Josh and Mark on the day of their commitment ceremony / Danielle Perelman
On a recent Sunday night, I did something that in the past I never thought I would do.
Nine years ago, I voted “no” on the most well-known Conservative Movement responsum on homosexuality, the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah on “Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah.” At the time, I would not have envisioned myself — this past week, or ever — officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony. How I ended up doing just that is, I believe, reflective of the great strengths of the Rabbinical Assembly and of our Conservative movement.
About a year ago, two young lawyers, Josh and Mark, requested that I officiate at their commitment ceremony. It was not something that I had ever been asked to do previously, so I had not given the possibility much thought, even though my 2006 vote would have suggested my declining the request.
But that was before I met with the two young men, both of whom impressed me deeply with their senses of humor and personal warmth, their depth of Jewish learning and commitment. Both coming from Conservative backgrounds, they wanted a kosher simcha, a ceremony held in a synagogue (contrary to today’s overwhelming trend of hotel and wedding-hall venues), and a commitment ceremony such as those they had already found on the Rabbinical Assembly website.
After meeting with these two men, I knew I wanted to say yes. With the support of my leadership, I agreed to the ceremony, recognizing that my theoretical opposition to such an event a decade earlier had melted once confronted by two real live human beings who loved each other, and similarly cherished every aspect of their Jewish identities.
I told them that it would not be a marriage service, would not include the classic sheva berakhot, and would not use a standard ketubah, all of which accorded with their wishes as well. They wanted to work as closely as possible within the confines of a halakhic environment, in other words, to be groundbreaking while holding sacred the Jewish legal framework of the Conservative movement in which they had been raised.
Then came the ceremony with 300 people, representing a cross-section of the community, the vast majority heterosexual, the vast majority Jewish, including a significant number of young Modern Orthodox Jews who danced with the joy and enthusiasm seen most often at frum weddings. I would not have imagined, nine years ago, when I voted against the Dorff-Nevins-Reisner teshuvah, that I would come to view this ceremony as one of the true spiritual highlights of my rabbinic career.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka chats with Pope Francis during their visit to Holy Land last year. /Getty Images
(JTA) — Rabbi Abraham Skorka traveled from Buenos Aires to Washington to wax lyrical about his passion – interfaith dialogue – and intimate about his well-known pal, Pope Francis. Also to plug his movement, the Masorti movement, and its strides in Latin America.
Timing dictated that he also issue a plea to his government: Press ahead with the AMIA case in the wake of the suspicious death of its prosecutor.
Skorka’s appearance at the Argentinean embassy in Washington came Tuesday just hours after the news of the death by gunshot of Alberto Nisman, the lead prosecutor collecting evidence of culpability in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.
News of Nisman’s death came just hours before he was to present evidence to Argentina’s congress that he said implicated his country’s president and foreign minister in a nefarious cover-up scheme.
“This is a moment of great sorrow, of great pain and consternation for all Argentineans, for all the people living in Argentina,” Skorka said, when I asked him to expand on comments he had made earlier, addressing diplomats and Conservative movement luminaries.
Ever since publication of my Dec. 23 story on the decision by United Synagogue Youth to relax its rules barring teenage USY board members from dating non-Jews (“USY drops ban on interdating”), JTA has found itself at the center of a firestorm about coverage of the Conservative youth movement’s decision. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “We are dismayed by the mischaracterization of these policies in the press.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: “We live in a society that shoots first and asks questions later… We’re talking about two sentences: You don’t teach people how to have a life of value in a constitutional document.”
Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Va., writing in Haaretz: “What makes for good click-bait does not necessarily convey truth.”
Andrew Van Bochove, a Times of Israel blogger and middle school band director who works with USYers: “The same exact day the USYers were being socially active, the JTA published an article that rapidly spread with negativity. Such negativity can be construed As Lashon Hara (gossip) which is actually one of the items the USYers at discussion are trying to conquer.”
Here at JTA, we’ve watched the brouhaha with some degree of bewilderment. What, exactly, did we get wrong?
(Haaretz) — The Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service ran an article about the United Synagogue Youth’s annual international convention, under the headline “USY drops ban on interdating.”
