicha) from his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. After marriage, Lipman spent two years at the Kollel in Cincinnati. He immigrated to Israel in 2004. 
This clearly indicates that his orientation is Charedi. Those who claim he is not are clearly misinformed. MK Rabbi Lipman has been kind enough to submit a post. I am honored to host it. It follows unedited in its entirety:

Yesh Atid has put out two videos (below) featuring issues related to the haredi community.  One relates to haredi employment and the other to haredim serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Many are asking how a party like Yesh Atid can possibly bring haredi issues into the election campaign.  Wasn’t Yesh Atid destructive for the haredi community? I appreciate the opportunity to answer this question clearly with the facts so once and for all we can abolish the misconceptions.

Leading up to the passing of the legislation regarding the haredim and the draft, meetings were held with rabbis of the highest caliber in the haredi community.  In one of those meetings, a Rosh Yeshiva actually revealed that in his estimation, 60% of the young men in the yeshiva system throughout Israel don’t belong there beyond 3-4 years after high school because Torah study is not their one and only passion and they are not truly learning day and night. 

These rabbis all agreed that boys who are not truly studying day and night should go and serve in the army.  In addition, they said that there would have to be a demonstration no matter what was written in the law.  If they are unhappy with the law, there will be a major demonstration with fiery speeches to ignite the crowd.

If they are satisfied with the law, they will call the demonstration a “prayer rally” and there will be no speeches.  Just a public prayer.  When the law was being passed, a law which sets reasonable goals for numbers of haredi males between the ages of 18 and 24 that must serve (a few thousand out of 55,000!), the haredi community came out en masse for what the gedolim called, “a prayer rally.”  Enough said.

There was one issue which they took issue with regarding the law.  They were against the “criminal sanctions.”  Just to clarify, the law says that if the goals are not met, then a full draft will apply to haredim just like the rest of Israeli society with the elite masmidim not having to serve. It doesn’t mention jail.  It doesn’t mention arresting yeshiva boys.  It says the regular draft will apply.  Since for the rest of Israeli society, failure to show up when drafted is a criminal offense, the same would apply to haredim in that situation. 

The Yesh Atid platform did not have this component as part of the law.  We knew it would be an issue for the haredi world even if it was just theoretical but there will never be police entering yeshiva dormitories and arresting the boys.  So why was it included?

The government attorneys explained that the reason why we were writing a law to begin with was because the Supreme Court demanded that the Knesset pass a law with “equality.” If there was no clause in the law which mentioned the possibility of a full draft if the goals were not met, the law suits which would come on the heels of the law’s passage would not pass the test of the Supreme Court and we would be back to trying to draft another law. 

Some suggested that the law outline economic sanctions towards haredim who don’t serve as opposed to the implied criminal sanctions.  The problem with this suggestion is that, once again, the Supreme Court would turn to the Knesset and say the consequences of not serving must be equal for all – either criminal or economic.  Economic won’t work because then we would have a scenario in which the wealthy would avoid service and the poor would serve.  Thus, it was left as is with a regular draft if the goals are not met. 

There is one part of the law which is not sufficiently condoned in yeshiva circles.  It used to be that those who learned Torah were given an exemption from serving.  This law changes that.  All of am yisrael serves.  We are one people and no one is exempt from serving the nation.  The Torah learning of those who do not serve in the army or national service will be counted as their service to the Jewish people.  This is stipulated in the law.  Torah learning is now categorized as serving the state and the people of Israel by law and Yair Lapid has said that this is one of the accomplishments he is most proud of s in our short first term in office.   

