Forward Thinking

Britain’s Struggle To Engage Young Jews

By Liam Hoare

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner / YouTube

“I believe that we are now at one of those critical, pivotal moments in our history,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, recently informed the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “It’s sneaking up on us. What is happening is an upheaval that threatens our cohesive fabric.”

American and British Jewry share the same fate. On one end of the religious spectrum, through intermarriage and assimilation there is a drifting away from Jewish identity. In the United Kingdom, the preliminary findings of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s National Jewish Community Survey showed that under half of intermarried Jews attend a Passover seder, one third fast on Yom Kippur, and only 18% attend a Friday night dinner most weeks.

In the center of the religious spectrum, British Jews under 40 are more likely to value belief in God or marrying within the Jewish faith than their parents, yet some don’t have the knowledge or language of Judaism to live a fully Jewish life. And, at the other extreme, the burgeoning, young Haredi community is displacing an aging, secular or traditional population. Today in the UK, nearly one third of all Jewish children under the age of five are born to Haredi parents.

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Does Rick Jacobs Think Intermarriage Is Good?

By Julie Wiener

(JTA) — For an article I wrote on a recent flare-up in the intermarriage debate, I did two interviews with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twice I asked him whether there was any value in articulating a communal preference for in-marriage over intermarriage, and the second time I followed up by asking,

“Is it something you encourage or prefer?” Neither time did he give a direct answer.

Clearly, Jacobs is walking a sort-of tightrope in a movement that, while more accepting of intermarriage than its more traditional counterparts, still has its divisions: A significant minority of Reform rabbis don’t officiate at intermarriages, and there has been some debate recently about whether Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s policy barring intermarried rabbis should be rescinded.

Nonetheless, it it is worth noting that we have reached a landmark moment in American Jewry’s lengthy and highly ambivalent obsession with intermarriage when the head of the country’s largest Jewish denomination will not say outright that marrying a Jew, a core tradition, is better than intermarrying.

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A Trailblazing Cantor

By Michael Kaminer

Courtesy of Marc Goldman

In many ways, Mark Goldman’s a traditional cantor. He serves a 900-member Reform congregation, in Plantation, Florida. He’s performed around the world, including a historic group gig at the Vatican. And he loves to chant the “haunting, yet familiar” Kol Nidre.

But this year, the UK expat became a trailblazer. After nearly two decades as a member, Goldman was elected president of the American Conference of Cantors, making him the first openly gay chazzan to hold the post.

Descended from a long line of cantors, the yeshiva-educated Goldman came out to his parents at age 27 — three years after emigrating to the States. He took on his first cantorial position at Temple Kol Ami, which later merged with Temple Emanu-El of Fort Lauderdale. Nineteen years later, he’s become a beloved fixture on the South Florida Jewish scene.

The Forward caught up with Goldman from the home he shares with interior designer Aaron Taber, his partner of 17 years.

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Tall (Reform) Rabbi in Sea of Black Hats

By Eliyahu Federman

More than 5,000 Chabad rabbis and supporters gathered on Sunday for the 30th annual conference of international Shluchim, or messengers of the Hasidic movement. Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman addressed the crowd as the first keynote speaker.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg, Chabad rabbi at Stanford University, told the crowd that you are more likely to find an atheist, secular, or humanist Jew at a Chabad house than you were to find an Orthodox Jew.

And one lanky man in the sprawling crowd of black-hatted men summed up what he meant.

Among the guests was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.

Chabad strictly follows Orthodox Judaism’s central belief that the Torah was given directly from God to Moses and applies in all times and places. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions are not divine and can be modernized, changed, to reflect surrounding culture.

Chabad’s invitation to Jacobs reflects the movement’s philosophy to embrace everyone on the human level, without regard to creed or denominational differences.

Jacobs returned the sentiment, telling Lubavitch.com that it was “inspiring to be with a group of Jewish leaders who feel so passionately about bringing the love of yiddishkeit [Judaism] and the life of commitment to the widest possible circle.”

If the Reform president and Chabad Shluchim can sit at the same table to connect as one people, who knows: Maybe there’s hope for other denominations of Judaism to sit together notwithstanding their deep theological differences.

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Kotel Struggle a Civil Rights Battle for Jews

By Nechama Liss-Levinson

courtesy of the smithsonian

Fifty years ago civil rights activists staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Jackson Mississippi to protest the segregated seating which existed, mandating separate areas for black and white patrons.

