Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why I Disagree

Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikva (Forward) shown for illustrative purposes only
It is a principled resignation. But it is one with which I disagree. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has resigned from the Bet Din L’Giyur,  the conversion court in Bergen County, New Jersey - sanctioned by Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) and the Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) adopted by them in 2007. 

After a long explanation published in Cross Currents about his highly rewarding service in this regard - detailing some of the process itself, he now feels – if I understand him correctly - that there is an intrusive spirit in the RCA. One that emanates from sources less concerned with Halacha than they are with cultural causes like feminism. Which imputes false motives  to rabbis involved with conversions. Here is how he puts it:
Now, the recent, voluminous and tendentious writings on conversion, the media testimonies of converts and the agenda of feminists would have us believe that conversion is all about sex, power and money. It is about evil men looking to dominate women and lusting after lucre. That is a vulgar distortion of reality. They have taken a sublime and pure moment and made it prurient and ugly. For sure, I blame my DC colleague for this situation, but also those who have exaggerated the problem and impute guilt and suspicion to every rabbi and Bet Din.
Rabbi Pruzansky feels that the standards of conversion called for by the GPS and observed by the RCA (although there seems to have been a renegade faction that did not abide by these rules) were sufficient in guaranteeing the privacy and sanctity of the conversion process. 

My guess is that he’s probably right. Indeed to the best of my knowledge there has been no significant complaint by any convert about abuses of the GPS process since it was adopted 7 years ago. And - again as he rightly points out - the recent scandal is not a system failure but an individual one.

Rabbi Pruzansky therefore objects to the formation of a new committee to review the conversion process:
(T)he RCA has just appointed a committee “that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses.” The committee consists of six men and five women, bolstering the trend on the Orthodox left to create quasi-rabbinical functions on women. Is there a role for women to play in “suggest[ing] safeguards against possible abuse”? Probably, although it really is self-understood. But what role can they play in “review[ing]” the GPS conversion process? That is halacha, minhag, psak – a purely rabbinical role.
Here is where I part company with him. He makes assumptions about what this new committee will do and that decisions will be made by laypeople with agendas rather than by rabbis with the knowledge and expertise about the Halachos of conversions. He says that some of the members of this new committee were never on board with the GPS; never followed its guidelines;  and will now have a chance to water down the conversion process to a point where it may not ‘comport with the requirements of Torah’.

I agree that some of the impetus for this is media driven. Surely all the media ink (both real and virtual) spilled on this subject militates for an RCA response.  But to say that is the primary reason for it is to be unfairly cynical of the motives of its members. I believe that the RCA is primarily driven by a concern for the welfare of the potential convert whose trust has been breached by this scandal and must now be restored. If one looks at who comprises the membership of this committee, one would be hard pressed to attribute anything but the purest of motives.

I can’t speak for all of the members. But if Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beis Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) is on this committee, then it has my blessing. And it should have the blessing of anyone who cares about Judaism. He is one of the most respected jurists in the Orthodox world. There is no way he would sit on any committee that does not abide by Halacha first.

That there are women on this committee is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. Rabbi Pruzansky’s fear that women will be Paskening is misplaced. Their purpose, I assume, is to give have input to the Halachic decisions to be made. I can’t think of anyone better to advise rabbis on issues concerning conversions of females than female converts. It would  be ridiculous not to include them. At the risk of using an analogy - it would be like deciding how to properly treat victims of abuse without getting any input from them.

As Rabbi Pruzansky suggests, the conversion process can be a sublime experience for a rabbi. To me there is nothing more inspiring than a non Jew deciding to become one. It is about truth seeking and finding it in Judaism. And after finding it - transforming one’s life despite all the challenges and obstacles. It is a form of great Mesiras Nefesh to give up entirely one’s past life of freedom in order to embrace a life full of rules that are difficult to follow. Especially if you haven’t been raised to follow them.

They nevertheless do so because they now know it’s right. A Ger Tzedek (righteous convert) towers above us all. Because they are doing it entirely L’Shma despite all their new hardships. They are the best people among us. It would be a shame to lose them because of a fear and a mistrust generated by a scandal. That negative impression needs to be corrected. The RCA is doing just that.

Rabbi Pruzansky humbly insists that his participation in the process is not indispensable. He feels that he is not harming the process by his resignation. This is true. There are probably other qualified rabbis that can fill his shoes. He quotes Charles de Gaulle  who said that graveyards are full of indispensable men. I’m therefore sure that his resignation will be accepted without any reservation. I wish him well.  I don’t however think his fears will be borne out. He says he hopes that he will be proven wrong. I think he will be.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Sexual Harassment Becomes the Norm

Stephanie Doucette
There has been so much written about the Freundel ‘Peeping Tom’ scandal that some might feel they are on ‘information overload’. I wouldn’t blame them. This is actually my 4th piece on the subject. So forgive me if I am adding to that ‘overload’. I hadn’t intended to write about it again. But something struck me in the Forward’s latest editorial about it that in my view deserves comment.