As for the question of whether the law is working and whether haredim are coming to serve in the IDF as a result of it, I will turn to a source other than me, so as not to be accused of being subjective in my answer.  The following is from Israel National News on February 21 of this year: 
“Despite continuing protests by groups of haredi community members against IDF service, more members of the community are joining the army than ever before, Yonatan Bransky said.
 Branksy is the Chairman of the Netzah Yehuda organization, which consists of veterans of the IDF and rabbis in the haredi community. 
The protests, which have been going on for months, are the work of just a small, but loud, minority in the community, said Bransky. ‘I think most of the community just ignores them," he said. "Everyone understands the importance of working together.’ Among other things, Netzach Yehuda arranges ceremonies for haredi soldiers, such as their graduation from basic training to regular service units. The latest ceremony was held Thursday, and Bransky said that it went very well.

‘Our soldiers bring a great deal of pride to the community and to their families. Our job is to enable these soldiers to serve without compromising their religious lifestyle, and we are able to work with the army on this fully.’
The system works, he said. ‘Many of the soldiers we have worked with are now working and supporting families. They are our best ambassadors. We are here and ready to help any haredi soldier who joins the army to learn Torah, to provide spiritual support, and to find the appropriate service framework,’ he said.”
There is an element of the new draft law which is also less known but is more important than the haredim who are now serving in the IDF or national service.  Until this law was passed, anyone who did not serve was not allowed to legally join the workforce until they were post army age – close to 30 years old.  This meant that young men who did not want to learn day and night were somewhat trapped since ideologically they would not serve and legally they could not work.

In order to jumpstart a culture which values work, we wrote into this law that anyone who was 22 years or older when the law was passed, was free to legally go to work.  They did not have to stay in yeshiva or kollel simply because they had nowhere else to go.  And we put hundreds of millions of shekel into the state budget to provide job training and to help find jobs for any young haredi who wants to enter the job market and sustain their families with dignity. 

The result has been a 300% increase in haredim seeking employment.  I head the Knesset taskforce to help haredim enter the job market and the projects we have set up throughout the country receive an average of 500 resumes per month from haredim seeking to find work and support their families with dignity. 

These figures indicate nothing short of a quiet revolution on a street level for haredim who realize that they can be Talmudic scholars of the highest caliber, fervently committed religiously, and sustain their families with dignity.  We have met with CEO’s of major companies and convinced them that it is worth their while to hire haredim.  Reports are coming back to us about what wonderful employees the haredim are and, especially in the hi-tech realm, how creative they are in their thinking, no doubt the result of years of Talmudic study.  In addition, remarkable stories of unity are emerging as haredi and secular Israel meets for the first time in the workplace.  Haredim come to realize that secular Israelis are not as horrific as they had been led to believe and secular Israelis discover that haredim are wonderful people. 

The last element of our activity this past year relating to the haredi community is regarding general studies in schools.  Soon after the 2013 elections Adina bar Shalom, daughter of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, told me that the most important thing we could do is to institute basic math and English into all haredi schools.  She explained that without those tools, when they try to get training at a later stage in institutions like her Haredi College of Jerusalem, they cannot catch up and 50% of the boys drop out. 
We cut budgets to schools that don’t teach basic general studies but promised full funding to any school which accepts basic general studies – subjects which don’t in any way contradict Torah values or tradition. 

Thank G-d, this past Elul, over 50 mainstream haredi schools opened with basic general studies and it is going so well that many more have asked to join this program for next year.  I visited some of these schools and remarkable things are happening. Many boys have said that their davening and Torah learning has improved because they have two hours a day of different subjects and because, in general they are happier knowing they are getting skills for a future which is not limited to full time Torah study alone.

Many in the haredi community have taken notice of the fact that positive changes are happening thanks to Yesh Atid’s efforts.  During this election campaign we have spent a lot of time walking through shopping malls all over Israel to engage, face to face, with voters.  At almost every stop I am approached by haredim who compliment me for the work we have done – to open more options for service, to help them get to work, or to provide their children with basic general studies. 

One haredi rabbi visited me in my home and thanked me saying, “You are saving us from ourselves.”  (I asked him why he can't say so in public and he responded that he can't because it will ruin his daughters for shidduchim and his sons will be tormented in Talmud Torah or expelled.)

