Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A New Letter To Toby Katz and our Community

This past June I wrote an open letter to Toby Katz about her actions. I cited a number of quotes she made where she foolishly suggested that Orthodox Jews loved their children more than Reform and Conservatives do and made many other foolish remarks.

Well it seems that dear Toby has again opened her big trap and spouted off more nonsense. I laughed pretty hard when I read it because it is more proof of her foolish and uneducated bias against Jews who do not practice Judaism the way that she wants.

Here is an example:

Non-observant Jews who are nevertheless connected to an O shul and O rabbi for major life cycle events—girl baby-naming, bris, bar mitzva, wedding, funeral—are fundamentally attached to Judaism in a way that is simply not the case with a Jew who belongs to a “Conform” temple. Conform exists for only one reason—to make Jews psychologically and emotionally comfortable with their total disloyalty to the religion of their forefathers, to ease their conscience when they intermarry or do whatever they please."

So her argument is that nonobservant Jews who join an Orthodox shul are better than those that belong to a Conservative or a Reform shul. But why. She alleges that members of the Conservative/Reform shuls belong there so that they can "intermarry or do whatever they please."

That remark is false, but we'll set it aside for now. What I ask now is what is different between the two. Toby, you say nonobservant meaning that those people are not Shomer Mitzvot. It is clear that you have a problem with Jews who are not, but because they belong to an Orthodox shul you think that they have a stronger attachment to Judaism than those members of a Conservative or Reform.

That is just narishkeit and illogical.

The reason I refer to both Reform and Conservative as “Conform” movements is that both exist for the same reason—to help Jews conform comfortably to the prevailing secular ethos of America. Conform does very little to help people stay connected to Judaism, just the opposite.

One could make the argument that vast numbers of Orthodox Jews are unthinking automatons who have never dared to consider the possibility that their beliefs are wrong. They do not dare open their eyes to the possibilities that lie out there so they do as we see in Lakewood and ban the Internet or rail on about Slifkin and this and that.

Fortunately I am far more open and progressive than Toby and I have no problem saying that there are many who are not so provincial in nature in all of the branches of Judaism.

There is also another factor to consider, and that is the question of, to whom do we owe loyalty? It is true that we owe loyalty to all our fellow Jews and that we want—or should want—to maintain close ties between all Jews, and to make sure that all Jews feel welcome in our community.
Toby, your kiruv is outstanding. Make people feel welcome by badmouthing and demeaning them and then just so that you cannot be backed into a corner qualify it with a sad statement like this.

But we also owe loyalty to G-d. We do not have the right to falsify the Torah in order to make our fellow Jews feel comfortable. We hate to lose any Jews, we grieve over our fellow Jews who have elected to live in such a way that they will not have Jewish children—but we do have a mesorah, a chain of transmission, that has kept going father to son, mother to daughter, for three thousand years now, since Sinai. And we absolutely do not have the right to be the generation that breaks that chain.
Toby has it occurred to you that you offer no choices. It is your way or the highway. Do you really think that this is an effective way to make people feel welcome. You know life is full of black and white and shades of gray.

You do the Jewish people a disservice when you designate yourself as arbiter of morality and who is a Jew. You hurt all of us when you use such divisive language.

I stood with you and everyone else at Har Sinai and what I heard is different from what you heard. You are no better than anyone else and it would be better for all of us if you changed your attitude.

And since we all know that there is no one uniform approach to Orthodoxy we are never going to buy your arguments that it is better than Conservative or Reform because the fact is that there is disagreement and dissension there too.

You claim to that your arms are open, well so are ours. We are happy to welcome you to a community that doesn't try and maintain itself by turning on each other.

We are happy to make you part of the group. Really, our arms are open. You can continue to try and badmouth and belittle those who disagree with you. It is a tactic of insecurity and not built upon strength or you can accept that some people see things differently and work with us and not against.

It is really up to you. Either way we are not going anywhere.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Interfaith Relationships- Jews and Christians Misunderstood Again

There is an ongoing problem with the relationship between Jews and Christians. There is a misunderstanding that exists that is creating numerous issues that are going to need to be dealt with.

I wouldn’t characterize this misunderstanding as being between all Jews and all Christians. I suspect that there are large numbers of both groups who haven’t given a thought to any of this, but I also know that there are many who have and that is part of why I am writing this post.