Quoting from a story in the New York Jewish Week by Stephanie Doucette (a 22-year-old graduate student who became uncomfortable with Freundel shortly after she began the process of conversion with him) - she writes: 
Although I was very cautious around him, I continued my conversion,” Doucette wrote in the New York Jewish Week. “Then, some time later, I began having issues with some of the male congregants saying sexually inappropriate things to me. It was at that point that I went to Rabbi Freundel for help, but he seemed to simply shrug the problem off and explained that as a young, attractive female, this was going to happen in any community. He then remarked that if he were younger and single he would be interested in me as well.”
Although this did not merit an independent comment in the editorial, I don’t think it should be glossed over. What kind of society do we live in when there are Orthodox men who think it’s OK to say sexually inappropriate things to a woman. Is this not sexual harassment? And what kind of rabbi shrugs it off when a woman he mentors for conversion tells him that?

Well we now know what kind of man Freundel (alledgedly) is. But what about the men in that Shul who sexually harassed her? Is that standard operating procedure in the Modern Orthodox world? Is it so ‘standard’  that even the rabbi’ shrugs it off?!  Is it so standard that even Ms. Doucette thought it unworthy of taking it any further?!

There is something definitely wrong with this picture. I don’t know to what such behavior can be attributed other than the culture in which we live. I have often criticized the right for shunning the culture. I still feel they are mistaken in the lengths they go to avoid it. But at the same time I can’t help but think that what one experiences through the general culture contributes mightily to this kind of behavior. 

The entertainment media is full of socially inappropriate comments between men and women.  Comments with heavily sexual connotations.   When one emerses themselves too much in that culture, it is easy to become a part of it. So that the language used therein becomes your own. The casual nature of intimate relationships seen even on broadcast television where there actually is a degree of censorship (believe it or not) can easily be adopted among religious Jews. They can become so used to seeing and hearing it on TV that they think it’s normal to act that way. On a TV sitcom such comments can be seen as cute and even humorous. But in real life they are an assault to a woman’s honor and dignity.

As someone who advocates interaction with the culture, I am disappointed that there are people influenced by it to the point of emulating it.  As moral and ethical Jews we should be able to separate ourselves from the behavior seen on TV or any other entertainment forum. We are better than that. We have to know who and what we are. The Torah tells us that we are a ‘Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kadosh’ - a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is our mandate. We ought to behave like it. 

It’s one thing to see a morally questionable character that might be glorified in the context of a TV show. But it is another to mimic that behavior and think it’s just being clever and cute. It isn’t. It’s insulting and embarrassing. As Ms. Doucette pointed out.

I understand that not everyone ‘apes’ what they see on TV and in the movies. Perhaps most of us don’t. But there are enough of us that do… and it ought to stop.

Why do some people do it and others don’t? That is a complicated question that probably has to do with parenting, peer pressure, and the genetic predisposition to such behavior. But it doesn’t matter. It’s wrong. If one is predisposed to it, then they may have to work doubly hard to prevent it. Whatever it takes.

It wouldn’t hurt to have more public discussions by the religious community leadership. Like public lectures about what is and isn’t appropriate casual behavior between the sexes.

I would hate to think that avoiding the culture entirely is the only way to prevent bad behavior. Because that would result in the kind of isolation that would in my view result in a whole different set of problems. Which can result in behavior just as bad or even worse.  As was the case of sexual abuse by another high profile rabbi in one of his conversions cases a few years ago.  There has to be a happy medium between over-exposure and no exposure. Because either extreme is bad.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Proud to be a Jew and an American

19 F-35s being sold to Israel - the first country outside of the US to fly them
Pride. That’s what I feel when I read a story in the JerusalemPost (republished at VIN) like this: 
Israel’s military is the most powerful in the Middle East while its air force ranks second to none globally, according to a new study conducted by military experts for the publication Business Insider. 
The publication ranked the 15 strongest armies in the region while noting the size of the countries’ respective defense budgets as well as the latest geopolitical tumult and its impact on military strength.

This is yet another demonstration that the ‘People of the Book’ seem to excel at virtually everything they (we) do. If this sounds like I’m bragging about the Jewish people – I am. Guilty as charged.

We have a lot to be proud of in our long history. Despite persecution throughout the ages, We the Jewish people have always managed to not only survive, but to thrive. The corpus of Jewish literature produced over time is so huge, that one could study it day and night for a lifetime and never fully complete it. And that’s just religious literature.  Add all of the non religious literature into the mix and several lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to cover it all.

Given a little freedom, our accomplishments explode. The list of Jewish Nobel laureates in all fields is eye popping.  And a much greater percentage by far than our percentage of the world’s population. And now it isn’t only our intellectual prowess and artistic talent that has been noted for excellence, it is our military prowess too, specifically in our air force.