So, yes – Yesh Atid will use the progress we have made in the haredi community as part of our election campaign and we hope to return to the Knesset with full force to continue this progress.  At least one haredi party has talked about getting back into power and "turning the clock back" on all the progress we have made in these past two years.  That would be catastrophic for the haredi community and makes these elections even more important and meaningful.  

With G-d’s help, I won’t stop my efforts until Israel is filled with haredi doctors, lawyers, accountants, hi-tech entrepreneurs and, yes, haredi generals in the army.  The haredi community will be far better off when that happens, and all of Israel will be better off - economically and, even more importantly spiritually - when that happens.

As our campaign slogan says: Yesh Atid – It’s a fight for our country! 


Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Man for All Seasons

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
If anyone wants to know why Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is so high up on my list of great Jewish figures, they should watch this 2 part interview on PBS's Religion and Ethics News Weekly.

The man is a walking Kiddush HaShem. In my view, if more Jews would look to him for leadership no matter what their Hashkafa, or even their religion (or lack thereof for that matter) the world be a better place.

Whether one is on the right, left or center; Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist; or even Christian, Muslim,  Hindu, Buddhist, or Atheist... listen to him speak. His manner, his intelligence,his  perspective, his eloquence, and even his sense of humor, and his message will surely resonate.

Watch both parts and see if you do not agree. (Hat tip: Gil Student)



The Rise and Fall of Joseph Aaron

Joe Aaron - publisher of the Chicago Jewish News
What a frustrating time it must be for  Chicago Jewish News  editor and publisher, Joe Aaron.  The paper’s circulation numbers are apparently so low, that it cannot survive on its advertising income. It has to be subsidized by a local philanthropist. This is sad not only for him, but even for Chicago Jewry.

The Chicago Jewish News had so much potential. It could have been the voice of Chicago Jewry. It could have been the primary source for Jewish news and opinion. I had high hopes for it when it was founded.  But instead of being a beacon of light shining on Chicago’s Jewish community it has turned into a personal weekly rant against the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now it’s true that the paper does report on Jewish news and events. But its biggest asset was Joe Aaron. He was a hard hitting journalist who was unafraid to rock the establishment. His writing style is unique. I pick up a copy of his paper every week and  his editorial is the first thing I read. Most of the time I agree with him. And sometimes I vehemently disagree.

Joe Aaron also happens to be an observant Jew. But his paper was fair to all denominations and even featured a weekly Torah Portion column by a rotating group of rabbis of all denominations. Something for which he was severely criticized by the Orthodox establishment. I occasionally read those columns and found them all to be consistent with Orthodoxy. I am not endorsing what he did. But in fairness I will say that presumably he required all rabbis to write Torah columns that would be compatible with all denominations. Including Orthodoxy. Joe’s attitude was one of Achdus.

I had been a fan of Joe Aaron since his days as the editor of the JUF News, the Chicago Jewish Federation newspaper. It was refreshing I thought to have an observant Jew in charge and seeing an Orthodox perspective in his editorials. When he decided to start the Chicago Jewish News, I thought it was great that Chicago’s Jewish newspaper of record would have as its head, an Orthodox Jew.

Perhaps the pressure of what increasingly seems to be a failing enterprise has gotten to him. His editorials of late are a virtual barrage of hatred against the Prime  Minster of Israel.

I happen to be a supporter of Israel’s democratically elected leader. One who will no doubt continue being so after the next election. But if one were to read Joe’s recent editorials you would that the Jews of Israel had elected ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to office and intend on keeping him there!  From his latest editorial
It is hard to exaggerate how destructive to Judaism Prime Minister Netanyahu is being, both internally and externally. Yes, here I go again pointing out how the leader of the Jewish state is doing such damage to us. Lots of Jews are concerned today about ISIS. But the fact is the far greater threat to the well-being of the Jewish people is BIBI. No, I’m not being unfair and no I’m not overblowing it. Bibi trades in fear, wallows in the negative, behaves without a trace of concern for what is right, what is moral, what is Jewish. 
It is truly breathtaking that an Orthodox Jew who I know loves his people and the State of Israel can say that about its sitting prime minister, and what that implies about the Israelis who voted for the party that put him into office.

