Forward Thinking

The Rabbi Freundel Scandal Is Our Fault, Too

By Eliyahu Fink

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.

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Jews Take Action Against Jewish Press Gay 'Conversion' Ad

By Rachel D. Benaim

Getty Images

Young Jewish professionals have started taking action against The Jewish Press in response to their advertisement for JONAH International, the Jewish gay “conversion” therapy organization.

Yesterday, as the social media outrage towards the JONAH ad on The Jewish Press’ website continued, Chaim Levin, a former JONAH participant and witness in the infamous lawsuit against the organization, commented on Facebook that he had initially discovered JONAH from the long running Jewish Press ad in question.

In July 2010, Levin and another former participant of JONAH, Ben Unger, alleged in an interview that as part of JONAH counselor, Alan Downing’s therapy, he requested that his participants strip off their clothing in front of a mirror and touch their genitals in his presence.

Both Unger and Levin encouraged the current social action.

Since Levin issued his comments yesterday afternoon on Facebook, Sarah Gross, a board member of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, publicized a Facebook group entitled “Jewish Press: Stop Enabling Abuse.”

Within hours of its launch, the page had 152 likes.

The Jewish Press has yet to issue a response.

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Why Bother Converting to ‘Cat GIF’ Judaism?

By Mordechai Lightstone

Grumpy Cat

In her recent editorial, Jane Eisner confronts what she views as the problems with Judaism’s current conversion process — and conversion’s potential usefulness in “sustaining the future” of the Jewish people.

When we speak of the modern conversion process, it’s important to separate social practices from religious mandate. Many of the issues that Eisner notes are social in nature: the stigma of calling a person a “convert” rather than a Jew, the potential shame of using one’s “Hebrew name affixed with ‘son of Abraham and Sarah’ rather than with his (presumably) non-Jewish parents,” and potentially exorbitant fees for conversion classes.

These are issues that may need to be seriously addressed, but they are problems within our own personal outlook and our own sad struggle with the Biblical injunction to “love the convert” — not problems with the mandated conversion process.

What surprises me most about Eisner’s words is the glibness with which she thinks conversions should be performed. As if being Jewish were membership in an exciting club or the latest juicing fad, she suggests that Judaism should be made accessible to everyone who merely “like[s] being [a Jew] and want[s] to pass that along.” In Eisner’s eyes, Judaism is “essentially an emotional decision” — a decision that people can easily make if they want a simple path towards a meaningful life.

But being a Jew means more than just being an ethical and upright person, enjoying a bagel with shmear, and appreciating Woody Allen, Lena Dunham or even Heschel and Buber. And Judaism already offers a potential path for non-Jews looking to live a more spiritually endowed and meaningful life: They can find it in the Seven Noahide Laws and the universal Jewish teachings on the unity of the Creator and the spiritual potential we all possess.

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Meet the McJunkins (They're Jewish!)

By Julie Wiener

Alexander Rapaport

(JTA) — Just in time for Shavuot, with its reading of the Book of Ruth about Judaism’s first convert, a Tennessee family of 12’s conversion to Judaism has prompted an outpouring of support from Brooklyn’s haredi Orthodox community.

On Sunday, Sholom and Nechama (originally Chad and Libby) McJunkin brought their 10 children to Brooklyn to complete 12 conversions and have a Jewish wedding ceremony.

Their wedding, held in the backyard of Rabbi Tzvi Mandel’s house adjacent to his small synagogue in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood, attracted 100 people. Many of the guests were gift-bearing strangers who had learned about the family through an impromptu surprise online wedding registry established Saturday night by Alexander Rapaport, executive director of the kosher soup kitchen Masbia.

The online registry, which was featured Sunday in the Vos Iz Neias newspaper, includes various staples, such as Judaica and kosher grocery gift certificates, for the family’s newfound Orthodox Jewish life. By midday Tuesday it had raised almost $10,000 from 235 people.

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Israeli Rabbinate Should Learn From Shavuot Heroine

By Pesach Sommer

Russian immigrants to Israel / Courtesy of Alona Sibuk

Her story is well known. She came from a foreign land where she lived like a princess. Despite a very questionable connection to Judaism, she chose to follow her mother-in-law to Israel. There, she lived in abject poverty, getting by only by taking charity. Even when she found a kind stranger to help her, there were those who continued to doubt whether she belonged in Israel, and tried to prevent her from getting married.

Her name is Irina, Svetlana or Marissa, and you don’t have to read the Book of Ruth — as Jews around the world will do this week for Shavuot — to know her story and feel for her, her family, and the literally hundreds of thousands of other Russians of Jewish descent who are living in limbo in Israel.

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Did Israeli Conversions Just Get a Lot Easier?

By Nathan Jeffay

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images

Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.

Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.

Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”

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The Conversion Debate Gets Fiery in Jerusalem

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Eli Yishai: Debate Crasher

The Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres’s vanity international blabfest, continues today with a series of panel discussions on the woes of the global economy and the future of the Jewish people. I don’t think we’ve solved the world’s economic problems, but there have been a few bombshells dropped into the field of Jewish identity.

The most interesting was a panel on conversion, which included Rabbi Peter Knobel (Reform), Rabbi Gilah Dror (Conservative), Professor Dov Maimon (modern Orthodox think-tanker) , Israeli justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

It was supposed to include a Haredi rabbi, Yehezkel Weinfeld, but he phoned moderator Shmuel Rosner an hour before and said he couldn’t attend. No suggestion that he was sick or called to an emergency, Rosner tells me. He just couldn’t come. At the end, during Q and A, a Haredi gent rose from the audience, one Shmuel Jakobovits (son of the late, revered British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits) and said that Rabbi Weinfeld had asked him to attend in his place. Not to sit on the dais with the Reformim and lady rabbis, mind you - just to be there.

So what happened? Maimon proposed the introduction of a new form of conversion that he called “civilizational conversion,” in which one would seek membership in the religious community of the Jewish people, but without necessarily committing oneself to observe the Orthodox commandments, as Orthodox conversion now requires. This sort of reframed the discussion. He had few details — it’s apparently still an idea in infancy — but we’re going to hear more about it in months to come, you betcha.

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