Is it any wonder that the Jewish people are so admired? Not long ago a poll revealed that the most admired religion in America is Judaism. 

When it comes to Israel’s military superiority in the region, I guess you can say that necessity breeds success. Israel is surrounded by enemies that would wipe it off the map if it could. Israel has no choice but to maintain a qualitative military advantage over everyone else in the region. Which is one reason it is so strong. It has to be.

But will, determination, and talent is not enough.  It should not go unnoticed that Israel’s qualitative edge would not exist without the United States. They have given Israel the means. Their military has some of the most advanced weaponry and military equipment in the world, thanks to the United States. And now the US is selling them even more. From Arutz Sheva
(T)he Israel Aerospace Industries, together with representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Defense announced Tuesday that Israel will acquire a new squadron of F-35 jets from the US Army and Lockheed-Martin.
The transaction was finalized, in theory, last week between Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, during Ya'alon's US visit.
However, the deal will not be finalized in practice until the US government signs off on the deal in a public announcement.
As part of the deal, the IDF will receive 19 "stealth" aircraft at a cost of $2.7 billion, which will be deducted from US aid funds to Israel.
As early as 2016, Israeli pilots will train on the new aircraft at a US Air Force base in Arizona. 
So, yes, we have a lot to pat ourselves on the back about. But one thing we should always remember and be grateful for is the United States of America. Because even when there is disagreement between Israel and the United States (as there is now about Israel’s building expansion in East Jerusalem), the US still ‘has our back’ (to us the President’s terminology).

That is why I am so proud to – not only be a Jew – but to be an American. And once again I want to publicly express gratitude - Hakoras HaTov to this great ‘nation of kindness’ called America. And Acharon Acharon Choviv  - to God for granting the Jewish people the wisdom and skill to achieve great things and for protecting His people.

Fighting Eating Disorders in Yerushalyim

by Rabbi Shmuel Jablon

Eating Disorders- A Deadly Disease

In recent years, the Orthodox community has awoken to the need to battle eating disorders.  Eating disorders, primarily anorexia and bulimia, have one of the highest mortality rates of any psychological disorder (link).  Orthodox Jews are far from immune to eating disorders (link).   

Factors such as exposure to general media, genetics, communal pressures and other psychological illnesses (such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder) make us as susceptible to eating disorders as the general population. Orthodox Jews of all kinds are victims.  As we are all too aware, denial of the problem and reluctance to get treatment threatens lives.

In Israel, eating disorders are also prevalent in all segments of the community.  However, there are limited options for intensive treatment.  In addition, there are almost no options for treatment within an Orthodox setting.  This makes it far less comfortable for Orthodox Jews to seek help. 

Mercaz Female- Filling the Gap, Fighting to Save Lives

About one year ago, Mercaz Female in Yerushalayim opened its doors to fill this critical gap.  It is the only intensive, outpatient center established by and for Orthodox Jews.  Patients come from all segments of the Orthodox community.  Patients come two to three times a week for counselling from psychologists, dieticians, mentors and an art therapist.  Parents are involved in weekly family therapy.  The clinical staff works closely with patients’ family doctors and (if applicable) psychiatrists.  English speaking therapists are available for immigrants and students whose treatment needs to be in English. 

The fact that the clinical staff is highly trained, totally dedicated and Orthodox helps make it very successful in serving Orthodox families.  Over the past year, Mercaz Female has successfully helped all its patients to be able to return to school or work, and to avoid the need for more intensive, inpatient treatment.  The staff wants to reach even higher levels of excellence.  Therefore, Mercaz Female has a partnership with Professor Moriah Golan’s Shahaf Institute in Tel Aviv, one of the most successful eating disorders treatment centers in Israel.  Though the Shahaf Institute is not Orthodox, the members of Mercaz Female’s clinical staff recognize their wealth of knowledge and experience.  They learn from Shahaf’s staff eight hours monthly, and apply what they’ve learn to Mercaz Female’s setting.

You can learn more about Mercaz Female, and about eating disorders, at

Helping Mercaz Female Save Lives:

The biggest challenge to Mercaz Female’s work is economic.  Most of the patients come from families that are low to middle income.  They cannot possibly afford more than a fraction of the cost of treatment.  Though treatment costs of about $1800 monthly are not high by American standards, for many of the patients’ families this may be most of their entire after-tax pay check!  At the same time, unlike other private clinics, Mercaz Female does not want to turn away needy people who need lifesaving treatment.  In fact, the goal is help additional patients and to add educational programs to spread awareness in the community. 

Naturally, all of this costs money.  If Mercaz Female is going to fulfill its holy mission, it is critical to find additional supporters who will contribute funds to help save lives.  HaRav Shlomo Aviner recently wrote that such contributions fulfill both the mitzvah of tzedakah and of pikuach nefesh!