What is even more breathtaking is how he goes about demonstrating just how evil and dangerous he thinks the Prime Minister is. Aaron is not beneath, smearing, lying (via omission), and embellishing the facts. Nor is he beneath making misleading conclusions from it. He is not beneath slinging any mud that will stick no matter how trivial, just to show how unscrupulous Netanyahu is. I have no clue what he thinks all this criticism will do, except to smear Israel right along with its prime minister. Surely he can’t think that he has even the slightest influence on a single Israeli voter.

I know that there are a lot of Jews - some of them Orthodox - that do not like Netanyahu and might agree with every negative word ever uttered by anybody about him. But for a supposedly responsible journalist to stoop so low as to call Israel’s democratically elected leader a greater danger to Israel than ISIS borders on the irrational. It is irresponsible in the extreme. It does not serve world Jewry well for editor of a Jewish newspaper of a major American city with a large Jewish population to spew rabid irrational hatred of the Prime Minister of the Jewish State.

It isn’t whether his issues with Netanyahu are legitimate or not. He is entitled to his opinion. What he is not entitled to is lie (via omission), to embellish, to smear, and to conclude as he does based on all that.

What bothers Aaron this time are two issues that I have discussed. One is his upcoming speech to congress and the other is his call for mass immigration of European Jews to Israel. I even agree with him about the latter and said so. I think it was wrong to urge Jews from those countries to make mass Aliyah (immigrate) out of fear. The Europe of 2015 is not anywhere near the Europe of 1939. 

I do not agree with him on the former. I think Netanyahu  did nothing wrong in accepting an invitation from House Speaker Boehner to address a joint session of congress. One can disagree but one should respect that there is another way to look at this issue.

But  Aaron sees it only one way. And totally overstates the negative impact of Netanyhu’s speech to the point of fear mongering! Using smear tactics to bolster his views.  

His claim (and the claim of many that dislike Netanyahu) is that it politicizes and thereby erodes support by alienating Democrats. His proof is that here have already been announcements by respected members of congress that they will not attend. Really? A few members of congress not attending his speech erodes support of Israel?

Well, if one speech by a sitting Prime Minister of Israel can do that, then that support was not very deep to begin with… if it was ever really there at all. Besides, I would be willing to bet that the boycotters will declare that their support for Israel has not changed. It will remain the same.

They will say that they are only standing up for the honor of the Presidency. And they say that in any case they will hear nothing new. (I guess that must have gotten an advance copy of the Prime Minister’s speech.)  If anyone is politicizing it, it is the boycotters. Thankfully there are hard core Democrats like Charles Shumer that are urging fellow Democrats to attend. (I guess Netanyahu forgot to give him an advance copy of his speech.) Netanyahu wants to address all of congress, not just the Republicans.  

Aaron says that the American people do not approve of speaker Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. But what Aaron fails to mention is that the American people also do not approve of the President’s refusal to meet with him, once he’s here.  It appears then that they are more upset at Boehner than they are at Netanyahu. But Aaron is so blinded by his hate of Netanyahu that Boehner is barely even in his radar. And the President's refusal to meet is meaningless to him despite the American people’s disapproval of it.

