Rabbi Barry Freundel / PJC Media
(Haaretz) — Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., is reeling from a terrible scandal. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and it is alleged that he installed a camera in the equivalent of a women’s locker room where he filmed potential converts in varying degrees of undress before their ritual bath. The shockwaves in the aftermath of this scandal reverberate well beyond the District and are being felt across the entire Jewish world.
Generally, rabbinic “scandals” come in one of two varieties. Some scandals merely involve flawed human behavior that is only considered scandalous because of the stature of the rabbinic figure. If a non-rabbi would commit the same acts, there would be no story. In my opinion, these are not scandals. Human beings behaving in a manner consistent with other human beings are not news. After all, rabbis are people too.
Rabbis are often subject to an artificially constructed angelic standard. This is the flip side of the coin that deifies and attributes clairvoyance or miracles to rabbis. Rabbis are viewed as being capable of the supernatural because they live supernatural lives and therefore are not like the rest of us. They are a more perfect kind of person. Under this standard, the public feigns surprise when rabbis share their struggles or flaws with their followers and critics. After all, rabbis are supposed to be above the petty concerns of the masses.
Such a standard is not fair or realistic and we are setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Rabbis should be held to an achievable human standard.
The other kind of scandal — as appears to be the case in Washington — is when a rabbi commits an act that would be destructive or unethical regardless of one’s clergy status. Or alternatively, when a rabbi exploits his position of authority to manipulate or harm others. These scandals are worthy of our outrage.
N.Y. Jews kick off the ‘Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn’ celebration / Dove Barbanel
In the Grand Army Plaza, at the entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the circle dance threatened to close me in. I had avoided it for some time, but the energy was contagious. I gave in and danced in one of the joyful concentric circles.
This was the third year of “Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn,” an outdoor celebration spearheaded by Rabbi Andy Bachman and Cantor Joshua Breitzer of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Over 500 people from over twenty Jewish organizations and synagogues (from the Park Slope Jewish Center to Repair the World: NYC) stopped by over the course of the night to sing, dance and meet friends. Jews of all denominations and ages were present, but the majority of people in the crowd were younger than 40. It was safe to call it a party.
“I think it’s important what’s going on here, young people coming out and celebrating the Torah,” said Rachel Grossman, 24.
A few dancers lugged Torah scrolls around with them as they circled. Cantor Breitzer wore a headlight on his forehead and never left the center circle.
“As you can see,” Bachman said, “it’s impossible to hold him down.”
Mango’s new shirt
After Sears’s swastika ring and Zara’s concentration camp shirt comes another piece of fashion that has incensed the internet: The lightning-like black symbols on the women’s shirt ‘Rayo’ by Spanish fashion company Mango look suspiciously like the runic insignia of the Nazi SS units and the youth organization Jungvolk.
“Why does Mango have this model only for women — weren’t there also male Nazis?” Martin Sonneborn, a German satirist and member of the European Parliament, wrote underneath a photo he posted on his Facebook page on Thursday.
On Twitter, users joked about Mango’s “Eva Braun Collection” and the “total fashion war,” and referred to the shirt as “Nazi chic.” And Ambros Waibel of the left-leaning German daily newspaper taz suggests that the shirt should cost 33,45 instead of 35,99 euro.
The stylized rune, which stands for “Sieg” (victory) was used in its single form by the German Jungvolk of the Hitler Youth, which was the Nazi party’s organization for boys aged 10 to 14. At age 14, they became members of the Hitler Youth.
The paramilitary SS, which used the double rune as their emblem, was founded as Adolf Hitler’s personal guard unit. During the Third Reich it was led by Heinrich Himmler, and was most notorious for being in charge of the concentration camps.
Mango reacted promptly. Several German newspapers quoted a statement from Mango in which the company said that they regret the “unfortunate association.”
Hossam al-Dabbus makes art out of remnants from the Gaza war / Getty Images
As donors pledge billions to rebuild Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s war with Israel, one Gazan is engaged in another type of construction: turning remnants of the war into works of art.
Hossam al-Dabbus, a 33-year-old who works in Gaza’s honey industry, has collected shells, rockets and missiles from the war that killed around 2,2000 Gazans and more than 70 Israelis — and turned these objects into flower vases.
Dabbus, who lives in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, first found his materials by combing through the Gaza wreckage. As orders poured in for his art, he asked Hamas police for more defunct projectiles from the war.
