The Binding of Isaac
It’s a question that has puzzled believers, scholars and philosophers for millennia: Did Abraham really intend to kill his son Isaac?
On November 16, Jewish New Yorkers had a chance to decide the question once and for all, when Abraham was put on trial for child endangerment and attempted second-degree murder. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they absolved the father of monotheism of any wrongdoing.
It was a celebrity court case like any other, complete with a packed courtroom, a much-adored defendant, two hotshot attorneys and a highly controversial verdict.
But unlike, say, the O.J. Simpson trial, case no. 5775 was argued in a synagogue, and the crime with which it concerned itself took place over 3,000 years ago.
The trial, held at the historic Reform Temple Emanu-El, was presided over by New York federal judge Alison J. Nathan, who admitted to “having some serious doubts about my jurisdiction here.” Over 1,300 (mostly Jewish) New Yorkers paid $36 for the privilege of serving on the jury to judge their forbear.
Lisa, left, and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer / Haaretz
(JTA) — On Oct. 8, 1985, our 69-year-old wheelchair-bound father, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot in the head by Palestinian hijackers on the Achille Lauro cruise ship. The terrorists brutally and unceremoniously threw his body and wheelchair overboard into the Mediterranean. His body washed up on the Syrian shore a few days later.
Beginning on Oct. 20 for eight performances, a baritone portraying “Leon Klinghoffer” will appear on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and sing the “Aria of the Falling Body” as he artfully falls into the sea. Competing choruses will highlight Jewish and Palestinian narratives of suffering and oppression, selectively presenting the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The four terrorists responsible for his murder will be humanized by distinguished opera singers and given a back story, an “explanation” for their brutal act of terror and violence. Opera-goers will see and hear a musical examination of terrorism, the Holocaust and Palestinian claims of dispossession — all in fewer than three hours.
Since the Met Opera’s decision to stage “The Death of Klinghoffer” by composer John Adams became public several months ago, much has been said and written about our father. Those opposed to the opera’s appearance in New York have elevated his murder at the hands of terrorists into a form of martyrdom. To cultural arbiters and music critics, meanwhile, his tragic story has been seen merely as a vehicle for what they perceive to be artistic brilliance.
For us, the impact and message of the opera is much more deeply felt and tragically personal. Neither Mr. Adams nor librettist Alice Goodman reached out to us when creating the opera, so we didn’t know what to expect when we attended the American debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991. We were devastated by what we saw: the exploitation of the murder of our father as a vehicle for political commentary.
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice march in New York / JFREJ
Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality. My Shabbat was, as it was for many other Jews, a time of reflection and restoration, a time to remember (zakhor) and a time to observe (shamor).
I remembered the innocents whose lives were snatched away for the crime of being people of color in the United States. I remembered my obligation as a Jewish person to see myself as someone who came out of Egypt, who knows the suffering of someone made to feel a stranger in a strange land, and who lives by the creed that all people are made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
I observed this Shabbat as a time of reflection, contemplation, and community. Rabbi Scott Perlo of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue argued that social justice has a place in Shabbat, that “[Shabbat] is about seeing. It is about understanding. It is about contemplating. It is about generating compassion. It is about seeing our small place in the big picture. It is about recognizing how we fit, before we fix.”
As I marched, I listened to the people who are daily, directly affected by discriminatory and abusive policing. I dug down into myself for compassion and empathy and at the same time reflected on how radically different our situations are. I marched as part of a Jewish community who thinks this difference is fundamentally wrong, who abhors that people in this country are treated as criminals because of their identity rather than their actions.
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum / WN
Claiming “Hamas propaganda” has infected the pulpit, a director of the nation’s largest LGBT synagogue resigned in an angry e-mail this week, igniting a firestorm on social media.
But the rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is calling the resignation letter “a twisted perversion of the facts.”
In his e-mail, Bryan Bridges claimed that CBST and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum had been more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than to the risks facing Jews in Israel.
“Recent events have demonstrated that CBST is far more committed to a progressive political agenda than to the Jewish people,” Bridges wrote. “This raises a question for members: Why belong to this synagogue instead of a different religious group such as the Unitarian church or an activist organization such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid?”