Even though Aaron is an admitted dyed in the wool Democrat - that does not excuse him. I have to wonder what has caused this once great journalist to lose any semblance of objectivity. That he disagrees with Netanyahu is his right. But seeing a deterioration of relations between the US and Israel because of a speech is pure fantasy. Calling Netanyahu a greater danger to Israel than ISIS is an outrage. And yet he had no problem saying it. I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t Joe Aaron who is the bigger danger.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sem Girl Says

Guest Post by Mindy Schwartz

Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz
A young woman by the name of Mindy Schwartz sent me the following e-mail: 
Hello, name is Mindy Schwartz and I am currently studying for my year abroad in Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women in Israel. I recently wrote an article concerning the Orthodox community's respect for women's learning and its manifestation in the learning policies of our educational institutions. If you feel it worthwhile and fitting for your site I would love for you to publish it. 
I thought it would be enlightening to see what the values of a young woman attending a Modern Orthodox seminary in Israel are. The video she referenced can be seen below. 

As an aside, I just want to say that I did not think this video to be funny at all. It is insulting and an embarrassment. Maybe even a Chilul HaShem to put it on YouTube. The producers and anyone involved ought to be ashamed!


As always the views presented by guest contributors do not necessarily reflect my own. Her words follow unedited in their entirety.

The premise: Capitalize on the stupid, vapid Sem Girl stereotype

The result: A viral YouTube video, active twitter account, and much liked Facebook page featuring the ditziest of “Sem Girl” quotes, ranging from obsessions with marriage to lack of basic competency. 

I remember when I watched that first video. Two baby-faced yeshiva guys approached "random" seminary girls on Ben Yehudah and asked simple questions, preserving for eternity the infamous, cringeworthy responses.

I remember laughing.

Partly because people saying stupid things always been cheap straw for the comedic bonfire (See: Dan Quayle, Beauty Pageant Q and As, etcetera etcetera). But a part of it felt wrong. Reminiscent of the giggles you get at a funeral as you watch a grown man or woman breakdown mid eulogy and your body bubbles over in discomfort. Because something about that video felt shameful. Humiliating. Wrong.

Why?

Jewish girls are not given the same Judaic educational opportunities as their male peers. Nor do we expect our girls to achieve the same level of skills, understanding, and commitment to intense Torah learning. If Gemara is taught at all it is, in most cases, taught on a lower level; if expectations to pursue higher study are present they are more often than not thin and pliable. It is no surprise that girls rarely rise to challenge of continuous Torah study and become women involved in the serious national, or even communal Torah conversation.

I should clarify that all I present here is the opinion of a single so-called “Sem Girl.”  Yet I firmly believe this opinion holds immense truth for me, and more significantly, for a large portion of the Modern Orthodox community.

I do not ask you to agree with me; I do not wish to “enlighten” or “alter” your heart. I simply ask that you listen.

I ask, if you feel girls’ Torah learning has already reached its ideal level, why does only one Modern Orthodox girls high school in the tristate area teach mandatory Gemara five times a week? Why do seminary girls’ Gemara skills inch forward while their male counterparts’ surge? Why is it that there exists a Gemara based Yeshiva Program for Yeshiva University students, with no such corresponding program for their Stern counterparts? And even in the realm of Tanach, why is there rarely a woman scholar found on the average Tanach shiur source sheet?

I ask, if you feel that girls should learn, but should not learn Gemara, why not?  Why should the sacred texts that stand as the backbone of our cherished rabbinic Judaism be closed off to half our population? Why should a committed, learned person steer clear of such a text? We are blessed to take for for granted that in the Modern Orthodox community women’s Gemara, or more precisely Gemara-lite, learning has been accepted as mainstream. So then why should such learning not be encouraged and fortified? Why do it only half way? Can it really detract from the Torah growth of women when it continues to strengthen and sharpen the study of so many men?

I ask, if you feel girls who learn Gemara do so only to push a feminist or egalitarian "agenda," how many men learn Torah strictly for the sake of Heaven? I do not mean to denigrate men’s learning, still I point this out to demonstrate something quite intuitive: that the motivations of any large group will never be exactly the same. Even if a there are women who learn for this purpose, should we throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Shouldn't we instead hope the learning of these few “agenda pushers” leads to a greater Torah commitment and in others not assume hidden "agendas" unless they are stated outright?

