Friday, August 22, 2008

How one Orthodox rabbi joined Conservative

The New York Jewish Week has a piece on Rabbi David Lincoln, a British-born and British-trained rabbi who has just retired from a Conservative shul in NY and is now davening in an Orthodox congregation.

He recently angered the local Orthodox community by expressing surprise, on a Jewish cable television show, that “there was no sense of outrage” in Orthodox Jewry after a series of headlines about sexual molestation and financial scandals in the community.

But what is really fascinating is how this rabbi – who received Orthodox semichah in the UK and who has the Chief Rabbi’s certificate, which allows him to serve in communities under the Chief’s auspices – ended up in a Conservative synagogue:

After two years serving an Orthodox congregation in southern England, he looked west, to the United States. He contacted the United Synagogue of America, precursor to the present United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He assumed the American organisation was Orthodox, like the United Synagogue in his home country. Impressed by his credentials, United Synagogue officials offered Rabbi Lincoln some pulpit positions, and Rabbi Lincoln quickly learned about Conservative Judaism. Theologically, “I felt very much at home,” he says.

On a serious note, this shows something about how different the British rabbinate was 40 years ago; I can’t think of many United Synagogue rabbis nowadays who would feel comfortable jumping ship like that (although some Conservative pulpits in North America are still filled by Orthodox-trained rabbis, by the way).

On a less serious note, Rabbi Lincoln may have had very impressive credentials; but had I been interviewing him, I would have been less than impressed by the amount of research he did about the organisation to which he was applying…..

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is Jewish life in the UK as bad as Americans say?

Dave Rich of the CST attempts to refute, in Ha’aretz, the accusation, heard mostly from American Jews, that Britain is a terrible place for Jews to live – beset by antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and Muslim extremists waiting to take over the country and convert us all.

He argues that while antisemitism is, undeniably, on the rise, the community is prosperous and well-integrated, and that our defences against antisemitism – in terms of monitoring organizations like the CST, government awareness etc - are solid.

“This is not the 1930s,” he writes, “and a sense of proportion and balance is vital.”

Similar defensive pieces pop up with alarming regularity – see here and here, for example.

So who is right? The American Jews – or the Brits? How are we to understand such different perceptions of what it means to be a British Jew today?

The easy answer is that Americans are simply relying on press reports and have no idea what daily life here is really like. But the real answer, I think, goes deeper – and both groups are, in a sense, right.

The Brits are comparing life here today to life 20, 30, 50 years ago. By those standards, Jewish life in the UK really is very good. There is no question that we are far, far better integrated than we were a generation ago, thanks, in part, to the multicultural ethos which has become so dominant. Antisemitism may be on the up – but from a relatively low base; most of us have never experienced antisemitism on a personal level at all. We are a more confident, more proud, more open community than we used to be – see for example the annual Simchah on the Square celebration and this year’s Israel parade through the streets of the capital. It is easier than ever to be Jewish in this country, with a booming kosher food / restaurant industry, a wide choice of Jewish schools and extensive Jewish programming - for example through the JCC. There is a lot about which to be positive.

The Americans, meanwhile, are comparing British Jewish life to American Jewish life. By those standards, things here are uncomfortable. The levels of anti-Zionism (and occasionally antisemitism) with which we put up in our media, and often in public discourse, are inconceivable to an American audience. Jews are far more dominant there in popular culture, the media is far more sympathetic to Israel and casual antisemitism in far more politically incorrect than it is here. Their Jewish organisations are also far more vocal and aggressive than ours, when there is need for action (for example, in the one area where American Jews still do complain of harassment – campus life – students have strong support the wider community leadership). Moreover, Jewish life is far more developed in the major communities in terms of facilities, schools, etc.

Of-course, life being (possibly) better elsewhere does not make life here “bad”. And while there is, undeniably, a certain level of anxiety in the UK community about the future here, on balance, I think daily life is good here for most Jews. But there’s no point trying to argue that with members of a community coming from such a different experience. At the end of the day, quality of life, including quality of Jewish life, is entirely a subjective matter.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jews in the middle of nowhere: Lubavitch blogs them

Chabad are certainly the PR masters.