Young students from nearby Tougaloo College, both black and white, sat together at the “whites only” counter, waiting futilely to be served. These brave young students were attacked by local citizens who felt that their way of life was being threatened. The mob screamed, cursed, spat on and punched the people sitting-in at the lunch counter. They poured coffee, salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup and mustard on them. They hit them with brass knuckles.

Eventually, after several hours of violence, the police moved in to break up the mob.

Hillel Halkin brands Women of the Wall ‘childish provocateurs’ who put their rights to protest ahead of other Jews’ feelings

Prior to the sit-in, Medgar Evers, then the Field Secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, wrote a letter indicating their intent. “We are determined to end all state and local government sponsored segregation in the parks, playgrounds, schools, libraries, and other public facilities. To accomplish this, we shall use all lawful means of protest,” Evers wrote.

Two weeks after the sit-in, Medgar Evers was murdered by a local KuKlux Klan member. Woolworth’s closed the lunch counter altogether to avoid serving blacks.

But the protests resounded — and humanity prevaile. A year later, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination based on race.

Reading today about this historic struggle in American history reminded me of my own experience last month on May 10 (Rosh Chodesh Sivan), when I was privileged to be a participant with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem.

Strangely similar to the accounts of the struggle in Mississippi were the screams, the taunts, the cursing, and even the spilling of food, such as water and coffee by the Haredim, who were protesting the existence of the Women of the Wall, our prayers, our tallitot, our voices rising to the Heavens.

Like the mob in Mississippi, they were worried that their way of life would be threatened.

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Kotel Ball Is in Tzipi Livni's Court

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images
Tzipi Livni

Could Tzipi Livni be sweetening feminists before dropping a bombshell?

As discussed earlier on Forward Thinking, Justice Minister Livni has just announced that she is working on legislation to criminalize the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The timing is interesting — just as she could find herself in a very awkward position on women’s issues.

Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that prays once a month at the Western Wall, is waiting to see what will become of its newfound rights.

For the first time ever, women tried to hold public prayers at the Western Wall with he blessing of the state today. It was be the group’s first prayer meeting since a landmark court ruling that will put an end to the police’s habit of detaining its members.

Women planned to gather at the Wall, some of them wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, with guarantees from police that they will respect the protection that the court afforded them.

Instead of the police, women found themselves facing off against thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. Police had to protect them from the Haredi mob.

Now, non-Orthodox religious leaders are demanding an investigation into the violence.

Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has just dealt the political establishment a trump card to clamp down on the women. This week he waived his right to challenge the permissive court ruling they received as he believes it accords with the current law, but in his decision he left the door wide open for the Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett to redefine the law and put a stop to their newly-won right to public prayer at the Wall.

If Bennett decides to alter the law, he will head straight to Livni’s office for her signature to do so. The pressure will be high on Livni, the junior party of the coalition, from strongman Bennett. Perhaps she’s making a big gesture to women in her announcement today so that, if and when the time comes to reel in rights at the Kotel, she can say that she’s only lost a battle but won the war.

Either way, the ball is in Tzipi’s court.

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Orthodox Push Back on Kotel

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

The rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz isn’t opposed to the plan for an egalitarian prayer section there, he announced in a statement emailed to reporters yesterday. But it’s already clear that he doesn’t speak for the Haredi mainstream.

Rabinowitz is Haredi, but softer on religious issues than most Haredi leaders. This is partly because he’s a state employee and realizes that there are limits to his autonomy, and partly because his family background is more moderate than many — for example he served in the army.

“The Kotel isn’t ours to give away,” rages the editorial of the Jerusalem-based Hasidic-establishment newspaper Hamodia today, using the Hebrew name for the Western Wall. “The place of the Temple was chosen by God and the Shechinah [divine presence] has never departed from the Kotel.”

Hamodia went on to argue that the Women of the Wall fight is a proxy battle by American Reform which is trying to compensate for its failure to make inroads in to the Israeli religious scene. “The Reform Movement in the United States is using the Women of the Wall to bully the government in to giving it recognition that the people have withheld,” it claimed.

Hamodia argues that while much of the world sees the fight of Women of the Wall as a human rights issue “nothing could be further from the truth.” It insists that Women of the Wall are actually infringing the rights of other female worshippers at the Wall with their controversial monthly prayer meetings there, such as today’s gathering which resulted in two female worshippers being detained by police..

“Indeed, if anyone’s rights are being trampled, it is those of the regulars at the Kotel, the women who come — every day not just Rosh Chodesh [the start of the month] — to daven [pray], not to create provocation. These women are denied a place of quiet, holiness and dignity, where they have been coming for decades to pour out their hearts, by a group of lawbreakers that seeks to advance a political agenda.”