“When my children grow up I’ll be able to show them these and tell them — here are remains of the 2014 war that left over 2,000 people dead, and this is how I transformed an instrument of death into a vessel of life, making these bombs into flower vases,” Dabbus told Agence France-Presse.
Illustration by Lily Padula
A respected rabbi installing cameras in the preparation room of the mikveh in the building next door to his synagogue? The sensationalistic story of alleged voyeur Rabbi Barry Freundel seems tailor-made to go viral in our internet age. So what can be done to counteract the negative publicity this gives to the observance of mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, and to general trust in rabbis? How can we ensure this type of situation (assuming the allegations are true — that has yet to be legally corroborated) doesn’t happen again?
It’s simple: Put women in charge of the mikveh system.
I’d like to see a world where the mikveh and all questions about it are totally overseen by female scholars, who possess the relevant Jewish legal wisdom and are permitted to be part of that authority structure.
This is an area where we women need to be trusted with the knowledge of our own bodies and how they function. This is an area where we should be the main experts.
Illustration by Kurt Hoffman
Yesterday, prominent Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism. The police report obtained by the media indicates that he had used cameras to record women showering as they prepared to use the mikveh.
Freundel should, and will, have his say in court. These charges are serious, though, and there are implications to the fact that this allegedly took place in the mikveh, of all places.
The mikveh is sacred space. All of it, including the rooms in which women prepare to immerse. The act of preparation is, in fact, part of the ritual. And the profound, complex, and deeply personal feelings that can be part of mikveh immersion can manifest in the preparation room as well as in the water itself.
Picture a woman returning to the mikveh for the first time after a miscarriage. She’s swimming in grief, still, maybe. Judaism doesn’t traditionally have a formal ritual to mark the loss of a pregnancy — except the mikveh. Her first immersion after first a time of hope, and then one of what’s all too often an unnamed bereavement is her ritual to mark what’s happened inside her body and her heart, everything she’s feeling and everything that’s different now.
Screenshot of Sears website
It was one thing when Spanish clothing giant Zara tried to explain away its children’s Holocaust shirt as an honest mistake, or when Walmart was selling a concentration camp poster as home decor. But now Sears finds itself in hot water over the very worst of these products.
The storied department store was selling a men’s silver swastika ring marketed to your average romantic punk rocker. The product was part of a gothic ring collection that “in particular features a Swastika ring that’s made of .925 Thai silver. Not for Neo Nazi or any Nazi implication. These jewelry items are going to make you look beautiful at your next dinner date.”
First of all, what self-respecting punk rocker shops at Sears for accessories? Second, is the men’s buyer for Sears blind?
Demonstrators call on the British parliament to recognize ‘Palestine’
The British Parliament’s decision to back a motion to “recognize the state of Palestine,” by a margin of 274 to 12 votes, means nothing — and everything.
Nothing, because the passage of this motion was a purely symbolic matter, close to but not really a true indication of parliamentary feeling on the matter, since not all MPs were allowed a free vote and fewer than half of them even bothered: 90% of Conservative MPs didn’t show up. At worst, the whole thing can be viewed as a stunt, promoted by a cadre of anti-Israel MPs on the backbenches, seized upon by Labour leader Ed Miliband to undermine the authority of the government and score political points, less than a year out from the general election.
The fact of the matter is that, even prior to the vote, the government was clear that its position on Palestinian statehood would not alter. While critical of settlement policy and human rights violations, the Conservative Party is the most pro-Israel party of the three main parties in Britain. The Conservative Friends of Israel continues to have a great deal of influence within the parliamentary party itself. One vote will not overturn that dynamic, nor will it make a state for the Palestinian people any more of a reality. Only the Israelis and Palestinians together, not the British, can make that happen.
So, no need for Israel to drag the British ambassador in for a lecture, as recently happened to Sweden’s envoy. But that doesn’t mean that Jerusalem should ignore events in Parliament entirely. While the vote might mean nothing today, it means everything insofar as it shows something is shifting in Britain and Europe more broadly, where the increasing criticism of Israel heard on the street is being reflected at a higher political level.
Christopher Columbus, left; Herzl, right. See the resemblance?
John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” asked a really simple yet poignant question: How is Columbus Day still a thing?