Readers of Emes ve’Emunah are known to be caring people who want to solve problems and help others.  Therefore, I am hoping that you will help Mercaz Female save lives by making a contribution today.

In the United States, tax deductible donations may be made out to the Central Fund for Israel with Mercaz Female in the “memo.”  Please mail your check to: Mercaz Female, c/o Jablon, 4393 Park Vicente, Calabasas, CA 91302.  Mercaz Female will receive 100% of your gift.

In Canada, tax deductible donations may be made out to Beth Oloth, with Mercaz Female in the memo.  Please mail your check to: Beth Oloth, 32 Brookview Drive, Toronto, On M6A 2K2. Mercaz Female will receive 100% of your gift.

In Israel, please mail your check to: Mercaz Female, Rechov HaIluy #9, Kiryat Moshe, Yerushalayim.   Please note that Americans living in Israel who would like a U.S. tax deduction and have a U.S. checking account may make their American checks out to the Central Fund for Israel with Mercaz Female in the memo.

For more information, including making contact with our clinical staff if you are in Israel and you or a loved one need help, contact
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Monday, October 27, 2014

Jerusalem, the Eternal Capital of Israel

Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky and his son, Menachem Binyamin
Should the United States recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? Yes, I think it should. Does it matter to me if they do?  As an Orthodox Jew, I may be a minority of one on this issue, but I could not care less about whether there is an official recognition of that by the United States or any other country.

That may surprise a few people. Since I am such a big supporter of the State, why wouldn’t I like the international community to recognize Israel’s capital, Jerusalem? Well, I would like them to. But I don’t really care that much if they do or don’t.

For me and for every other religious Jew; or any Jew with a sense of history, Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel. This belief extends even beyond the Jewish community. Certainly Christians believe it. As should anyone with an appreciation of the bible. Or at least they should understand it. It is where the seat of Israel’s government is.

So why don’t I care? To the best of my knowledge - that the US doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has no bearing on anything of significance at all.  The relationship between the US and Israel has never been stronger despite some disagreements between the 2 countries. And most world governments recognize and support Israel’s right to exist and have embassies there.  This despite their incessant criticism of Israel’s settlements policy. And recent public pronouncements by friendly countries like Great Britain to recognize the - as of yet non existent - State of Palestine. From their myopic point of view, they may feel it’s the right thing to do. But that in no way means they do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. They do. They don’t recognize Israel’s capital?! So what?!

The reason the US and almost every other country does not recognize Israel’s capital is simply because they do not want to upset the Arabs and much of the Muslim world that claims Jerusalem for themselves.

What would happen if the US did all of a sudden change their policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Probably nothing. The Arabs might complain. But I doubt there would be any negative repercussions. Especially if the recognition would only extend to West Jerusalem.

But at the same time there would be no material benefit for Israel from doing that either. I’m sure that the US sees that and says, ‘Why change a policy that has been in effect since the establishment of the State? One that has not really harmed anyone and from which no one will gain? ‘Why rock the boat?!’ ‘What if it did "provoke uproar throughout the Arab and Muslim world."’? ‘Is it worth it?’

Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky’s credentials are beyond impressive and his accomplishments in both the religious and academic sphere make him a man with few peers. Needless to say, I am a fan. Rabbi Zivotofsky’s wants his son, Menachem, to be considered by the United States to have been born in Israel, not just in Jerusalem without a country. He is challenging the United States on this issue in the Supreme Court. From an article in USA Today
Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky just turned 12.
For 11 of those years, he has been the protagonist in a legal battle that the U.S. government warns could "provoke uproar throughout the Arab and Muslim world." Now the Supreme Court is weighing in — for the second time.
Young Menachem's offense? He was born in Jerusalem. His parents, Ari and Naomi, want his birthplace listed as "Israel" on his passport. But ever since Israel was recognized in 1948, the official U.S. policy has been that Jerusalem is a city unto itself. 
Many people seem to be bothered by the lack of US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or even that it is a part of Israel.  

I’m not sure why this is such an urgent matter. Some of my own grandchildren were born in Jerusalem and don’t have Israel listed on their US passports. And I could not care less about that. 

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court will be hearing the case shortly… and come to a decision. Whatever they decide will be fine with me. But I wouldn’t have brought this case to them. This is not a hill I want to die on. If I were going to petition any of the 3 branches of the US government about Israel, it would not be on this issue.

I know all the arguments in favor of it. And I don’t even disagree with them. One such argument is that even in the circumstance that there will be a 2 state solution  where East Jerusalem would become the capital of the Palestinian state (as was agreed to in the Oslo Accords by then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak) no one says that West Jerusalem would not remain in Israeli hands. Why not recognize at least West Jerusalem as a part of Israel and its capital? I think that’s right. But as I said, Who cares?