Unfortunately, this headline, which was widely circulated among Jewish news outlets, failed to capture the real issue that emerged from the confab. A more apt headline would have been “Jewish teens in 21st century Diaspora cast vote in favor of Shabbat observance.”
The Conservative youth movement’s teenage board members, who convened in Atlanta, Georgia, last week, used positive language to reframe the traditional requirements for those elected to the board.
They spoke about creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and fostering healthy attitudes toward Jewish dating. They eliminated the harshly worded “lo taaseh” (“thou shalt not”) ban on interdating, replacing it with a call to “model healthy Jewish dating choices.”
However, if we in the Jewish community spend our time focusing on interdating reform, then we have missed the real issue in this story: the youth leaders’ decision to uphold the requirement that they observe Shabbat.
There has always been an expectation that USY leaders should publicly maintain Shabbat observance. In practical terms, this means not being “out on Friday night,” not going to school on Jewish holidays, synagogue involvement, and trying to make place for Shabbat and holidays within one’s home, regardless of your family’s level of observance.
Rabbi Yaakov Perlow speaks at the Agudath Isael annual gala / YouTube
On Wednesday we learned that, while speaking at a fundraising gala for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of that organization, slandered virtually every Jew on the planet, down to and including a bunch of plain-old-Orthodox folks. We were told that attendees of the event were “stunned.”
“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people,” Perlow said. And also: “[The Reform and Conservative Movements] have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation. They have no future, they almost have no present.” And furthermore, the Open Orthodoxy movement is “steeped in apikorsos [heresy].”
It was quite the little speech. But stunned? Really? Attendees were stunned? Do they not get out much?
Perlow heads an organization that is, by definition, extremist. They believe themselves to be upholding the strictest, and thus most correct, interpretation of God’s own Divine law; they believe that the existence of the Jewish people, the coming of Messiah, and quite possibly the world itself depends on the painstaking observance of that interpretation — which is not, in their understanding, an interpretation at all, but simply Jewish law, halakhah.
Of course he thinks you’re a bad Jew — no, I’m sorry, not a “bad Jew.” He thinks that you’re a literal danger to Judaism itself. You have come — yes, you! — to “subvert and destroy the eternal values” of the Jewish people. You! (Unless you happen to be Haredi, and Perlow’s kind of Haredi at that, in which case, welcome to Forward Thinking, we try to be a very welcoming blog).
William “Jerry” Boykin / Getty Images
William “Jerry” Boykin, a retired general and Christian conservative, has come under fire after telling an Israeli reporter that Jews are “the cause of all the problems in the world,” in what was seemingly an awkward attempt at humor. Boykin, executive vice president of the right-wing Family Research Council, who is widely known for his anti-Muslim advocacy, also told a reporter that Obama secretly sides with Al-Qaeda and sent “subliminal messages” of support to Muslims during his well-publicized appearance in Egypt in 2009.
The “hot mic” remarks were made following a speech at the National Security Action Summit, held just a few blocks from the Conservative Political Action Conference this past weekend. Boykin spoke at a panel entitled “Benghazigate: The Ugly Truth and the Cover-up.” The video feed for the live webcast went dark but its audio continued running and the off-air remarks are now available on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, which first covered the story.
Boykin can be heard accusing Obama of secretly sending messages of support to Egyptians during his famed 2009 speech in Cairo. “If you understand anything about Islam,” he said, “there are subliminal messages.” He asserted that Muslim extremist groups have taken advantage of the supposed unbending support of the American president, confident that he is “unwilling to go against them.”
After Boykin’s remarks about Obama’s supposed unrelenting support for Muslims, a reporter from Israel’s right-wing news site IsraelNationalNews.com approached him and requested a brief interview. Jokingly, Boykin accused Jews of causing all of the world’s problems. The reporter responded, “I know, I know, that’s why we’re trying to fix everything.”
Two weeks ago, when the Forward launched its special editorial project America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, we had no idea what to expect. We asked people of all ages, denominations and backgrounds to nominate a rabbi who has inspired them or who had a profound effect on their lives or in their communities. But would readers respond? Would they take the time to write 200 words about a rabbi? Would we receive stories from a cross-section of American Jews — and would those stories move us? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES!