At this point, the American education system has modified textbooks to indicate that no, in fact, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. In fact, as Slate points out, the Italian explorer who set sail to bring wealth and glory to the Spanish monarchy was actually a colonizer whose arrival on the American continent brought misery and death to millions of Native Americans through slavery, disease and warfare.
So why do we still celebrate Columbus Day?
For Jews, at least, there may be a little-known reason to keep on marking this day: Columbus was Jewish. Not only that, but he was basically the Theodor Herzl of the 15th century.
Rebecca Vilkomerson speaking at the Open Hillel conference / Gili Getz
“I bought my ticket right after my rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah sermon. I knew I needed this community,” a student participant at the Open Hillel conference told me today.
The student went on to thank Open Hillel for providing a long overdue space for young Jews to come together and question the institutions, frameworks and viewpoints we have been taught. The message rang out loud and clear today at the inaugural Open Hillel conference: My generation is not content to be spoon-fed talking points, courted by free trips to Israel, or talked down to from patriarchal institutions that advocate policies at odds with our values. We want to proactively grapple with the hard questions that define the political and moral choices facing our community today.
Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership construct a political litmus test that prohibits the ability of students to engage with these questions. For Hillel, openness is an only-if-you-agree-with-our-funders kind of deal. The line is drawn at support for nonviolent resistance to occupation through boycott, divestment and sanctions — beyond that you become a “demonizer’” or “delegitimizer.” These are the rules of the conversation as dictated by Hillel, but the students are not content to stop there.
It was clear today, after hours of packed workshops, panels, speeches, and conversations in the hallways, at lunch and in the elevator, that the Open Hillel conference had struck a nerve. The floodgates have been opened and they aren’t shutting anytime soon. Over 350 people participated in this weekend’s conference — a far cry from the “small group of activists” Hillel International president Eric Fingerhut dismissed in his recent op-ed.
Just a few months before he was killed in a 1996 bus bombing, my JTS classmate Matt Eisenfeld held a party in his Jerusalem apartment. It was a Saturday night, but it was hardly a typical Saturday night event. It was a siyyum, a conclusion of study, celebrating his completion of Masechet Kiddushin, a long and difficult tractate of Talmud.
I’ll never forget the sense of joy at that party, as Matt taught us a passage from the tractate, and we ate and drank in his honor. It felt like a party with purpose, a party that honored his personal commitment to study, and it inspired me to begin to learn Talmud on my own. I may not finish a whole tractate, I thought at the time, but I can start…and I’ll see where it goes.
Since then, I have completed a few tractates of Talmud, and I’ve always thought of Matt at the concluding ritual.
But when I began to leyn, or chant, from the Torah, it never occurred to me that I could do the same. Jewish tradition doesn’t have any ritualized siyyum for reading the whole Torah aloud. So when my cousin told me he had hosted a Kiddush when he finished reading the text, I knew my next move. I started to keep track of the aliyot that I read, and I began to request the ones I hadn’t read yet for each next assignment. It got me to synagogue regularly, and it helped me get to know the people in the new communities I was joining. And this past summer, when I read the final aliyah that I had left, I hosted my own Kiddush, which I like to refer to as my Torah party.
With Simchat Torah around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Torah party. The thing is, it’s not really a thing in the Jewish community. Yet. But I think it should be.
Judith Butler speaks at the inaugural Open Hillel conference in Boston/Photo by Gili Getz/Open Hillel
(JTA) — Four rabbis are engaged in an animated debate about Jewish law. Three of them agree, but the dissenter is adamant that he’s got it right. He cries out: “A sign, God, I beg You, a sign!”
It begins to rain, but the three in the majority are not swayed. “Another sign, please God!”
The rain picks up and lightning strikes near the rabbis, but still the three refuse to budge. After another plea from the one rabbi, a voice thunders from Heaven: “Heeeee’s Riiiiight!” The three rabbis look at each other, not sure how to react. Finally, one responds: “Well, all right. So it’s three against two.”
This lighthearted parable — an adapted version of the Talmud’s “Oven of Akhnai” story — highlights one of the foundational truths of Judaism: We do not always agree on our foundational truths.
Our disagreements are not a hindrance to communal existence but rather the source of an intellectual diversity. No matter the subject, it is precisely in and through these disagreements that Judaism finds its richest expression.