Boiled down the misunderstanding is along these lines. There are Christians who see Jews working to tear down Christianity, to attack it and try destroy it and there are Jews who see Christians working to destroy Judaism. That my friends is the very simplistic version of this story. There are multiple layers here, but we’ll leave those alone for now.

Part of the impetus for this post was generated by a post by a Christian blogger here. His post was in response to a statement made by Abe Foxman, the national director of the ADL who issued a warning about the attempt to Christianize America. Here is an excerpt:
"Today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!" he said.

Foxman proceeded to describe the process and to name names: "Major players include Focus On Family. Alliance Defense Fund, the American Family Association, Family Research Council and more. They and other groups have established new organizations and church-based networks, and built infrastructure throughout the country designed to promote traditional Christian values."
I haven't any problem with what Foxman said because my perception is that there is much truth in this. In September I covered a CNN story in which we read about the Southern Baptists and their discussions on how to convert more Jews. In that same post we revisited several Southern Baptist decisions including:

"The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1996 calling on its members to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people."

A 1999 prayer guide by the International Mission Board recommended conversion of Jews to Christianity during their High Holy Days, an effort labeled "offensive and disrespectful" by Jewish leaders.

As recently as 2003 Jewish leaders criticized a Southern Baptist seminary president for saying Christians have a mandate to evangelize Jews just as a surgeon has a responsibility to tell a patient about the presence of a "deadly tumor."

They are just one of the groups that have missionaries in place whose purpose is to witness to Jews for the purpose of conversion. They excuse this by claiming a religious obligation to do so. I am consistently surprised that they are so surprised by how vociferous a protest there is to these actions.

And I have to say that when I read some of the responses to things Foxman and other Jews have said I am most disappointed. Vox Popoli's post irritated me. In it he said about Foxman:
"This guy would have made quite the grand strategist, wouldn't he? With leaders such as these, it's no wonder that Jews always manage to find persecution all over the world. Launching all-out assaults on the overwhelming majority doesn't exactly strike me as the best way to win friends and influence people in any place or time."
If I hear him correctly he suggests that Foxman should be lambasted for having the audacity to question the majority, as if the larger number automatically provided moral superiority, not to mention his foolish remark about persecution. And that is a topic to be grabbed a little later on.

And then within the comments there are all sorts of gems:

Well, maybe if his ancestors hadn't killed Jesus 1975 years ago, he wouldn't have such a guilty conscience...

Mr. Astrosmith, smart boy that you are do you realize how many Jews were murdered or persecuted by your brethren using this allegation and you call us paranoid.

"Of course the reason Christians feel under assault is the largely Jewish and Jewish-led for the last 40 years ACLU/Southern Poverty Law Center have gleefully assembled their ranks of lawyers for a little Christian-bashing and getting Christ out of Christmas and the public and shopping mall spheres. Perhaps that is who Foxman should target. He might also wish a little word with his fellow Brooklyn Jew Michael Newdow who is after the Pledge and getting "in God we trust" removed from public buildings and US currency."

Aside from making unsubstantiated claims old Cedarford seems to be under the misguided impression that trying to see that the Constitution is followed is wrong.

And then within the comments on the Haaretz article there is this little nugget:
"Abraham Foxman is unbelievable! He seeks to destroy the reason America is the ONLY true ally Israel has. The Christian faith is the only reason Israel exists. Oh, by the way, Foxman, do you like not having to run from Kristallnacht, pogroms and Zyklon B? Thank the christians. We are the reason more of your people did not die in the gas chambers.

Foxman should not be fighting the only people that like Jews and go after the people who lust to slaughter Jews: Muslims, especially the Palestinians. Why isn`t he fighting the Palestinians? Doesn`t he know the Abbas and his buddies kill Israelis every day? Doesn't he know that Iran wants to kill every last Israeli?

Don`t bite the hand that feeds you." Jay Stang
Call me crazy, but I don't see any reason to thank someone or grovel for enjoying the same rights as anyone else in the US. And believe it or not, the US is not the only reason that Israel exists. It may have been at one point in time, but that is no longer the case.

Let's circle back to the initial opening in which we talked about misunderstandings. As a member of the minority it is hard for me to see the discrimination that Christians, primarily evangelicals are complaining about.