It is also a fact that during their campaigns all Presidential candidates have pledged to move the US embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  And they never do it once elected. Does that bother me? Not really.

So even though I would be happy for Rabbi Zivotofsky if the Supreme Court rules in his favor, I don’t see how that will enhance the quality of anyone’s life anywhere. Nor will it bring peace to Israel. Is it the right thing for the US to do? Yes. Definitely. Does it matter even a whit to me? No. I know the truth.  Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel. Who cares if the world doesn’t say so? Yet.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Fight Over Charedi Leadership in Israel

Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman
One of the saddest developments in the Charedi world in Israel is the current split in their ranks. It seems that the animosity between these 2 very Charedi factions is even greater than the animosity between Charedim and Dati Leumi  (Modern Orthodox Jews) or even Charedim and Chilonim (secular Jews).

One might think that if there was any group that could maintain a monolithic stance on religious issues it would be the Charedi world. The term Charedi means that they are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. Their every action is supposed to reflect their fear of Heaven. This means that ideally each and every Charedi individual goes Lifnim Meshuras HaDin (beyond the letter of the law) in service to God - as their leaders interpret Torah Law and Hashkafa.

But that is far from a uniting factor it seems. Chasidic courts have long had their own agenda that does not coincide with the Lithuanian agenda.  In Israel this means that instead of having a united Charedi  political party, they have 2 parties, Degel HaTorah led by the Roshei Yeshiva of Lithuanian extraction; and Agudat Israel  led by the Rebbes of Chasidic movements. Each party fields separate candidates for various positions in Israel’s secular democratic government. This split took place decades ago and has caused tremendous animosity between the 2 groups. Which were at one time united. But the division doesn’t end there.

You would also think that least as far as the Lithuanian party’s interests are concerned there would be unity there. But you would be wrong.  There was a tremendous blowout last year when 80 year old Rav Shmuel Auerbach decided to form his own party called ‘Bnei Torah’. They fielded their own candidates that competed with Degel HaTorah’s candidates.

This was a rebellion against 100 year old Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman who until then was the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian world.

One might think that this is all about politics and that in reality they are otherwise in complete harmony with each other. But that too would be wrong. That’s because this is nothing less than a dispute over who is going to lead the Charedi Yeshiva world. It is a fight about who is their Gadol HaDor. A world that consists of the greatest Yeshivos in Israel. Yeshivos whose names most of the religious world are very familiar with. Names like Ponevitch, Mir, Chevron… and many others.

How bad is it? It is a battle royal tearing at the very heart of the yeshiva world. Who is going to lead the Torah world? And what direction will that leader take?

On this issue it seems there will be no compromise. It will apparently be a fight to the finish. This has resulted in some pretty nasty behavior by individuals of one faction against the leadership of the other. Recall that last year a deranged follower of Rav Auerbach physically attacked Rav Shteinman.

The rhetoric coming out of the R’Shteinman faction against Rav Auerbach and his followers is on a level of condemnation much like their condemnation of secular leaders whom they perceive are anti Torah!

Rav Shmuel Auerbach
Students at Charedi Kollels were warned  by Rav Chaim Kanievsky that if they were found to be supporters of Rav Auerbach, they would be expelled from their Kollel without pay!

Rav Shteinman went so far as to say that the supporting Rav Auerbach was a more serious than idol worship!

This all happened last year about this time during municipal elections. But now one year later, nothing has changed. Except that feelings and loyalties seem to have become more entrenched. During my visit to Israel, a Charedi Rav who is intimately involved in Yeshiva life told me that Yeshivas in the Charedi world are split in two. The fight has been taken to the Beis HaMedrash. In Ponevitch the enmity is so bad I was told that Rav Don Segal who was the Mashgiach there left the country. He could not take the bitter fighting anymore.  Parents – when choosing a Yeshiva for their sons are now looking at how divided a Yeshiva is instead of what the level of Torah study there is.

The Charedi world in Israel is demoralized by this turn of events. Rav Shmuel for his part has not backed off. And his followers remain loyal.

With all the problems the Charedi world in Israel face, this is the one area that affects them the most. The fight detracts from their Torah study and ignores existential issues like Parnassa (livlihood) and the poverty the Charedi world faces because of the lack of it in so many of their lives. While it is true that the Parnassa issue is finally being addressed somewhat by pioneers of Charedi education like Adina Bar Shalom, it is hardly enough to solve the problem. The problem persists. Rome is burning while the Charedi world fiddles.

How will this all end? I don’t know. But if past is prologue then there will continue to be splits over the most minor of issues and the political power that the Charedi parties once enjoyed will be reduced to nothing.

There are those who might revel in this. But I am not among them. I do not relish what is happening to a group of religious Jews that are Moser Nefesh for Torah.

