Sunday, January 09, 2011

Blog break

Due to a family simchah, I'm going to be offline all of this week - back around January 17th or 18th. See you back here then!


Friday, January 07, 2011

Why I hope Britain's next chief rabbi is parochial

In my Forward column this week, I ask what Britain needs from its next chief rabbi:
The announcement last month that the British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, will retire in 2013 immediately set off a flurry of speculation about potential successors. For Anglo-Jewry, this is a crucial moment. The chief rabbi is considered the leader of the community, setting its tone and priorities, and is its most prominent face to the outside world. With the last 10 holders of the post serving for an average of 28 years each, the choice will make a real difference to a shrinking community, struggling with its place in British society amid a surge of anti-Israel sentiment and the rapid growth of an often hostile Muslim population.

But do not expect another figure of Lord Sacks’s intellectual stature or prominence. Unlike in 1991, when Sacks became chief rabbi, there is no front-runner; barring surprises, the likely contenders to replace him are all competent community rabbis with little or no national profile. This is a good thing. Under Sacks and his predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits, Britain’s chief rabbi became a figure of national, and even international, importance. But that is not what British Jews need most from their next leader.
Read the whole thing and come back here to comment.

Leading rabbi domestically abused?

An absolutely bizarre story rumbling on in Jerusalem right now.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland is the elderly leader of the Shuvu Bonim community, affiliated with Braslav. Or at least, he was. It recently emerged that he had been held captive for 10 years (!) by his son and grandson, who controlled his every move, charged his followers exorbitant sums to visit him (presumably under their supervision), and took control of the institutions which Rabbi Berland supposedly headed.

A few weeks ago Rabbi Berland staged his own kidnapping and fled to the north, where he revealed to his closest followers the torment he had been through. The Jerusalem Post reported at the time:

“I was locked at home for 10 years,” he said. “They wanted to admit me to an insane asylum. Over the course of the last year, I’ve been admitted to hospitals every two weeks, because of the duress I was subject to,” he said.

The senior Berland said he’d return only on the condition that he would regain control over the community, and the security personnel surrounding him at his son and grandson’s demand be removed, thus enabling direct contact between him and his hassidim.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because the rabbi's attempts to re-take control of his community are encountering some resistance, led by his son, grandson and his own wife. In the last few days, the rabbi wrote a letter "firing" the followers he himself appointed to run the community. In an effort to prove that the rabbi is being mentally pressured by his wife, his followers bought into the public domain evidence: a "punishment note" written by the rabbi, repeating 200 times the line "I will not use the phone and cellphone without permission from my wife".

The note is here. If authentic, it is quite harrowing to look at - because it seems to be evidence of a horrible case of abuse of the elderly. And not only by his son and grandson (as one might have originally understood), but apparently by his own wife. If the facts are as presented, this seems to be domestic abuse - no less - and he needs help extricating himself from an abusive environment.

I do wonder though about his followers' behaviour. On the one hand you can read their determination to return him to his rightful place at the head of the community as an expression of love, devotion, and belief in the rabbi. On the other, it may just be part of their own power struggle, an opportunity to get rid of the rabbis' son and grandson, who are clearly nasty pieces of work. I particularly wonder at their decision to publicise the "punishment note", which may make their point, but seems disrespectful. Perhaps there are elements of both.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is that no matter how much they love him and want him back at their head, what Rabbi Berland needs right now cannot possibly be the responsibility and pressures of leadership. He needs to get away from his awful family. He needs to recover from abuse. He needs practical and emotional support and possibly therapy. I hope they can get him what he really needs, not what they need from him.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Writing a wrong

On the bright side, Israel has apparently learned one of the lessons of the al-Dura fiasco: potentially damaging lies about the IDF's conduct have to be answered very quickly in order to prevent the allegations from taking hold in the public's imagination. By the time the official, thorough IDF investigation exposes the truth, the lie has already gone halfway around the world.

Hence, in the case of Jawaher Abu Rahmah, the woman who the Palestinians claim died as a result of Israeli tear gas, the Israeli army quickly presented a list of reasons why it seems likely that she died of another cause - or at the very least, why another cause (possibly cancer) was central to her death.

On the less good side, the haste means that the IDF's report may be, well, a little shaky in parts. One of the reasons (amongst many very reasonable ones) given for their doubts about the official Palestinian version of events is that
חלק מהדו"חות הרפואיים נכתבו בכתב יד קריא וברור, בניגוד מוחלט לדו"חות רפואיים שהתקבלו בישראל בעבר.
That is, one reason why they suspected the medical reports received from the Palestinians were fake was that they were in clear and legible handwriting - and not in the usual doctors' scrawl!

Go tell that to the 9/10ths of the doctors who - despite all the jokes - stats show do actually write nicely...