We live in a country that has a clear definition of the separation of church and state in which we go out of our way to promote pluralism and tolerance for all, not just the majority. That means that courtrooms and other public (read gov't funded) buildings are not decorated with the 10 commandments or other religious paraphenalia. A Buddhist, Hindu or Wiccan should be able to walk into a courthouse, for that matter anyone should be able to walk in and feel comfortable in the knowledge that the law of the land is going to judge them, not some biblical law that they may not believe in.

Students in school are entitled to be educated without being forced to be witnessed to or placed in other uncomfortable situations, based upon nondisriminatory laws.

Private businesses and homes are a different situation. I understand and accept that within these places there could be religious expressions of all kinds. When I go to the mall I expect to the salespeople to use some kind of holiday greeting. Frankly I get tired of everyone wishing me a merry xmas, but ok, I am not surprised by it and I am not even asking that it not happen.

All that I am asking for is an understanding that following the law is not discrimnatory but in our best interests. Our plurality and diversity is an exceptional strength that we can and should draw upon.

This is getting rather long so I'll try and tie it up. For better or for worse there is roughly 2000 years of persecution of Jews by Christians. It really is just within the last 50 years that things have really improved, but within that time frame many of us have still witnessed things that can be seen as an attack on Jews and Judaism and witnessing can be categorized as such.

It is hard to see the majority as having to face the same challenges and even if we accept that they do it is not of the same magnitude.

And that is about it for now. Perhaps I'll come back and try to cover this again at a later date.


(crossposted at Jack's Shack)

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Shabbat Box

My mission...and I chose to accept...was to teach a brand new preschool class for Religious School in our synagogue.

I have six and a half little comes over just for craft time and snack time from the second grade since he's the only kid in that room. My six kids though...I have had them nearly every Sunday since the beginning of October. Together we're travelling through holidays unknown as we explore the Jewish year.

This month we have focused on Shabbat. Out of the six, only one, I believe, even remotely has any idea what Shabbat even IS. The other five tend to look at me like I have grown a third eye when I talk to them about pretty much ANYTHING having to do with Judaism...which, of course, makes Miss Z.'s job that much harder. I have to not only teach them what something completely alien to them IS...I have to make them WANT to do it!

Now, I am not a teacher by trade. At best I am an engineer who lives a second life as a non-profits contracts manager. But I do have my own kid...whom I have brought along with me on my journey to Judaism. I know what memories I want HIM to have.

We start our days in preschool by coloring. This week we colored pictures of a family eating their Shabbat meal. Last time we colored pictures of a mother lighting Shabbat candles. While they color, I talk to them about what it is they're coloring...and of course, none of them have any idea really, only one family even lights candles much less has a Shabbat meal. But I talk and I explain and I try as hard as I can to get them to remember - to grab hold of something in this foreign language I am speaking to them and want to know more.

This week we made spice boxes and colored another picture about havdallah while I walked around and explained it to them. I told them that Shabbat is just such a wonderful time, that when it's over we're all so sad to see it end. And smelling the pretty spices makes us happy until we can have Shabbat all over again!

When the principal came down to see them and asked them what the spice boxes were for...they looked at her like a herd of small deer caught in her headlights.

I really felt like a failure.

Our final activity of the day was a book called "The Shabbat Box." It was all about a grade school class who shared a Shabbat Box - a box filled with candles and candlesticks, a kiddush cup, challah rolls and a challah cover - everything each family would need to celebrate Shabbat. The students took turns each week taking it home.

My kids became ANIMATED! "THIS!" they exclaimed. "THIS is a GREAT idea!" And they were all over the idea of making a Shabbat box that each one could take home and actually have all this wonderfulness that I have been telling them about every single week.

So next time...we'll be making our class Shabbat Box.

When the day was done and I was rounding them up to take them to meet their moms and dads upstairs, they were still talking about this Shabbat Box. Now don't forget, I have two kids each of 3's, 4's and 5's. The fact that they were ALL all over this idea...well, it was huge to me.

And just when I thought they never WOULD understand havdallah, one of my 5's ran to his dad and handed him his spice box. "Daddy!" he was breathless with excitement. "This is a spice box and you use it after Shabbat is over to make you feel happy again because you're so sad it's over!"

I couldn't help but smile and feel exhiliarated all at the same time. They're getting it...isn't that wonderful?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"Judaism won't be here in 100 years"

GoldaLeah has an interesting post called "Judaism won't be here in 100 years."

Does Judaism need G-d?