As a side issue, I have always thought that if all the religious parties would unite, what a powerful force they would be. In addition to the Charedi parties, there  are 2 additional religious parties that have their own agendas. The Sephardic ‘Shas’ party and Bayit HaYehudi -the politically right wing heirs of the National Religious Party (Mizrachi).

Imagine what Israel could be like if all the observant members of the Kenesset would unite to form a single party. I’m not talking about creating a theocracy. I am talking about a democracy that would not discriminate against anybody – religious or otherwise. With a little bit of compromise so much could be accomplished. Couldn’t it? 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Judging Your Brother Favorably

The original post here has been deleted. In my zeal to defend a fellow Jew, I ended up judging another Jew too harshly. I now regret that. For that I apologized. Rabbi Oppenheimer has accepted it. I only judged one side favorably and not the other. I guess that I need to take my own advice more seriously. I'm truly sorry for all the commotion and for any harm I may have caused Rabbi Oppenheimer or his family.

I have also deleted all comments except for Rabbi Oppenheimer's acceptance of my apology and the request that I remove the post... which I did.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Taking Charity for a Living

Students at Beth Medrash Gavoha better known as Lakewood (NYT)
On my fight back from Israel to Chicago I was surprised to see a feature article in the international edition of the New York Times. It was entitled The Beggars of Lakewood. I found it to be a sympathetic portrait of the community’s generosity towards what we call ‘Meshulachim’. That is the Hebrew word for ‘sent ones’. Those who are ‘sent’ by various charitable institutions as their agents to raise funds. 

But just as many, if not more, come for themselves. There are the poor and the sick …or those that have sick relatives requiring massive amounts of money for medical procedures not always covered by Israel’s national health care system. They need funds just to survive and support their families.

In the vast majority of cases, they are truly people in need. The fraudulent ones have been weeded out by a process know as an Ishur  (permit).  It is usually  issued by a respected organization (Agudah does this in Chicago) after verifying that their stories are true to be. (That was not always the case in the past.)

Lakewood has an organization that does the same thing. What was nice to see is how altruistic the community of Lakewood is.  Despite their lower incomes they tend to be more generous in their charitable contributions. They observe better than most of us the Mitzvah of Maaser Kesafim that requires us to give 10% of our income to charity. The bottom line for me about that article is that the community of Lakewood came out looking very good.  At least that’s the way I read it.

But it seems not everyone had my take. Matzav – republishing an article from Arutz Sheva – thought it was terrible.

What they saw was an article about the Meshulachim - most of whom come from Israel - that made them look bad. It was stereotypical description of Jews as money-grubbing beggars. 

I can’t say that the description of Elimelech Ehrlich, the Meshulach described at the beginning of the article is inaccurate. I have seen versions of this fellow many times in Chicago. And the truth is it bothers me.  Yes, giving them charity is legitimate. They do need to feed their families. 

But I have to ask, why so many Meshulachim come from Israel? Is it because there are no jobs? Is it the case that every Meshulach that comes from Israel has tried to find work and just hasn’t been able to? I’m sure that is true in some cases. 

As I said, it is also true that many of them collect for legitimate institutions that are concerned with feeding the indigent, or forYeshivos and Kollelim. In some cases Meshulcahim are collecting for medical reasons. 

I always ask myself why the vast majority of Meshulachim from Israel are Chasidic or Charedi? There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are Meshulachim. But I can’t help but think that a lot of it comes from the fact that Charedim in Israel do not have the education or training for good jobs.

This does not of course mean that we shouldn’t help them. But I think it does mean that as the population of Charedim and Chasidim in Israel increases, the number of Meshulchim will too. It is not unusual to find 5 or more Meshulachim coming into Shul every morning with their Ishur (green cards) asking for charity. 

Wouldn’t the greatest charitable act to these people be to change the way they are educated? If there are no secular studies in elementary or high school curricula in Israel, then the only jobs they can get are menial. And even those are limited. There are probably a lot more people applying for even a menial job that there are jobs – by a lot! It may not eliminate poverty to give them better educations. But I have to believe it would reduce their numbers considerably.

I realize that there are schools cropping up to help Charedim get better jobs. There is the Charedi College of Adina Bar Shalom, and various other schools and training facilities that are beginning to educate Charedim for the workplace once they've left Kollel. But I don't believe that the vast majority of Charedim are doing that. Which leaves a lot of them impoverished.

There is another aspect of this that is even more troubling to me. It is the fact that many of these Meshulachim treat taking chariry as a living - the way most people see a job. And they actually make a decent living doing this.  One may think that they do not make much asking for charity. But I recall an interview with a paraplegic beggar who made a career panhandling on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile – a very posh and upscale shopping area. He was asked how much money he made annually doing this. His answer: in excess of $100,000 a year!