So I ask, why? Why do we expect less from our daughters? Our sisters? Our wives? Why do they not receive the same opportunities as our sons? Our brothers? Our husbands?

And so we return to our Sem Girl, the video that launched a thousand of posts and tweets, the stereotype that launched a thousand insecurities and warped self perceptions. We are taught to look in the mirror, and recognize the stereotype -- the fluffy, blank-minded, fake "frummie" in a hard tail skirt. Or to reject her, kick the glass and run as far as we can from her, careful not to look back lest we turn into the pillar of Sem Girl, a la Ashet Lot.  Our girls are damned both ways, either as a ditz, a "rebel", or maybe even an angry man-hater.

These stereotypes are of course as ridiculous as they are crude, but more importantly they lay close to the beating heart of the way men view women in the Torah conversation, and, perhaps more significantly, the way we view ourselves.

Almost all men and boys will admit that, as the biography of the Sem Girl Says facebook page claims, “we’re sure there are lots of smart seminary girls.” But the fact that such a clarification need be made at all speaks to an underlying disrespect of women in the realm of Torah learning. This culture of disrespect breeds lowered expectations; with lowered expectations comes lesser results. Women who take Torah study to a level past those expectations are often other-ed, called man-haters, assumed to be radicals or else deemed exceptions to the rule, so that the values they emulate are incapable of traveling into the mainstream.

For us "Sem Girls" the stereotype has been damaging on a deeper level. Because as we have come to accept her, we have come to disrespect her, and so we disrespect ourselves. We claim we "aren't like that" or "literally hate that type of girl" and so give her veritably and power in our lives. Or we accept her as our own, become her, perfect her, until we've so twisted ourselves and this character that we can't seem to disentangle one from the other. We obsess over her rather than denying her existence.

Let’s uproot this Sem Girl and everything she’s ever said; in her place we will have room for real respect to grow, from our male counterparts and from ourselves. This respect for our characters, and for our learning will bring heightened expectations, and with heightened expectations, visible change. We can begin to expect the same commitment to Torah learning from our young girls as we do our young boys. We can begin to improve our educational institutions so as to cater to these expectations

So I would like to suggest a new viral sensation:

The premise: Jewish Girl is respected and expected to learn as much as Jewish Boy

The result: A more united, deep, complex Torah conversation.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Exposing the Truth about Sex Abuse and Cover-ups

Rabbi Yitzchok Groner (The Gaurdian)
Imagine the most respected rabbi in your community, someone that you actually know. A saintly man held in esteem by his community and beyond for many decades. An esteem that was earned by his selfless service and many contributions to his Jewish community. Imagine further that this rabbi was part of a religious segment that prided itself in its fealty to Torah, Mitzvos, and outreach… a man whose every public act was a Kiddush HaShem. 

A man everyone could point to with pride as a role model for Jewish leadership and an exemplar of our faith. A man that was admired by all – even people outside of our faith. Imagine the outpouring of public grief when such a rabbi dies. I’m sure we all know someone like that. And then it is discovered  that he had been accused of covering up sex abuse for decades in order to protect the honor of that community… indeed the honor of Judaism!  

That seems to be what happened to Rabbi Yitzchok Groner, the Chabad Shaliach to Melbourne, Australia. He was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to be his emissary there. He spent 50 years building up that community and its Chabad Yeshiva. So honored was his memory that any attempt to reveal what he had done was fiercely protected by his rabbinic heirs. Calling it a grave sin for anyone who dared to do that.

I completely understand the motivation to protect posthumously the good name Rabbi Groner built up. When the reputation of a religious icon like that is tainted, the push-back can be extreme. And in the case of Rabbi Groner, that is exactly what happened. 