Bridges claimed his ire grew after he “heard that Rabbi [Sharon] Kleinbaum had read the names of Gazan casualties on the same day that Hamas violated the sixth humanitarian ceasefire by kidnapping a soldier,” and that Kleinbaum had “invited a group advocating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel to host an event at the synagogue.”
“Shalom!” – “Salaam!” – “Peace!”
So started the evening, “Fasting together, Praying for Peace” at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, New York, this past Tuesday evening. Jews, Muslims and Christian neighbors gathered together to talk, learn, pray and break the fast together. The Jewish minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz coincided with the eighteenth day of the fast of Ramadan. The groups came together, under the auspices of the Long Island Board of Rabbis and the Islamic Center of Long Island, partnering with the Long Island Council of Churches, the Long Island Muslim Society, the Sid Jacobson JCC and the American Muslims and Jews in Dialogue. It was a long list of those who wanted contact and the beginnings of healing.
The idea of a day of fasting together, or in the language of civil protest, “a hunger strike for peace” was first proposed by Eliaz Cohen, an Israeli poet. Cohen wrote of his aspirations for the day.
For both traditions – this is a day designated for soul-searching, an opportunity for people to take responsibility, for self repair and for self and communal purification and for repentance. This is an attempt to direct the consciousness of both peoples to this day as a peak day in which each man and woman in their home and in their communities will be invited to take part, to fast in solidarity with the suffering, violence and pain of self and others, to ask how to end the cycle of bloodshed and draw a horizon of hope and vision. Afternoon gatherings and classes will be held between the two communities – sharing stories, studying and praying together, and by the appearance of the stars the people gathered will share an “iftar” – breaking the fast with a delicious meal.
When I arrived at the program with my husband, I only recognized one other individual. And although I felt alone in certain ways, I also felt part of something much larger. Both Jews and Muslims had responded to Cohen’s call and similar groups were meeting in Israel, in Philadelphia, in Oakland, California and in Palo Alto. People met in Texas and in London and in Kuwait.
(JTA) — Robert Neulander, a Syracuse, N.Y., physician active in his local Jewish community, was indicted this week in the murder of his wife.
Whether the 62-year-old Robert Neulander — who chaired his local federation’s campaign and has served on the board of his JCC — is found guilty or innocent in the Sept. 17, 2012 death of his wife, Leslie, he will be the second American Jewish leader named Neulander to face such charges.
In 1998, on the eve of the High Holidays, Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, N.J., was taken into police custody and accused of hiring a hit men to murder his wife, Carol, in their home four years earlier. The longtime spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom, a 1,000-member Reform temple he founded (he resigned before the indictment, after news leaked that he was under investigation), Rabbi Neulander is believed to have been the first American rabbi ever tried for murder. While his first trial resulted in a hung jury, Neulander was convicted in 2002. Now 72, he is serving a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison.
In addition to the shared indictment of wife murder and each man’s prominence in his local Jewish community — Dr. Neulander is still listed as a board member on the Jewish Federation of Central New York website — the two Neulander cases have a number of things in common. (It is not clear whether or not the two are related by blood.) Each was freed on bail after being arraigned ($400,000 for the rabbi, $100,000 for the doctor); each was indicted more than a year after his wife’s death and both had several adult children (three for the rabbi, four for the doctor). Each wife was found dead in the home she shared with her husband — Carol in the living room, Leslie in the bathroom.
As Rabbi Neulander’s trial neared a close, JTA attempted to ascertain “the impact of the Neulander trial on the Jewish community.” Kim Fendrick, a member of Neulander’s temple, told JTA that when Neulander “was a rabbi, he was a rabbi, and he did a very, very good job. When he didn’t assume the rabbi’s cloak, he was a very vulnerable person. This is not unusual in the world in general. I suspect that Hitler was very nice to Eva Braun.”
But the disconnect between the two was problematic: “This really touches our souls, because we trust our religious leaders, and we wonder whether we can trust anybody when something like this happens,” she said. “It certainly touches me as a Jew.