Each summer, some 400 young rabbis are sent to far-flung communities in order to make contact with local Jews, as part of a programme called 'Roving Rabbis'. This year they are running a blog about their experiences - which is actually quite interesting.

In this post, for example, two young Lubavitchers meet a mental patient at a top-security hospital in Connecticut:

X came up to us and we slowly ambled on into a conference room. It seems that last year he was in an intensive security wing, while now he's in minimum, which means that he has a lot more freedom. After introducing ourselves, we began to discuss Judaism.

He's a fan of Mussar and we talked about how Mussar and Chassidus differ. This distinction colored the rest of our discussion, which ranged from reward and punishment to heaven and hell, Gan Eden and the world of Moshiach, suffering in Jewish thought, and the purpose of our existence. I did most of the talking and congratulate myself on having made at least a bit of sense. Once we were finished, X put on Tefillin and we parted amicably.

In the middle of our discussion on Teshuva, wherein I mentioned that Teshuva is properly not repentance but rather return, he mentioned something along the lines of "Well, I did a big sin. I killed my parents." I didn't quite know what to say, and just responded with a "hmm". The conversation continued unabated, and I explained how no one is inherently evil, no matter how heinous a crime he or she has committed. If anything, their soul has merely become covered; all they really need to do is wipe off the grime.

Once we got back to the Chabad House, I of course asked the rabbi to explain what was going on here. In short: X was never all there mentally. At one point he wanted to go and study in Israel. His parents told him that he couldn't. He killed them both with furniture. He was found not guilty on grounds of insanity, and spent the next 16 years in a maximum security hospital.

When we visited X, he seemed perfectly normal. When I look back at our conversation, I think "Wow, he knows something about good and evil, huh?"

See also this cute entry from Bristol, in which the shluchim think they are going to find 'a ton of Jews' at a local hot air balloon festival; and this rather touching post from Ireland.


Monday, August 18, 2008

How many religious youth become secular?

Tzohar, a (usually) wonderful group that does much to advance religious-secular relations in Israel, held its annual conference recently - and for once focused on issues affecting the religious community. One of the topics that came up was how Orthodox parents deal with children who leave the path of religion.

In the course of Ha'aretz's piece on the conference, reporter Yair Sheleg comes up with this astonishing claim:

Prof. Shraga Fischerman of Orot Israel College in the West Bank settlement of Elkana, who chaired the session on children who leave religion, said that about 25 percent of religious Zionist youths "defect" to secular lifestyles.

This seems to be extremely high - especially compared to the diaspora. A book I recently read - and reviewed here for The Forward - on the effects of taking a gap year in yeshivah in Israel included a throw-away line from Chaim Waxman, professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, who claims that, “According to estimates… more than 10 percent of the participants [in the Year in Israel program] leave Orthodoxy within five years of returning home.”

If either of these statistics are true - and based on proper research rather than just guesstimates - it would be interesting to know why the drop-out rate in Israel seems to be so much higher than in the US.

Either way, a 25 per cent drop-out rate seems to me to be indicative of a community crisis - and not just a problem for individuals to contend with privately.

'This weird guy'

The former long-time Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Mohammad Bassiouni, has provoked the wrath of the Egyptian authorities after claiming that he was sent to Israel primarily as a spy; calling Ariel Sharon a "sleeping corpse"; and confirming allegations that Nasser's brother-in-law, Ashraf Marwan, who fell off a balcony in London late last year in mysterious circumstances, was a double agent working for both the Israelis and the Egyptians.

But one magnificent quote stands head-and-shoulders above the rest:

Bassiouni said that when he brought Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to meet Mubarak, the latter was angry at him and bluntly said, “What are you doing bringing me this weird guy?”

On no other issue does Mr Mubarak speak for so many Israelis....