I pose this question to my Jewish readers on my blog and here. Does Judaism need G-d. Do you have to believe in G-d to be Jewish? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Oh I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Being Jewish means you're part of a community...or at least striving to be part of a community if even from a distance, whether that means a pure physical distance or a symbolic distance.

Books, literature, music can all be made part of the Jewish experience. Jewish newspapers, as well.

Here in Canada, we have a nationwide "community" newspaper called THE CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS. The newspaper features a column called "The Jewish Highway," which deals with international websites that follow a theme. For example, around Chanukah, the columnist will do bits about web sites that feature Chanukah recipes, family stories, the how-to's and why's of Chanukah, etc. Or around Pesach the spotlight might be on different web sites that offer historial aspects of Pesach, or variations of the Haggadah.

Some months ago I decided to contact the columnist and make mention of THE JEWISH CONNECTION. He said he'd keep it in mind if he ever again deals with readers' choices of web sites. The man was true to his word, and this week in the column we got this write-up:

"The Jewish Connection is the joint effort of a dozen Jewish bloggers including, Pearl, who wrote to tell me about it. On the day I peeked in the offerings were quite varied. I read an article on whether to take Jewish kids out as “Erev Halloween” was approaching. Pearl wrote about her evolving feelings about being able to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah. And a contributor named Z told of how Simon Wiesenthal’s determination to lead a life fighting on behalf of millions of Jewish souls had changed his own life.

If you'd like to see the rest of the article, link here.

Perhaps each of you readers of THE JEWISH CONNECTION should contact your local Jewish paper and give them the heads-up about our Jewish online drop-in center. Reading about us somewhere might just be the first step for some people to make that "Jewish Connection."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Helping Yourself through Helping Others

As I’ve written in the past here, when I was in my late teens, sparked by some personal things that happened, I had a crisis of faith. That is the proper term for it right? I grew up in a religious home an Orthodox, Baal Teshuvah Chabad home. For some sad reason my father never carried over his initial “it” feeling for how he came to be religious into his parenting lifestyle. There were no lengthy explanations for why we do certain things. No reminiscing about how when he wasn’t Frum he took this or that for granted. No love, or passion for things he lectured his children on every day. Reading what I’m writing now, it’s actually even sadder than I realized.

On the other hand my mother, also a Baal Teshuvah, did bring that passion for religion into the home, she didn’t have all the knowledge that my father had, so it would not have been as easy for her to do the “explaining” but I definitely developed my own passion for life and for being religious from her.

Part of what happens sometimes in a large orthodox family, where there are chores aplenty and school busses coming and going. Where there are always late classes, tons of Hebrew and English homework to do. There is little time for logic, explanations, general conversations of why we do the things we do. In the best of situations the parents and the teachers combine to give you just enough to sustain your need till your old enough to delve further into it. In the worst of situations you’re just along for the ride. What happens when you just go with the flow is that when you get older and your not being watched over as much. Where your old enough to start doing and thinking on our own, when the already know it all attitude has developed in your teen years, you start asking yourself the biggest question of all. Why am I doing this? Without proper conditioning as a child, some people just don't bother to answer that "why."

I have many friends that grew up frum and never had the crisis of faith I did. Now, I don’t know that for sure, maybe some of them weren’t brave enough to face it but they did remain frum. I think the reason is because they were in situations where there parents did go the extra mile to nurture their spiritual growth. You can’t just give a plant air or sun, it needs water too. In order for the plant to grow just right and survive, in needs all the elements.

It’s ironic, to think that a man who came from a place so far removed from religion, and who went on such a long and harsh road to return, didn't instill the passion that drove him there in the first place in his children. Because he didn’t do that, many of my siblings aren’t religious today. What can I tell you; with some people bad parenting is just bad parenting, religion aside. Thank g-d for my mother.

I think to understand what I went through myself, and to better understand my own journey, its good to read my smaller less intimate posts leading up to this. This post for example will demonstrate how my love for doing “smaller mitzvahs” eventually powered the engine that lead me back. I think I felt guilty about some of the bigger mitzvahs I wasn’t careful about or didn’t understand the reasons behind, or never felt that passion for them. Since I didn’t feel so into those bigger things, I went out of my way to do the “easier” little things. Helping someone out in a jam for me was a simple and logical “mitzvah.”