I don’t know how much Meshulachim  that come to Chicago make. It is probably a lot more than people think.  But look at the price they have to pay. They have lost all their dignity by making a living asking for charity. This is not the way a Jew should support himself.

Now as I said, many of these Meshulchim are not like that. They are ‘one timers’ in desperate need of help and it should be given with a full heart. And many are legitimately collecting for institutions and not for themselves (other than a percentage of what they collect as a fee). But there are many who do what Elimelech Ehrlich does. From the New York Times
Once a year, Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine… Ehrlich is a full-time beggar. 
So yes, in the end Matzav and Arutz Sheva are right. The New York Times painted an unflattering picture of a Meshulach. But it is an accurate picture.  Elimelech Ehrlich is a  man who makes a living by asking for charity. And he is not the only one.

But it also painted an accurate picture of Lakewood’s generosity. I didn’t like the title either. But other than that why not focus on the positive side of the article instead of the negative side. Because the positive side is a real Kiddush Hashem.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Women in the Israeli Defense Forces

Tamar Ariel, OBM (family photo via Ha'aretz)
Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. One must die and not violate. That is the Halacha about 3 particular Miztvos that are deemed so important, that one must give up their life  if necessary in order to observe them.  The 3 Mitzvos are Avodah Zara (idolatry), Shefichas Damaim (murder), and Giluy Arayos (biblical level adultery). So that if someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to murder someone, or worship an idol, or to have sexual intercourse with another man’s wife, Halacha requires one to give up his life and not violate any of those laws.

The term Yehorag V’Al Ya’avor has been used by various contemporary Gedolim for other purposes. Mostly in the context of Arayos (sexual matters). Which is understandable since idol worship today is rare among even the most secular of Jews, and murder is self understood. 

Most famously the Chazon Ish, Rav Avrohom Yeshayhu Karelitz ZTL, declared that a Jewish woman may not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) adding that it was a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. He made that staement in response to the Israeli policy of drafting all able bodied citizens – male or female – into the army. The Chazon Ish fought for an exemption to the draft for all religious women and he got it. Any woman who declares that she is observant receives an exemption.

Religious Zionist rabbis encourage their women to do Sherut Leumi (national service) in lieu of direct army service – which they also oppose. Sherut Leumi (if I understand correctly) entails various types of social work and Chesed. As a separate all female entity they do not generally interact with male soldiers. Most religious Zionist women opt for that.

The Chazon Ish opposed Sherut Leumi too because he held that since it meant subservience to the military chain of command, women were therefore still subjected to rigid male military authority and they would have the same problems as direct army service would..

So how has all that worked out in our day? Charedi woman do not serve in any capacity. Most Religious Zionist women serve in Sherut Leumi. But this is not 100% the case. What happens when a religious woman joins the army directly? 

There was a story in Jewish Action Magazine a couple of years ago about a Charedi woman who did exactly that. She had always wanted to be a soldier. And she became one. The article described what it was like for her. And although there were challenges along the way, she was able to maintain her Charedi principles and not violate their stringencies and customs. I do not recall her being ostracized even by Charedim. But she was an anomaly.

There are however religious women now that do join the IDF. I assume they are mostly from the Religious Zionist community. What about Yehoreg V’Al  Ya’avor? Don’t Religious Zionist women understand the severity of that Halacha?

I believe that the truth about the  Charedi ‘Yehoreg V’Al  Ya’avor’ attitude here is that it is just a bit of an exaggeration. It is hyperbole to impress upon people just how strong the opposition.

To say that a woman should die before joining the IDF - it would seem to me - is counter to the actual Halacha. It is after all possible (as was demonstrated by that female Charedi IDF soldier) to maintain one’s religious standards - difficult though that may be. No one is putting a gun to a female recruit’s head and telling her that she must violate a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor when she joins the IDF.

Although it is prohibited to put oneself into a situation that can lead to Aryaos, the severity of Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor is not attached.  Besides, I believe that most even secular women in the IDF are quite moral people and do not sleep around. Although I’m sure it happens. My guess is that the IDF reputation for that is exaggerated. To therefore consider it Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor for a woman to join the army makes absolutely no sense to me at all.

This is not to say that I advocate that all women serve. The fact is that I do not. I oppose army service for women in general for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done right in some cases. The fact is that more than a few religious women have joined  the IDF despite the severity that Charedi leaders have attached to it. And they have joined in a big way.