America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis marks the first phase of our year-long investigation into the challenges and changing roles of the American rabbinate. Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner launched this initiative in a recent editorial, in which she addressed the effect our stalled economy has had on job opportunities for both young and old rabbis, as well as the difficulties women face breaking into the all-male Orthodox world — and the difficulties the Reform movement faces attracting men to its synagogues. As she concluded, “defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”
Like many Jewish leaders, I have devoted the majority of my professional life to advocating on behalf of my denomination. Sometimes the need is concrete, other times ideological. From supporting the worldwide network of the 600-plus Conservative kehillot to agitating on behalf of a Judaism that is pluralistic, intellectually compelling and rooted in tradition, my religious identity is often inextricable from my personal Jewish “brand.”
Much of this is unavoidable. Not a month goes by without an invitation to speak about a topic of endless fascination to the Jewish public: the current state of Conservative Judaism. Whether joining together with the heads of my sister organizations to construct a wide lens view or honing on a particular geography — I will be moderating a panel discussion on the renaissance of Conservative Judaism on Manhattan’s East Side in December — I declare myself, time and again, a spokesperson for Conservative Judaism.
But I was reminded of the limits of denominationalism this past week in the course of my hastily arranged Solidarity Tour to Israel on Day 7 of Operation Pillar of Defense. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, I joined with a group of North American Jewish leaders from United Synagogue to the Union for Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union to the Jewish Federations of North America and other Zionist groups.
Together, we visited the mayors of the cities most affected by Hamas missiles, the injured civilians and soldiers, the damaged property, the brave Israeli citizens under threat of extinction every single day. Together we met with Israeli president Shimon Peres. Together we boarded buses from Ashkelon to Beer Sheva to Jerusalem, united as Jews, representatives of our denominations, yes, but stripped of the agendas that occupy us back in our offices in North America.
There’s good news and bad news for President Obama in a new survey of American Jewish opinion released Thursday by the Workmen’s Circle. First, the bad news: Jewish voters favor Obama over Mitt Romney by about two to one — 59% to 27%, with 14% undecided. If undecideds follow the same 2-to-1 split, the result will be 68% to 32%. This points to a 10% drop from November 2008, when Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote, according to national exit polls at the time. The good news is that it’s not November yet, and if you compare June 2012 to June 2008, Obama is doing considerably better now than he was then. At this point in 2008 Jews were backing Obama by only 62% to rival John McCain’s 31%, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. Obama dropped further in July 2008, to 61-34, before beginning a steady rise in August. In fact, a surge might already be discernible this year, if we compare the Workmen’s Circle survey with a similar survey released two months ago, April 3, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute for the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Will the president repeat his 2008 late-summer uptick? Hard to say. Romney isn’t likely to give him the sort of gift McCain offered when he chose the spectacularly unqualified Sarah Palin as his running-mate. On the other hand, everything else in the Workmen’s Circle poll, which was conducted by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, points to a Jewish public that remains solidly liberal. Given the starkly conservative cast of the Republican campaign so far, it seems unlikely that Romney could muster more enthusiasm among Jewish voters than the more moderate McCain did in 2008. It could be that distress over Obama’s Israel policies will lower his Jewish support, but both surveys show Israel playing very little role in Jewish voters’ thinking. In fact, Cohen’s statistical analysis of respondents’ preferences and demographic characteristics indicates that people who have strong opinions about Israel tend to show a host of other tendencies that factor as strongly if not more so into their decisions.
In some ways the Workmen’s Circle survey confirms the trends that turned up in the Cummings Foundation survey in April; in other ways the WC sample is more conservative (I’m not sure why, and I won’t speculate right now). In certain ways, both polls — and a third one, the American Jewish Committee annual survey, released April 30 — look remarkably similar. Remarkable, that is, considering that they use different methodologies, draw on different population samples and reflect a variety of sponsors’ ideologies from the upscale liberal Cummings Foundation to the grittier left-liberal Workmen’s Circle to the devoutly centrist AJC.