“So many people, especially young people, put such faith and trust and honor in this man, and they have been so disappointed,” she said, pointing to those for whom Fred Neulander was a teacher, a role model, a religious leader — the man who shaped their values and officiated at their life-cycle events.
How Dr. Neulander’s trial will affect his central New York community remains to be seen, although for now, the Forward reported this week, local leaders are calling his arrest “a major shock, especially given his activism in the Jewish community and in other humanitarian causes.”
Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
(JTA) — It has been two decades since the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rebbe whose influence was felt far beyond the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect he led.
Within hours after the long-ailing Schneerson, more commonly known as “the rebbe,” died at age 92, JTA reporters visited Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Chabad is based, to report on the scene there:
All along Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights’ main drag and the site of Chabad headquarters, “the sound of tambourines and chants of ‘Melech ha-Moshiach” — the Chasidic movement’s call for the biblically prophesied Messiah — could be heard.”
Meanwhile, in Israel:
Crowds of Lubavitcher Chasidim mobbed Ben-Gurion International Airport, offering to pay cash for any ticket that might get them to the funeral. El Al Israel Airlines scheduled an extra flight on a jumbo jet for some 450 of the rebbe’s followers. But neither El Al nor any of the foreign airlines that serve Israel had other craft they could divert for the thousands who thronged into the departure area.
While attendance at the burial, in a Queens cemetery, was restricted, JTA described the “emotional scene earlier in Crown Heights” as an estimated 35,000 people gathered “under overcast skies” outside Lubavitch headquarters in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rebbe’s coffin:
When the plain pine coffin appeared, the scene became one of emotional mayhem, with women wailing and men pressing forward to touch it. The 350 police who were on the scene could barely contain the surging crowds, and the pallbearers had difficulty getting the coffin into a waiting hearse. Despite the sudden rush to the coffin from the sea of black-hatted mourners, no injuries were reported. The crowds walked behind the slowly moving vehicle, which led them on a processional through the Crown Heights neighborhood. Some 50 buses were waiting to take some of the rebbe’s followers to the cemetery after the procession was over. Among the dignitaries present at Lubavitch headquarters were New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s opposition Likud bloc; Gad Yaacobi, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; Colette Avital, Israeli consul general in New York; and Lester Pollack and Malcolm Hoenlein, the chairman and executive vice chairman respectively of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
(JTA) — Evil twins make frequent appearances in the cheesier sorts of movies and television shows, yet tend to be less common in state politics. But not according New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Silver has never lacked for chutzpah, but he appears to have taken it to Olympian heights with his most recent dodge. In March, the New York Times published a long article documenting the decades-long efforts by Silver and his now-disgraced former ally William Rapfogel, through a group called the United Jewish Council, to keep slum-cleared blocks of the Lower East Side empty for decades, rather than have them be rebuilt and repopulated by non-Jews who might dilute the political strength of Silver’s Jewish base. It didn’t paint a pretty picture of Silver, who came across as scheming, duplicitous and self-interested.
But wait! said Silver’s office. It was all just a misunderstanding. According Silver and his allies, the United Jewish Council was represented by another Sheldon Silver, and it was he who took all of these dastardly actions that just happened to prop up the power base of this Sheldon Silver.
And, in fact, there was another Sheldon Silver — Sheldon E. Silver — and he did work as an attorney for the UJC. It was the evil twin! (Perhaps the E stands for evil!)
Only Sheldon E. Silver — a transplant from Minneapolis who eventually joined Chabad, moved out to Brooklyn and passed away in 2001 — only worked for UJC for a few months. And reporter Russ Buettner dug back through the documents, made a few phone calls, and found that Sheldon E. Silver directed precisely none of the many actions taken by the UJC to block the redevelopment of the Lower East Side. Those were taken by, you know, the other Sheldon Silver. The Speaker of the Assembly. The guy who was lying.
Anyway, read the whole thing.