Friday, August 15, 2008

Julie Burchill's semichah programme

Julie Burchill - the most enthusiastic advocate of Jews and Zionism in the British media - has made an amazing discovery:

Dawkins' critique of Judaism seems way too aggressive, when one compares it to the excesses of other belief systems. The oldest and least evangelical of the monotheistic religions, it is also arguably the most civilised and liberal; there are female judges and rabbis in the Old Testament, which makes the C of E's foot-dragging over the ordination of women look a bit sad.

Female rabbis in the Old Testament? With Julie Burchill as their advocate, Rabbi Sacks just might be in trouble....

(Hat tip: Simon Rocker)

Why I hope the case against Olmert proceeds

The key witness in one of the several cases against Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, American businessman Morris Talansky, has declared that he won’t be returning to Israel in order to complete his testimony.

Olmert’s people say this shows how unreliable a witness he is – and leaves the prosecution’s case in tatters. The prosecution retorts that its case is still strong, and that Olmert will still be indicted.

And I hope the prosecution is right.

Why? After all, having a former Prime Minister in the dock – and convicted – will be a major embarrassment and a tragedy, particularly in a country in which confidence in the political system has reached an all-time low.

But I worry that having the prosecution’s case fail would be even worse.

Although there have, recently, been a couple of convictions of minor MKs – Naomi Blumenthal and Haim Ramon – Israeli police have now gone after quite a string of very senior politicians with very few cases ever coming to court, let alone ending with a guilty verdict.

Serious corruption investigations which went nowhere were launched against, amongst others, former PMs Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. None of them were ever charged with any wrongdoing, but the cases seriously damaged their reputations and hampered their ability to function in the political arena.

Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon fired minister Joseph Paritzky in 2004 after he was accused of attempting to incriminate a political rival – but the case was closed for lack of evidence in 2005. The Attorney General this week decided to close a corruption file against Tourism Minister Ruchama Avraham which goes back to 2004, due to lack of evidence. Similarly, he dropped one of his criminal investigations against former minister Avigdor Lieberman this week, although he will continue several others; the file against MK Lieberman goes back at least as far as 2001, so far with no charges. The trial of former environment minister Tsachi Hanegbi, for handing out government jobs to his political allies, has been dragging on since 2005. Only the embezzlement case against former finance minister Avraham Hirschson, for theft and fraud, actually seems to be moving.

All these dead-ends are bad enough. But this time round, the prosecutors have actually forced the resignation of a prime minister. This is an extremely serious result, which cannot be taken lightly. Should it emerge that the prosecution’s case was built on sand; or that they cannot carry the case through because their main witness won’t appear – this will truly devastate confidence in the police and the legal system, which many already suspect of deliberately targeting certain politicians for political reasons.

Clearly, I would not want Olmert to be convicted of anything of which he is not actually guilty. But for the law enforcement authorities to emerge once again as destabilising and distorting Israel’s politics on a flimsy basis would be a true blow to the rule of law, from which the country would find it hard to recover.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What to read today

-- A court in Illinois has struck down a will by a couple who stipulated that their grandchildren would only receive their inheritance if they married within the Jewish faith. This piece argues the decision was correct

-- London isn’t the only place where an eruv fight has turned ugly:

An anti-eruv ad in a local weekly asked, “Is Westhampton Beach an Orthodox Jewish Community? ... Don’t let it happen.” E-mails and rumors have warned that local shops were being coerced into closing on Saturdays.

-- Honest Reporting asks why The Guardian includes the “Hamas military wing” in its list of “useful links”

-- Good question: how will the credit crunch affect rates of aliyah? The cost of Jewish living is probably lower in the UK than in the US – as most of us don’t have to pay the same kind of school fees to send our children to Jewish schools – however, the drop in property prices might affect us more….

-- The LA Jewish Journal examines the contradictions of Bob Saget (of Full House fame)

Even when he's riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.
"We have a great synagogue -- the rabbi will marry a man to a goat," he said. "It's Reconstructionist -- they'll do gay marriage if you need it, they'll do interfaith -- and interfaith's nothing after a goat."

-- AB Yehoshua laments Israeli corruption in The Guardian. Some of the comments question whether this was the right forum for this piece

-- A ‘chnyok’ nowdays is a derogatory term used by religious people for the ‘holier than thou’ super-observant. But what did it originally mean? Some suprising answers

-- Is Lindsay Lohan converting to Judaism?