A decades long series of sex abuse and cover-ups ensued. And it all came to a head after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was appointed to investigate it. And then all hell broke loose. From a lengthy article in The Guardian
Sharp divisions in the Jewish world have been exposed. Two rabbis, including one of the nation’s most prominent, have been forced from their posts. Whistleblowers, humiliated and ostracised for years by Yeshivah, have been dramatically vindicated. More victims have come forward. More criminal charges may follow. Yeshivah schools face a nightmare of civil litigation.
This is not the kind of exposure this community seeks. But it is the kind of exposure they need. Because the bottom line is the welfare of victims and the protection of children. We can see from this commission the underbelly of a community more concerned with its reputations than it is with the welfare of abuse victims and the potential danger to its young. And the picture it paints isn’t pretty.

Although it is Chabad in this case, it is not only them. It is every institution that has a reputation at stake. Whether its Satmar, Lakewood or YU. The Catholic Church or Penn State. As disgusting as it is when this kind of behavior is exposed, It is unfortunately understandable although not excusable when  a reputation built up over a lifetime of good service is protected. Denial then becomes the order of the day. 

Threats of retribution are used to protect those reputations. Warning about Mesirah are swiftly cited by rabbis as justification for not reporting abuse. Whether they believe the abuse happened or not,the idea of sacrificing the reputation of the institution for the sake of  justice is too high  a price to pay.

But by now we all know what the result of such an attitude is. Injustice; a lifetime of emotional pain for survivors, suicide, going OTD... and the danger to the community of more abuse if it is not stopped. The events in Melbourne should be instructive to us all. We cannot afford to be so blinded by the reputations of people or the institutions we admire,  that it will cost us the lives of past and future victims.  

There was a video produced by Chabad rabbis in Sydney, Australia that should be seen by everyone. I assume it was in response to all this exposure. They now know what coverups look like to the world. They all said the right things about sex abuse: Report it to the police immediately. There is no issue with Mesirah in these cases. 

It is a very touching video. It was the right thing to do. My only question is, should this arise again in any community in the world – including their own, will they heed their own words… or will they again be blinded by the prestige of a community leader and revert to their old ways of covering up? My hope is that finally the path of righteousness and justice will be followed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Working Charedim

Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim
The denial came very quickly. Former Eida HaCharedis (unofficial) spokesman Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim is featured in a Yesh Atid ad (viewable below) promoting the idea of Charedim learning secular subjects (English and math) and getting jobs. He laments the fact that a typical 45 year old Charedi doesn’t even know the English alphabet!

Mr. (Rabbi?) Pappenheim denied that he has anything to do with the Yesh Atid ad and claims this was an unauthorized use of a video he was involved in for an entirely different project. I don’t really blame him for his quick disavowal of anything to do with them. I’m sure that he doesn’t want his head handed to him. Rafi Goldmeier made note of this ad on his blog, Life in Israel and adds that if what Mr. Pappenhiem said is true, he should sue. Perhaps.

But one cannot get away from the fact that the message he sent in the video was exactly the message that Yesh Atid sends. And yet when Yesh Atid sends that message they are called Amalek. Now it’s also true that Yesh Atid was able to legislate their views into law. In effect that forces a core secular studies curriculum upon them if they want continued government funding. But the idea behind the law is identical to what Mr. Pappenheim advocates: educating Charedim out of ignorance about anything besides Torah - so that they can get better jobs.

How ironic it is that the hated (by Charedim) Yesh Atid is on the same page about working Charedim with someone like Shmuel Papenheim, a man of Meah Shearim who was weaned on the Hashkafos of the Eida HaCharedis for whom he once was spokesman. There is no greater animosity between  2 Jewish groups than there is between the Eida and Yesh Atid.

The view expressed by Rabbi Pappenheim in that video is why I still believe that Yesh Atid founder and party head, Yair Lapid is not the Rasha the Charedi world makes him out to be. Yes, he is a secular Jew with secular values. Values that are sometimes at odds with those of us that are observant. It should be no surprise for example that he endorses something like gay marriage. In this he is no different than many other liberal secular Jews. But in areas that affect Charedim the most, he wants for them the same thing that Shmuel Pappenheim wants, a Charedi community that can support themselves, their family, and contribute materially to the general welfare of Israeli society.