Unless…it was the other other Shelly Silver! Stay tuned…
Francesca Sternfeld and Ruth Messinger / Courtesy of the authors
So, imagine sharing a large apartment with someone else who loves life, enjoys good food, cooks well, reads intensively and extensively [but not always the same material] and is not always but often willing to hear about your day or your life and offer wise advice. Those of us who throw ourselves into our work and our studies as we do need just such a person to share with, to collapse with and to consult at the end of what are often very long days.
Well, here we are, eight months in and planning on an ongoing shared living relationship over the next year or two. We each cherish the benefits and find few challenges and no obstacles. The fact that we are grand-daughter and grandmother is an added plus, but a very big one; it brings us together at a point in our lives when we might otherwise not be so connected — something which happens all too often and is a sad consequence of our modern lives.
New York, of course, is the key. Ruth has lived here almost all of her life, adores the West Side, travels a lot for work, but relishes coming home. And Francesca grew up elsewhere [Salt Lake City and Miami], had a few college years near the City, knew what it offered in terms of people, culture and food and decided on a visit a year ago that this was where her body and soul needed to be. And it is a city that a 28 year old student can live in with only part time work but to be sure not easily, and not on the West Side absent a large slew of roommates.
Ruth: I have a crazy travel and work schedule, and a husband who works in Connecticut during the week. I love, love, love having a smart, thoughtful, passionate, caring housemate — the fact that she is my granddaughter is the icing on the cake. I love knowing something about her life and sharing good food, wise discussion, the New York Times and shopping suggestions. I am glad she puts up with my penchant for old movies and bad TV [better than my husband I might add]. I love having a restaurant, movie, theater companion who nudges me to neighborhoods and experiences I might otherwise miss. I love being reminded what a serious exercise regimen looks like, understanding that Francesca benefits from meditation which I still need to learn to do, seeing her build a spectacular wardrobe out of the best of two local thrift shops and learning from her about parts of the world she knows intimately that I do not — including Egypt and Italy. Together we make the world’s best granola.
And I consider it a special privilege of this particular granddaughter and our relationship that I know some things I might otherwise never know [but also not too much] about her love life. And I adore her friends who often stop by for an evening, an exercise class she teaches, a week in New York City which would otherwise not be available to them. I treasure her spectacular “listening ear” [she will make a great social worker], her capacity to draw others out, her wonderful witticisms and sense of humor and the way she has been there for me over a few tough issues.
Shopping at J&R Music World always felt weirdly haimish.
Despite the fact that the electronics retailer owned an entire (and very lucrative) block in Lower Manhattan, there was something endearingly shabby about the chainlet founded by Israeli immigrants Joe and Rachelle Friedman (J. and R., get it?) as a basement record store in 1971.
On Thursday, J&R’s brick-and-mortar operations ceased to exist. As the New York Daily News reported, the Friedmans issued a statement today to announce the closings.
“On April 10th, J&R will close its doors so that we can rebuild this location into what we hope will be an unprecedented retailing concept and social mecca,” the statement said. “A lot has changed in these 43 years, including not only the way we listen to music and the technology products we sell, but the way people shop and socialize.”
In recent years, the Friedmans had already started consolidating their retail business, compressing an unruly row of shops along Manhattan’s Park Row into a single – and sterile – vertical mall at the end of the block. The stores had been “struggling amid a difficult environment for consumer electronics retailers,” the Daily News wrote.
Young Jews discuss Israel at a ‘Resetting the Table’ event in Brooklyn. / Ezra Weinberg
This past Sunday, in the high-beamed, chilly Brooklyn Lyceum, a group of 20- and 30-somethings tried to talk about Israel — no small feat.
The program, called “Resetting the Table,” was designed to allow young people to get together and go really deep, really fast. Guided through the rough waters of this conversation by Eyal Rabinovitch and a team of Facilitation Fellows trained by him and Daniel Silberbusch, the 50 or so young people who showed up were held to communication guidelines that asked, among other things, that they honor confidentiality, listen with resilience, speak with respect and avoid generalizations. Essentially, it asked them to be civil.