-- The NY Times suddenly cottons on to the fact that there is a Jewish dating scene on the Upper West Side. I suppose that wouldn't have anything to do with the recent piece on Jewish dating in the Wall Street Journal?


L'chaim! Even in the grave

The Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) was recently confronted with an unusual halachic question. As their press release explains:
A German Jew who passed away had expressed as his last will a peculiar request: to be buried together with a bottle of Vodka.

As the community rabbi heard this weird request, he immediately contacted the RCE's office in order to forward this question to one of the RCE's halachic experts in order to determine if it is permissible to place a bottle of vodka in the grave of the man. The Jew emigrated from Russia in the 70s and was not connected to the local Jewish community. However, a good friend of his, a regular participant of community events and an acquaintance of the local Rabbi, delivered this last message of his friend to the rabbi.

"Every day he would drink a half a glass of Vodka in the morning and a half in the evening", he told the rabbi.

This ostensibly odd question actually raises a serious halachic dilemma. On the one hand it is of extreme importance to fulfill the last wish of a Jew, but on the other hand it is unacceptable to bury any object together with the body of a deceased person.

Rabbi Yaacov Rozhe, who serves as chairman of the Zaka Rabbinical Council and as representative of the chief Rabbinate of Israel in the Medical Institute of Abu Kabir, to which the question was forwarded, replied that there is no halachic prohibition of placing the bottle near the coffin but under no circumstances may it be placed in the coffin, nor beneath it so that no object interposes between the coffin and the ground.

With the implementation of this ruling the man and the bottle passed away side by side…

So a happy ending then.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Is it safe to fly in and out of Ben-Gurion airport?

This week, I wrote about the serious security implications of the story of the little girl who got left behind at Ben-Gurion airport while her family flew on to Paris.

How, I asked, could an airplane take off from such a security-sensitive airport with luggage on board that did not belong to any passenger? Isn't this a basic security no-no?

Now it emerges that the same problem exists on planes coming into Israel. As Haim Watzman blogs:
Here I am stuck in New Jersey, while the four suitcases checked by me and Ilana are in flight. In other words, while security at Kennedy International Airport kept Ilana and me from bringing hand cream into the secure area, our luggage was allowed to fly on its own to Israel. If a terrorist wanted to blow up an airplane, would he rather use a jar of Ponds or a large valise?

Meanwhile, the American Federal Aviation Administration has uncovered other serious security flaws at Israeli airports:

The FAA cited a lack of proper supervision from civilian authorities as the major problem affecting flight safety. Among other findings, the FAA found that Ben-Gurion International Airport suffers from serious flight safety shortcomings and cited Israel's especially crowded airspace as a serious safety concern.

The FAA critique comes after a civilian committee headed by former Israel Air Force Amos Lapidot issued findings a year ago highlighting severe shortcomings in flight safety at Israeli airports. The Lapidot public committee found that aviation safety in Israel is in a "catastrophic state."

The panel's final report criticized the infrastructure at Ben Gurion International Airport, legislation pertaining to the matter, and air traffic control systems, adding that Israel has not fully seen the technological developments of the last decades in the field of air traffic control. They called to increase supervision on air traffic control systems, and to better train the controllers, many of whom do not always speak in English or use the proper terminology.

Amos Lapidot resigned from his post as head of the committee in charge of examining flight safety two months ago, reportedly because the committee would not implement his recommendations.

The FAA is due to submit its final report in just under 90 days. There is a possibility that it will severely reduce the number of flights on the US-Israel route.

While I, of-course, in no way wish to see Israel suffering an economic blow, perhaps the threat of losing so much money and making it difficult to travel to America will be more effective than the "mere" threat of a catastrophic loss of human life - and those responsible will implement some urgent solutions.

Friday, August 08, 2008

When husbands used their wives' maiden names

The Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, recently called on women to take on their husband's surname.