Open Hillel — a student-led campaign to change a Hillel International rule that, among other things, precludes it from partnering with groups that seek to change Israeli policies through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts — is hosting our first conference this week at Harvard. We are gathering because we believe that the principle of intellectual diversity ought to apply to our politics as well as our theology.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student / Flickr: Hillel News and Views
Once again the love affair between the Jewish people and higher education is back in full bloom. The start of a new school year, and the Jewish New Year, marked the beginning of robust programming for Jewish college students across the globe.
As students dig into their studies, the events in Israel and Gaza this past summer are a hot topic on many campuses. In response, Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world — its growing network now serves some 550 campuses in North and South America, Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Israel — is drawing on its expertise in promoting deep and thoughtful discussion. Hillel is sponsoring a broad range of programs to help students understand the issues and how they will affect Israel and its neighbors in the future.
Hillel professionals have heard presentations from both the Israeli ambassador to the United States and the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. Hillel student leaders have organized interfaith gatherings and intercultural dialogues. Hillel educators have offered seminars and discussions for students to learn about contemporary Israeli society and culture, to reflect on their own relationships with Israel and to develop skills as dialogue facilitators.
Hillel students have also modeled what respectful discourse looks like: At Cooper Union Hillel in New York City, students countered an effort to boycott a speech by the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and encouraged Jewish students to attend and listen respectfully, which they did. And, of course, the tens of thousands of students who attended High Holiday services at Hillel joined Jews all over the world in praying for a year of peace for all people.
What all these activities have in common is they welcome and include students of all backgrounds, all political positions and who have an exceptionally wide array of relationships with their Jewish identities and with Israel. They do so within an environment that is intellectually rigorous, respectful of difference and committed to honest conversation. Hillel is among the most religiously, intellectually, culturally and politically pluralistic organizations in the Jewish world — a testament to both the diversity of Jewish experience and of the college campuses we serve.
Inclusivity and broad-mindedness are part of our core values. All students are always welcome at Hillel. And these values guide all of our work. That work includes listening to all student voices, including those of the activists behind the “Open Hillel” campaign and other campus groups.
Matzo balls, blintzes and – Beyonce? Not to mention Barbra Streisand’s agent? It’s a great start to a new year! Get quizzing!
(Haaretz) — As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to launch its production of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” John Adams and Alice Goodman’s 1991 operatic account of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the murder of a Jewish, wheelchair-bound passenger by Palestinian militants, the media has been abuzz. Protestors have gathered outside Lincoln Center demanding that the Met cancel the show, and agitating by the likes of the ADL has succeeded in blocking the planned global simulcast.
Opposing the opera, Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, has written that “civilized society, from the time of our caveman ancestors, has learned to protect itself by codifying right from wrong, separating the holy from the profane, distinguishing that which deserves the sound of orchestras from that which deserves our unconditional revulsion. The Met has smeared this distinction and thus betrayed their contract with society.”
But the show will go on, opening on October 20.
There are at least two major questions I think we need to ask about the opera itself. First, is “Klinghoffer’ morally problematic? Second, especially in light of Yom Kippur having has just passed, what is the role, if any, of apology and forgiveness when it comes to political misdeeds and inter-group reconciliation?
Scholars continue to debate the effectiveness of apology as a tool in conflict resolution scenarios. It may be enough to note here that 11 years after the incident, one of the operatives behind the hijacking and murder issued an apology, something which, six years after that, he seemed less certain about.
When I began going to Friday night services, I kept my cell phone on vibrate in my boot, pressed against my calf. I was 19 and living in New York; the idea of turning my phone off or simply leaving it at home was, then, as unrealistic as my walking to Manhattan from Brooklyn instead of taking the train. (Later, I would do all three.)
I was reminded of those days when reading about the Shabbos app, which has caused a stir in the Orthodox world. Its developers assert that they will resolve all halakhic issues related to using a smartphone on Shabbos, the Sabbath. The app launches — God willing? God not willing? — in February 2015, with downloads priced at $49.99 a pop.
Much of the controversy around the app is about the developers’ depictions of why the technology behind smartphones has been prohibited, followed by their point-by-point solutions. I’m not going to join the halakhic debate as I have neither the inclination nor the chops, but I do have the background to say that people observe Shabbos in many, many different ways. Others may not like those ways, or think they are permissible. But the week after Yom Kippur, with our slates wiped clean, the time is right to think about how we talk to and about each other.