And it’s no wonder: this iteration of “Resetting the Table” was funded by the UJA Federation of New York, and is generally part of a broader initiative at the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA)’s “Civility Initiative.” The model includes two organizing cadres: a group of “Facilitation Fellows” and a group of “conveners.” The Facilitation Fellows, who facilitated Sunday’s conversations, are trained over a period of months to hold these kinds of sessions. The “conveners” are the organizers on the ground, and, coached over many months, are meant to gather their associates at various institutions (from Yeshiva University to Hazon) with the goal of holding facilitated conversation on Israel internally.
The event unfolded unhurriedly: folks trickled in, picked at the marvelous display food from Brooklyn’s new kosher eatery Mason & Mug, heard an introduction from Rabinovitch, participated in an icebreaker, and only then chose their discussion topics, which ranged from “What is the responsibility of American Jews towards Israel?” to “Should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?” Then they sat down in sectioned-off corners of the room for facilitated conversation that would last an hour and a half.
We’ve all felt it. That ever-present desire — compulsion, really — to check and then recheck our email. Just one more hit of the refresh button. Just one more scroll. Just one more reply-all. Just one more delete. We love it. And we hate it.
Most of the year, we bemoan but ultimately accept the fact that our work lives require us to be shackled to our smartphones. But as Passover approaches, that reality becomes even more problematic. How can we celebrate our liberation from slavery when we still feel — mentally, if not physically — enslaved? How can we rid our houses of chametz — the leavened food that Hasidic masters taught symbolizes everything unessential and overcomplicated in our lives — while holding fast to something that complicates our lives more than any breadcrumb ever could?
Romemu, a progressive synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, today announced its quirky solution to this contemporary problem. In a notification sent out to the entire congregation (via, yes, email), Rabbi David Ingber and Executive Director Ilene Sameth wrote that over the holiday they will be getting rid of “The Ultimate Chametz: Email.”
From Monday evening, April 14th until sundown on Tuesday, April 22nd, Romemu will not send any community emails and the staff will not send or respond to any individual emails.
And since any chametz that is owned during Pesach should not be eaten after Pesach (this is known as chametz she’avar alav ha’Pesach), any emails that come in while we are out will not be read. Everyone will get an auto-response asking that the email be resent after Pesach.
After reassuring congregants that staff will still be reachable by phone voicemail in case of a death or other emergency, the Romemu leaders signed off with an invitation to “De-email…and taste freedom.”
The Messianic Jewish movement’s new marketing tool / Hody Nemes
If you went searching for a mainstream Jewish organization that welcomed the findings of the Pew study of American Jews, which showed declining levels of Jewish affiliation and high levels of intermarriage, you’d be hard pressed to find one.
But so-called Jews for Jesus found news to celebrate: 34% of American Jews reported that a person can accept Jesus as the messiah and still be Jewish.
Now this perplexing finding of the Pew study has made its way into a storefront display in midtown Manhattan.
I’ve walked by this particular building on 31st Street several times without noticing it. But yesterday, I stopped in my tracks when I caught a glimpse of the photo in its window: a group of Hasids are seen walking in front of the Western Wall, and one of them is wearing a Photoshopped red t-shirt that reads “Jews for Jesus.”
But that’s not all.
The text printed beside the photo reads: “34% of Jewish people surveyed say you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. What do you think about Jewish people believing in Jesus?” A phone number is provided – to which you can, apparently, text your answer.
Anne Heyman walks with Rwanda President Paul Kagame at a graduation ceremony at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. / Courtesy of Agahozo-Shalom
More than a month after the untimely death of Anne Heyman, friends and supporters say they are dedicated to ensuring the success of her unique Rwanda youth village.
“We’re all tremendously saddened but there is a rededication and a recommitment,” William Recant of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a personal friend of Heyman’s and a supporter of her work, told the Forward.
Heyman established the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in 2008 for children who lost their parents during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The village was modeled on the techniques Israel’s kibbutzim used to deal with Holocaust orphans.
When Heyman died in a horse riding accident January 31, tributes poured in from Jewish leaders across the country. Students at the Rwandan school that she had founded mourned her death.
Recant said that Heyman’s death, which came a year after Agahozo-Shalom lost its first director, saddened everyone involved with the project, but that supporters are determined to keep their vision alive.