Jumping forward many years to college, I “hung” around the Chabad house on campus a lot. Since I was well versed in being frum, (just not understanding why I would want to be) there were always things I could help out with there. I ended up being like an assistant rabbi. It must have been odd, there I was a regular guy, not dressed in any formal rabbinic gear. No beard, no hat, just some jeans, a baseball cap and a sweatshirt. Talking about major issues, like the woman’s role in Judaism. Did Moses really exist? How do you know? Isn’t it easier to “rest” on Shabbos by going to a nice quiet restaurant Friday night and a movie afterwards? What does turning on a light switch have to do with it? But for whatever reasons we connected, and those were some amazing and inspiring conversations.

Of course I believed everything I was explaining to them, I just hadn’t always believed IN THEM. In one case, a student who I became friends with at the Chabad on Campus, came to me and asked me to teach him to read Hebrew. He was 21 years old, and never had any connection with religion. No Bar Mitzvah, no Hebrew School, No Jewish friends, he knew he was Jewish, but that was it. I agreed, we were both serious football junkies, so we had these Sunday football and Hebrew Classes. That was the first of many such classes with not just him, but other students as well (sans the football lol.) Months later when he was reading out of a Hebrew Siddur, I had this warm feeling in my gut. I felt like I had done something good. I was happy with myself. It was through those types of feelings that I eventually discovered that “it” feeling I always speak about. Through those “little” things.

I’ll write more another time. I’m kinda cutting this post off in the middle. There is more to this story, and I hope to find the time it deserves to write about it in the future. For now, thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Marriage and Mystery

The Arnolfini Marriage, painting by Jan Van Eck, 1434

My 17-year-old stepdaughter is asking us questions about love and marriage. Why do people divorce? Why are some couples unable to live without each other? Why do some married people argue every day? As we talk about these matters, I remember when, at 15, I was filled with the same questions.

And I remember a moment that felt like magic, when it seemed the answer to all those questions was right in front of me, in a very ordinary home, in the most unromantic of cities…..

Mrs. Levinsky picked me up after school on Friday. She drove me and five other girls in her station wagon to Baltimore. There we were met by our host families who took us to their homes. I don’t remember which Shabbaton this was – NCSY? Bnei Akiva? In high school, I was heavily into group activities. I signed up for most every Shabbaton that came along.

The young couple that picked me up were from a different community than mine. He wore a black suit and, significantly, a black hat. She wore a longer dress than the women in our neighborhood and not a stray hair escaped from the kerchief on her head.

They were very, very young. No kids yet, recently married. And they glowed. There eyes were locked on each other. Without touching, they gravitated into each other’s sphere and moved in harmony. Love. It was the mystery I most wanted to understand. And here it was before me, for my observation all weekend. It was almost too much. I could hardly look.

I didn’t mind being excluded from this magic circle of husband and wife. In fact, I was treasuring the opportunity to observe, first-hand, the very miracle I sought for my own life. I’ll never forget that Friday evening meal. As her husband walked through the door, she became infused with light. I believe she radiated. At the dinner table, he chanted “Eshes Chayil.” Each word rang out, respect and love pouring into those ancient verses.

Back at home the next weekend, I asked my father why he never chanted that song to my mother. He said because there was no such thing as a "Woman of Valor" and continued on with some further misogynistic ramblings. Oh well.

I wonder if that couple (who must be in the 30’s now) had any idea of the strong impression they were making on their young guest. I carried that image in my mind long after I left their house, remembering a young man, a young woman, and a home filled with light and warmth. What would I see if I dropped in on them now? Perhaps a table rounded out with children of all ages. Perhaps the same respect and warmth in his eyes as he looks towards his wife. Or maybe not. Life wears us down, often. Did the daily chores of diapers and bills slowly erode that diamond-like brilliance? Did the necessary tragedies of life pull them closer together or become a wedge between them?

At fifteen, the beginning of love fascinated me. But at 45, I find the long road of love more interesting. What happens over time? What survives and what is lost? Despite my father’s refusal to acknowledge the Woman of Valor by his side, he and my mother are still together after more than 50 years. And, to his credit, he did have us present her with a “Best Balabusta Ever!” certificate after she hosted about 25 houseguests for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. (I remember drawing the certificate, thinking “Balabusta? What the heck?”)

The couple I saw when they were just nineteen or twenty was wordless in their love, but I imagine that now, in middle age, they are comfortable and conversational together, reflecting on a shared journey through life.

(crossposted at Mirty's Place)

Thursday, November 10, 2005