Despite Lapid’s past heated negative rhetoric on his Facebook page (and perhaps elsewhere) about the Charedi world (which is cited by them as proof that he is anti Charedi) I tend  to believe what he said to students at the Charedi college program at Kiryat Ono during his first campaign for the Knesset. I think that is who he really is. When a man is constantly attacked by a community that calls him the vilest of names, it shouldn’t be surprising that he ‘hits back’. He is human.

I truly believe that he does not want to hurt Charedim. He wants to help them support their families. But he also wants to equalize their obligations to the country with everyone else. He calls it ‘sharing the burden’. And that means some sort of service to country. Either via the army; or some sort of alternative ‘Sherut Leumi’ type service.

These are not the words are acts of someone who wants to destroy them. This is not someone who wants to disabuse a single Jew of his Yiddishkeit. Or a single Charedi of his values. Despite claims by Charedi leaders and politicians to the contrary.

He is not anti Charedi at all. He is pro-Charedi in his own way. He wants them to flourish. He even wants secular society to be more involved in what they do: Talmud study! Did he not publicly say that the Talmud belongs to all the Jewish people and not only Charedim?  

He even chose two religious Jews to be on his list. One of them a former Rosh Yeshiva of a Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikva, Rabbi Shai Piron. He is high on the Yesh Atid list and will surely be in the next  Kenesset – if the polls are anywhere near accurate. The other is Charedi and one of my favorite people, Rabbi Dov Lipman.

I am disappointed that it is unlikely Rabbi Lipman will be in the next Kenesset. The polls project a loss of seats by Yesh Atid and Rabbi Lipman has one of those seats. This is too bad. He is an asset to Yesh Atid and  to Charedim (even though they vehemently deny it). Unlike many Charedi cynics who saw Rabbi Lipman as a willing fig leaf for Lapid’s nefarious agenda, I saw him as fighter for improving the financial lot of Charedim whose grinding poverty seems to be greater than ever - and getting worse by the day. But Charedi leadership rebuffs him and rejects his agenda. Instead they ask for increased charity from abroad so they can continue as before without the need to learn how to support themselves.

I can understand why Charedi leaders do not want others to make decisions for them.   They believe that their own decisions are the only ones that are Torah true. The problem is that their decisions are not helping them rise out of the poverty. Their decisions are in fact doing the opposite. Increased charity from abroad is not a plan for the future.

The truth is so do the grass roots members of the Charedi world. They seem to be increasingly embracing the idea that a secular education is needed in order to improve their lives. That’s why the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), which has a Charedi track produced a humorous video (viewable below) that shows the truth about the value of a working Charedi.  And that’s why the Charedi parties might lose a seat in the next election despite their increased numbers. Working Charedim are looking elsewhere for representation of their interests. 

Interestingly, Charedi MK Rabbi Moshe Gafne denies the very existence of a classification called working Charedim. And thus does not see his mission as representing them in the Knesset. (You can’t represent people you say don’t exist.)

Perhaps things are changing. (Albeit if you ask me, far too slowly.)  And if enough Charedim become working Charedim, they may actually end up valuing an education for their children that includes a core secular studies curriculum… along the same lines many Charedi schools in America operate. If that happens, and there are enough schools that offer it - then the primary political party to thank for that will be Yesh Atid.

Update
I have been informed by Menachem Lipkin who is a close friend of MK Rabbi Dov Lipman that he received the following note from him :
"Shmuel Poppenheim signed a document saying that he was aware that the video was being used for the Yesh Atid campaign.The video was filmed by a Yesh Atid crew and Yesh Atid representatives were there."
Doesn't that speak volumes?