“I personally am committed to giving more than I have in the past, because we can’t financially rely on Anne to be the one to make it happen,” Recant said. “A lot of us feel that way.”
At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube
As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.
That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”
Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.
Bill De Blasio and his family celebrate inauguration as New York mayor. Like predecessors at Gracie Mansion, liberal and conservative alike, Hizzoner is hewing a pro-Israel line.
(JTA) — New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, drew some attention last week with his remarks at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event. “Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio isn’t the first New York City mayor to see the job this way.
New York City mayors have been outspoken defenders of Israel since its establishment — and of the Zionist cause even before that.
They have visited Israel, called for American aid, opposed arms sales to Israel’s enemies, snubbed visiting foreign leaders who were hostile to Israel, and criticized U.S. presidents on Israel-related issues.
A woman prays wearing tefillin in Jerusalem/Getty Images
Must, should, or can observant Jewish women wrap tefillin, or not? This well-worn question was recently revived thanks to the two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York — SAR and Ramaz — that have tepidly embraced female students who wish to wrap tefillin publicly in their schools’ prayer services.
In an email circulated to parents, students and board members, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Ramaz’s Talmud chair, offers an internally contradictory five-point bulletin that makes his distaste for the practice clear. On the one hand, women are not obligated to wear tefillin (point 1) but nevertheless receive the benefit of having performed a mitzvah, or commandment (point 2). But in the very next breath he argues they should not be encouraged to do so and perhaps even discouraged from doing so (based on his “proof-text” in point 3), and “taught that they do not need to wear tefillin to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives” (point 5). The schizophrenia of the letter is demonstrated by the head of school’s hopeful sign-off to “see more people observing more mitzvot.”
Which is it? Is women’s observance of this mitzvah a religiously suspicious act destined to shame Torah and undermine halakhic (Jewish legal) commitment? Is it merely religiously tolerable, the isolated province of a few outliers on the religious bell curve? Or is it the natural, proper response to the times in which we live, possibly even mandated by our changed social circumstances?
A young woman prays wearing tefillin on April 11, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. / Getty Images
On December 8, 2013, SAR High School principal Rabbi Naphtali Harcsztark permitted students Ronit Morris and Yael Marans to lay tefillin in the school’s daily women’s prayer group, allowing them to do so within the school building. While this is the first time in its 12-year history that SAR High School has faced this issue, SAR Academy, the associated elementary and middle school, has had female students who lay tefillin. So has Ramaz, another Modern Orthodox high school in New York.
I began laying tefillin when I was a seventh grade student at SAR, over thirteen years ago. Unlike in the case of Morris and Marans, the SAR administration barred me from praying with tefillin in the school building, and excused me from praying with my class. Instead, my prayer took place in my living room, before I left for school.
As a result of not being able to pray daily with the rest of my classmates, I missed out on a lot. Announcements were regularly made at the end of services, and I missed them. Students celebrated bnei mitzvah during services, and I missed them. I missed class jokes about the boy who always hit the ceiling when he did hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, or the boys who (flirtatiously?) handed their tefillin to the girls for re-wrapping at the end of services. I missed the camaraderie of praying with my peers.
After graduating from the eighth grade, I attended Ramaz High School, where another student, Shifra Mincer, also began to lay tefillin. Shifra and I were excused from morning services, and prohibited from laying tefillin in school. However, there was one exception to this rule: Tuesday mornings.
Menachem Stark, a Brooklyn Hasidic real estate developer, was abducted, murdered, and thrown into a dumpster. Stepping to a new low, the New York Post reports this story with inappropriate levity and derision toward the victim.
Practically gloating over Stark’s death, the front cover of Sunday’s New York Post rhetorically asks, “Who didn’t want him dead?”
We still don’t know all the facts and it’s certainly possible that Stark’s business deals in some way caused a dispute that led to his murder.
But how about the eight children and widow mourning over him? How about the hundreds of mourners who showed up at his funeral in the bitter cold to pay respects? How about any decent human that believes murder is the wrong way to settle disputes?