As a married woman who (mostly) still uses her maiden name, I am grateful to blogger Lion of Zion for providing this fascinating reminder that the way we allocate surnames has changed greatly throughout the centuries - and that a woman taking on her husband's name was not, historically, the only Jewish practice.

As he explains:

If it is so deleterious to a marriage when the wife uses her maiden name, how much worse would it be for the husband to take on that name for himself (rachmana litzlan - G-d forbid)?

A famous example of a husband using a name from his wife's family is R. Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century. His father's name was not Salant; rather, he adopted it from his second wife's father, R. Yosef Zundel of Salant.

Even before the adoption of surnames -- which, contrary to popular opinion, was already in limited use centuries before the Austrian edicts of the 1780s -- there may be evidence that some Jews chose to identify themselves by their fathers-in-law rather than the standard ploni ben ploni.

Records from the Jews of medieval England list some names as ploni the son-in-law of ploni or ploni the brother-in-law of ploni (click here. I don't know the information on this website is reliable)...

Likewise, some Jews in Galicia (and elsewhere?) used "names that indicated son-in-law of" (click here)...

This website (unverified) notes the following concerning R. (Yehuda) Leib Eskeles of Olkusz (Elkesh), near Krakow (17th c.?):

Rabbi Yehuda [Leib Eskeles] married the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Israel Hendels of Krakow. As it was often the case, R' Yehuda Leib, entering the family of his father-in-law was known under this surname and was known as "Rav Leib Hendels" (and not Leib Eskeles)...

Finally, not all newlyweds in Europe registered their marriages with the secular authorities (like today, although probably for different reasons). In such cases wives continued to use their maiden names by default and their children were even registered with their mothers' surnames as illegitimate children (click here).

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Benzion Dunner's inquest is a wake-up call for the Charedi community

So Benzion Dunner, a pillar of Charedi society, had cocaine in his system when he died, according to his inquest. Whatever next?

The temptation for the Charedi community will be to suppress this genuinely shocking story, internally, altogether. But since it has been widely reported in the national press this may prove impossible.

And a good thing, too.

Benzion Dunner was not some kid smoking dope behind a bicycle shed, who can be dismissed as a “problem child” unrepresentative of the Charedi community. He was the best, the brightest, the kindest, the frummest, the richest, the most generous of his group. If a man of his calibre was taking drugs - and knew where to find them - you can sure there are many others. And while there is no suggestion he had a regular drug habit, are we really to believe that he had only ever tried it once – to celebrate Purim, the day before he died? Cocaine is a highly addictive Class A drug which is not for beginners – or anyone.

Last week, 200 Charedim chased an American rabbi down a street in Stamford Hill, because he campaigned against Charedi pedophiles. It is high time the community recognised that it is not immune to the addiction problems and social ills of the secular world. Because without admitting the problems, it has no chance of dealing with them.

If the tragedy of Benzion Dunner is not treated as a serious wake-up call, what will be?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Is alcoholism on the rise in the Orthodox community?

Newsweek is running a piece on the supposed rise of alcoholism among American Jews, particularly Jewish ones.

The assertion is unsupported by any real figures - numbers about "Israelis younger than 33" do nothing to shed light on trends in the Orthodox community in the diaspora - but anecdotally, I can believe there probably has been such a rise (no word on whether there is a similar trend in the UK).

In addition, while the article goes some way to explaining why alcohol addiction among Jews has traditionally been low, it never really even attempts to explain why that might be changing now.

Doing a little research on the web, I was fascinated to come across this piece from Time magazine in 1958, about a Yale study asking why there is so little alcoholism in the Jewish community. It includes the following strange theory, which I have never heard before:

...A more convincing theory, [Yale Sociology Professor Charles R.] Snyder believes, is the Jewish emphasis on food, "so that 'compulsive' eating is more likely to be selected as a means of alleviating psychic tensions [than] addictive drinking." He cites one psychological study showing that Jewish mothers' anxiety about their children's eating often causes the Jewish child to remain an infant, "so far as taking food is concerned, much later than other children.

Could the much lamented death of the Jewish mother -- and the diet culture -- be responsible for our descent into alcoholism???