This was the case with Tamar Ariel. Unfortunately her story does not have a happy ending. She was killed by an avalanche while trekking in Nepal. It is in that context that I have learned that there are some religious women who do in fact join and are competitive with men in some of the most skilled areas of military service. From Ha’aretz:  
Ariel… was Israel’s first female Orthodox navigator. While that is an extraordinary title, held only by her, it is no longer alien to a culture of young Orthodox women who are filling the ranks of the army like never before. From one year to the next, more and more religious girls are choosing to don a uniform. In 2013, for example, their number was 1,616. And it’s not just a change in quantity, but also quality, as the best of them opt for the army. 
Women representing Aluma, which works together with the army and the Defense Ministry to advise and direct Orthodox girls considering joining the army, are barred from girls’ religious high schools, including state religious schools. But despite the opposition of spiritual and educational leaders in the community, this grassroots trend continues.
Once it was easy to label an Orthodox woman soldier as one who had strayed from the right path. But over the years this has become almost impossible. There is nothing more ordinary today than the many young Orthodox soldiers at Ariel’s funeral at Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak, wearing their long skirts, speaking the language of Torah they learned in a religious girls college(and) Commitment to halakha, Jewish religious law.
Times sure seem to have changed. 

While (as I said) I oppose women serving in the army, I can’t help but admire what Tamar Ariel had done. I am saddened by her sudden tragic death. She seems to have been a great role model for those religious women who might opt for real army service in spite of rabbinic opposition to it. She showed us in her own unassuming way that there is no limit to what anyone - male or female - can do and do right if they have the talent, will, commitment, and moral integrity of a Tamar Ariel. May her memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Day Yoeli Deutch Died

Joey Diangello (formerly Yoeli Deutch)
Maybe it wasn’t suicide. On the other hand maybe it was. Yoeli Deutch – age 34 - died Monday via an overdose of drugs. That was how his death was listed.  Did he do it on purpose or was it an accidental overdose? Who knows.

His friends say it couldn’t have been suicide. He was recently in a much better place psychologically than he had been ever since his traumatic childhood. A childhood that saw him being raped by an unidentified man at the Mikvah his father had taken him to. He was 7 years old. But as a poignant essay by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman notes, suicide was on his mind just before the holidays.  This was the final e-mail sent to Rabbi Eisenman just before Rosh Hashanah:
I just wanna say "Leshana tovah" to you and your family. May this upcoming year b a suicide death free year is all I ask.  Luv, me.
Best, Joey
This  wouldn’t be the first time that a survivor of sexual abuse committed suicide – even after many years and even after displaying a more positive attitude in life.  I am told by survivors that the pain of sexual abuse never fully goes away.

Yoeli Deutch actually died long ago. His rapist murdered his Jewish soul. Or so Yoeli thought. Judaism for Joel was Satmar Chasidus. He was violated in one of its most utilized venues – a Mikvah where many Jews go for ablutions to ‘spiritually cleanse the soul’.  Although not mandatory for men in our day, most Chasidim and many other Orthodox men use it and consider it a pious act.

Yoeli  probably wanted to get as far away from his Jewish identity and the painful association he had with it as possible. His fate was sealed after that event. 10 years later at age 17 he left the only Judaism he knew, Satmar, and became Joey Diangello. And then he rebelled big time. From Rabbi Eisenman’s Short Vort:
When I met Joey, his arms were covered with tattoos depicting scenes I did not want to stare at.
His fingernails were painted with black nail polish and he was drinking large glasses of non-Kosher wine at a rate which made me wonder how a human being could ingest so much alcohol.
I never met Joey. But from Rabbi Eisenman’s words I can see that he was a good man that got a bad deal in life. One that might have been avoided if he were treated differently by his former community. He was completely rejected by them after he rebelled. I’m sure they were disgusted by his ‘look’… and what he had become. Form the pix11 website:
Diangello’s family rejected his new lifestyle…

Diangello paid a price for leaving the community, often getting hissed at on the streets of Williamsburg, if he was seen anywhere near his old neighborhood.
Contrast that with what Rabbi Yakov Horowitz wrote just before the holidays (which I posted and commented upon). It included the following:
Many of the kids my colleagues and I work with all year long return to their own Shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – even though they may no longer be observant. Often, their dress and overall appearance are at odds with the standards of the community and they may be tentatively standing at the outer edge of our Shuls – literally and figuratively. 
On their behalf, I humbly appeal to you to reach out to them warmly and welcome them back.
Please don’t comment on their appearance or how long they have been away…
Don’t misread their discomfort as disrespect, or their tentativeness as a lack of commitment. Just walk over to them and say, “It’s so nice to see you.” Give them a warm, welcoming and genuine smile. Invite them to sit next to you – and permit them the space to turn down your invitation. I assure you that whether or not they accept it; they will be grateful to you for your unconditional acceptance.  
Imagine the difference such an attitude might have made to Joey. Had they done this, who knows… maybe they could have gotten their Yoeli back. But even if they wouldn’t have gotten him back, acting kind instead of cruel might just have saved his life. I can’t imagine the unbearable pain Joey must have felt when the community he was once a part of  turned their back on him - shunning him in such a disgusting way.

The following pix11 video has more details about Joey’s life – and unfortunately his death. Watch it and weep.