One Friday night in my early Shabbos days, my phone vibrated and I ran out to take the call. As I was on the phone, a friend — who was more religious than I was — walked past me outside. Every particle in my body burst aflame with shame. “Sorry,” I mouthed, while still holding the phone to my ear.
You know the Village of New Square — that holy shtetl that keeps Judaism alive and well, that isolated Mecca of Hasidism and Follow-the-Rebbe-Blindly-ism? You may have heard of the arson attack two years ago on one of its residents, Aaron Rottenberg, which was allegedly incited by village leaders, or about the rampant cover-up of alleged sexual abuse, as revealed in recent headlines.
This week, in a letter to its Orthodox Jewish neighbors, New Square leaders, under the auspices of a very eloquent non-Square lawyer (entirely my guess), announced that it intends to reinvent itself as a wilderness until the second coming of the dinosaurs. Its new name will be The New Cube (because Old Square times New Square equals, of course, New Cube).
In a heartfelt letter, which was featured in an independent Orthodox weekly newsletter delivered to Monsey residents, New Square leaders beseech their neighbors — those gentile-ish Jews of Monsey — to resist buying property within a 1-mile radius of New Square to help protect the late Skver Rebbe’s wishes: to be isolated from the impurities of common, lesser humans — that is to say, non-Hasidim, and especially non-Jews.
After days of discussing the Shabbos App — the new technology that claims to allow you to use your iPhone on Shabbat without breaking any Jewish laws — someone finally asked me a question that cut to the core of the issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?”
My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones to my Shabbat experience.
That is the real issue here. The halachic question about whether it is permissible or prohibited and why is a fascinating and important discussion, but it’s relatively obscure and esoteric. Digging into the nitty-gritty halachic nuances is enjoyable for me, but I think we have to look at the big picture and examine the social and communal issues raised by the Shabbos App.
To me, it’s real simple. No one would have thought of the Shabbos App or the need for the Shabbos App if people were enjoying the break from technology that Shabbat affords. If we all loved being off our phones for 25 hours, the Shabbos App would be superfluous. No one would want it. No one would care to have it. But that is not the reality.
Many people struggle with observing Shabbat every week. The phone is a private and quiet way to escape Shabbat observance. That’s one the many allures of the smartphone. It’s like holding the universe in your hands, and if someone is feeling stifled by Shabbat observance, the world in one’s hands can feel quite liberating.
“There is no asylum seeker problem in Israel.”
So said Netanyahu when, following his recent address to members of the Jewish Federations of North America in New York, one of the attendees raised the issue of African asylum-seekers.
“They are illegal job immigrants,” the Israeli prime minister said, adding: “Asylum seekers can come in like those from Syria — but not job seekers from Africa.”
There are a few problems with this.
First of all, while all of Syria’s other neighbors have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees (Turkey and Lebanon each host over one million Syrian refugees), Israel has accepted none. Israel does welcome Syrians who’ve been injured in the ongoing civil war in the country and offer them top-notch medical treatment free of charge. Most patients are interested in returning, but even in cases when they are not, they are deported back to a country engulfed in war. Thus, the State opposed the petition filed to the High Court by a 17-year-old Syrian girl who was treated in Israel and wished to remain here. She was deported to Syria in early 2014.
But, more than that, there’s the fact that about 48,000 African migrants reside in Israel. The government insists that they are “illegal work infiltrators.” Is that true — or are they refugees who would face persecution if returned to their homelands?
(JTA) — That Jerusalem building approval blow-up between the Netanyahu and Obama governments? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel media watchdogs like Honest Reporting are pressing the storyline that Peace Now is at fault. Which is kind of like blaming routers for the bad news you posted on the Internet.
Let’s review: On Sept. 24 the Interior Ministry published in Kol Ha’Ir, a free Jerusalem weekly, an “Announcement of a project approval.” It refers to plans to allow the building of 2,355 to 2,561 units in Givat HaMatos, in the area of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as a future capital. Its key phrase is high up: “Building approvals and permits: A project that is authorized to issue approvals and permits.”
The language is important because, although the plan was approved in 2012, the ad signals the go-ahead for building; its publication makes it harder to reverse the proposal. Sept. 24, as it happens, was also the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
On Oct. 1 — yesterday, and the day Netanyahu met with Obama — Peace Now and Terrestrial Jerusalem noted the announcement’s publication. The building permit became an issue in the talks between Obama and Netanyahu and resulted an an unusually sharp rebuke from the White House.