Achilles heel of the gender-separate buses

Over the past few weeks, there have been complaints by the bus companies running gender-separate lines in a couple of Charedi neighbourhoods and cities that too many of the women, who get on the bus through the back door, are not paying for their journey. Now there has been a halachic ruling that avoiding paying on the bus is theft. Well, duh!

The most basic point - which has been made by many commentators - is that there seems to be a shameful distortion of values when women riding a bus designed to increase "modesty" have to be reminded not to steal.

But I wonder something else. Over the past couple of years, there have been legal challenges to the 'Mehadrin' separate bus lines, as well as protests and other actions. All to no avail, as seen today when the Supreme Court agreed that these bus lines could legally continue. But could this be the issue that will eventually defeat these bus lines? After all, the bus companies - mostly private - cannot run routes where up to 30% of passengers are getting on for free forever. If the halachic ruling does not have the desired effect, and a high proportion of women continue to steal, at some point the Mehadrin lines will become economically unviable. (Which is possibly one reason that the practise is being cracked down on.)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

As I was saying...

Some updates on stories I've written about recently:
  • A few weeks ago I predicted that the "new god" that will emerge in Europe is called Allah. Yesterday the British papers reported that the number of British converts to Islam has almost doubled in 10 years, to 1000,000.
    The report estimated around 5,200 men and women have adopted Islam over the past 12 months, including 1,400 in London. Nearly two-thirds were women, more than 70 per cent were white and the average age at conversion was 27
    It adds that the majority saw an Islamic way of life as "compatible" with living in Britain, and only 5% had adopted the burka. The conclusion has to be that if masses across Europe do end up converting, Islam may very well be as much changed by them as Europe will be by Islam - a milder local version could emerge. See also interesting comment at the end of Avraham Bronstein's post.

  • Last week I asked who in the Knesset and the media knew about Katsav's sexual misdemeanours before he was voted in as Israel's president. Since then, Shas has been accused of being fully in the know, with former leader Arieh Deri actually warning the party's spiritual mentor, Rav Ovadiah Yossef, not to vote for him for this reason. They obviously reject the charge.

    In addition, Avraham Burg, who was then Knesset speaker, claims that a Peres aide told him about allegations against Katsav and asked him to persuade Katsav to drop out of the race "for the sake of his own dignity and that of the knesset". Burg refused, claiming it was not part of his job description, and told them to go to the police if the allegations were of criminal nature.

    Granted, it was Shas who effectively stabbed Peres in the back by not voting the way they said they would; but I'm not sure why they are being picked on here. Katsav was the Likud candidate and it stands to reason that if anyone knew - and clearly, many people did - it would be those in his own party. It feels like the Likud is being let off the hook.

  • I wondered about the meaning of a strange line in the rabbinic ban on Charedi news site Vos Iz Naies, which attacked the site for writing "against ministers and politicians under whose protection we [live], in order to ruin their reputations, and the desecration of God's name is absolutely terrible". Many now think that was the key to the whole thing.

Daniel Craig, Yiddishe mama

There were quite a few broken Jewish hearts when it emerged late last year that Rachel Weisz had left hubbie Darren Aronofsky and was instead dating the rather dashing, but distinctly non-Jewish, Daniel Craig. But, rather than marrying "out", could she bring him into the faith?

According to the Evening Standard diary today (no link), the Bond star - who has played a Jew in three movies, including a Mossad agent - was spotted this week paying a visit to a deli in the tony London neighborhood of St John's Wood:
It is believed Rachel was suffering from a post-Christmas cold and considerate Craig ordered some hot chicken soup as the perfect cure for his ailing co-star.
Chicken soup: a good start. We won't read too much into the reference to Christmas (which they spent together)...

Monday, January 03, 2011

Christians celebrate their barmitzvahs

The phenomenon of non-Jews wanting barmitzvah parties has been known for quite a while, especially in the States. But I was intrigued to see that a British Christian school in Bradford is offering its pupils a 'barmitzvah programme' - adopting not the frivolous aspects, but the serious ones.
The course is in four modules:
  • Changing Me: looking at bodily changes, including emerging sexuality. Students also write an autobiography to capture the events of their childhood.
  • My place in my family: including negotiating freedoms, and taking responsibility within the home. We also look at building a relationship with the child emerging into adulthood.
  • My place in the church: considers how young people might develop their own relationship with God. Those committed to a church are encouraged to get to know the people and ministries of the church and to begin to discover their own gifts.
  • My place in the world: The United Kingdom is statistically a difficult place to grow up. Young people can be damaged through the extremes of youth culture. Teenagers spend more time away from their home in the company of their peers rather than under the supervision of their parents. This programme seeks to give young people the ability to discern their culture and to make healthy personal choices.

The year ends with a celebration evening. Each young person invites guests to a leisurely meal where the members of their class makes a presentation on a topic subject of their choice.

It sounds kind of similar to the batmitzvah programme I went through as a schoolgirl in Israel. If only most diaspora Jews took their barmitzvah year as seriously as these Christians....

(h/t: David R.)