Hamodia portrays the Reform movement as hypocritical, writing: “How ironic that the same Reform movement that hails Israel’s Supreme Court when it rules that the Tal Law on drafting yeshivah students is unconstitutional, or that Haredi schools must teach the core curriculum, has no trouble ignoring what it when it bars the Women of the Wall from holding services at the Kotel.”

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Our Search for America's Most Inspiring Rabbis

By Abigail Jones

Union for Reform Judaism
How has a rabbi inspired you or your community?

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.”

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Pushing for Gay Marriage Across the Pond

By Liam Hoare

getty images
Jonathan Sacks

British Prime Minister David Cameron is setting himself up for a most almighty clash with the British religious establishment this week, as he prepares to amend the laws on marriage.

The leaders of all three main parties support government plans to afford same-sex couples the right to civil marriage, plus permission to wed in churches and other religious buildings. While the proposed law is designed to allow churches and congregations the flexibility of opting in or out of officiating same sex ceremonies, it is nonetheless opposed by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the London Beth Din also oppose any alterations to the traditional definition of marriage. The United Synagogue, of which Rabbi Sacks is the spiritual leader, maintains that “marriage from time immemorial has been that of a union between a man and a woman”, and as such “any attempt to redefine this sacred institution would be to undermine the concept of marriage.”

Yet progressive Jewish denominations, along with Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, have been leading the push to host same-sex weddings in their places of worship. Liberal Judaism was the first branch to back the Coalition for Equal Marriage – the umbrella organisation lobbying in favour of same-sex marriage – asserting that, “as Liberal Jews, we want to support positive celebrations of life that help the individual to revel in life’s joys as well as to support them through life’s difficulties.”

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'Solidarity Forever' Means Now

By Brant Rosen

getty images

When it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) had signed contracts with Hyatt Hotels for upcoming conventions — including their signature Consultation on Conscience and L’Taken Social Justice Seminars — many who stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers believed it was moment of truth for the Jewish community.

Would the RAC, one of the most prominent and venerable social justice organizations in the American Jewish community, go ahead with their plans to hold high profile conventions in boycotted hotels? Or would they grasp the critical importance of this moment and opt to hold their events elsewhere?

Some background: When they learned of the contracts, concerned Jewish clergy as well as the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE, formally asked the RAC and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to honor the recently announced global boycott of Hyatt. Last month, the URJ and RAC met with union leaders and Hyatt employees. They learned that Hyatt summarily fired nearly 100 housekeepers from three Boston-area hotels in August 2009, replacing longtime housekeepers with temps at far lower rates of pay. They learned that Hyatt has been undermining the stability of jobs by increasingly subcontracting their workers. They learned Hyatt has been undermining the safety of jobs by increasing housekeeping workloads to dangerous levels. And they learned that Hyatt has been actively thwarting efforts by non-union hotel workers to exercise their fundamental right as workers to collectively bargain.

The RAC and the URJ also heard from high ranking officials at Hyatt. Not surprisingly, Hyatt challenged the union’s claims of unjust treatment of workers. While they admitted there may have been problems at some of their hotels in the past, they insisted that they had now been addressed.

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No Divisions Between Jews When Rockets Fly

By Steven C. Wernick

Steven C. Wernick

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.

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A Call for Jewish Tolerance

By Nathan Guttman

Robert A. Cumins/JFNA
Rick Jacobs

Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.

Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”

He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.

“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.

While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.

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Reporter Watches Bris — And It Ain't Pretty

By Paul Berger

While I was researching my Forward story about circumcision and pain, I realized that I didn’t know what a circumcision actually looks like. I’ve only attended one bris — apart from my own — and there I didn’t have a good line of sight to the baby.

I was particularly interested to know more about the circumcision procedure because one of the more interesting aspects of the reporting for this week’s story was that circumcision opponents are not the only people who describe the process as cruel.

Many Orthodox mohels perceive medicalized circumcision — a longer, more involved procedure than traditional circumcision — as particularly uncomfortable for babies. Even injecting anesthetic into infants is seen as painful.

Meanwhile, more liberal Jewish mohels, most of whom are doctors, think the idea of using sugar water or grape juice as the only form of anesthetic before and after removing the foreskin, as most Orthodox mohels do, is unfair to the child. Why avoid pain medication when research shows that babies feel pain and when analgesics are so prevalent today?

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