An Orthodox man looks at the scene of the fire in Midwood, Brooklyn / Getty Images
You never want Shabbat to end on a tragic note. Yet among the the rush of messages that blipped across my phone when I turned it on Saturday night was news of the death of seven children in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. A malfunctioning hotplate left on for Shabbat, it seems, somehow sparked a fire. According to the New York Times, it was the worst fire in the city since 2007.
When faced with such momentous tragedy, the emotional impact so fresh and raw, the responses vary. Some cry, some remain silent, others choose to act. What is clear though, is that tragedy must serve as an impetus to bring more good into this world, to create positive action and light in the face of the void.
That’s why, despite the general outpouring of grief, it has been so startling and cruel to witness an insidious undercurrent in some responses.
In a post published here in the Forward, J.J. Goldberg penned a particularly cynical piece. The fire, he wrote, was “at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the past 15 years.” Bolstered by a sensationalist headline boasting a “deadly plague of Sabbath fire,” his reasoning seemed crystal clear: Look at the observance of the so-called “ultra-Orthodox”! Look how they needlessly endanger their own lives and the lives of others!
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.
Universal Studios Hollywood
(JTA) — Halloween this year falls on Shabbat. On a Friday night, trick-or-treaters, even Jewish ones, will be knocking. Should we open the door? Or should we be spooked about joining the celebration?
After reading that on Oct. 31, Urban Adama, a Jewish-oriented educational farm and community center in Berkeley, Calif., would be holding a “Challahween Kabbalat Shabbat” — chanting and meditation plus a potluck dinner and Halloween dessert candy bar — I wondered: Should I have a Halloween Shabbat dinner as well?
Yes, I know that when it comes to costumes and treats, Purim is our holiday, and that Halloween has murky pagan and Christian origins. But the multi-billion-dollar Halloween costume, decoration and candy industry has morphed so far beyond that I wondered what I could pull from that bubbling commercial cauldron and adopt to season my Shabbat.
Not that I would want to serve brisket with candy corn, but what about trying pumpkin spice challah? I didn’t have to cast a spell to find a recipe online.
But what to wear, especially since I would be greeting the neighborhood children as they came calling? Could I use the opportunity to dress up as someone more shul-ish than ghoulish?
For ideas, I hit a neighborhood costume warehouse, Halloween City, not expecting much in the way of Jewish population. Was I wrong.
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.
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.
Jewverine displays ‘adamantium’ menorah hands at Comic Con
What’s it like to host Shabbat dinner at Comic Con?
This year, my wife Chana and I decided to find out. We attended S. Diego Comic Con International, the annual nerd mecca that ran this past weekend and attracts comic book fans and pop culture geeks from around the world.
There Batman and Darth Vader cavort with Master Chief and Naruto while Hollywood execs showcase their coming attractions, all in S. Diego’s Gaslamp district. It’s intense — and seemingly completely opposed to a traditional Shabbat experience.
Nevertheless, we came prepared to host #openShabbat, an unplugged networking event and Shabbat meal that started with 50 people in 2011 and has since grown to over 150 people. An inclusive community focused on enjoying an island of serenity during the chaotic digital experience of the festival, #openShabbat has always been more about an exploration of our culture — a chance to analyze who we are as Jews and citizens of the world — rather than a purely tech-based experience. But what drew us to Comic Con this year was the potential to create a space to explore who we are through the media we produce and consume.
(JTA) — Part “God Bless America,” part “Shabbat Shalom,” the Fourth of July this year falls on a Friday. In this land of religious freedom, how do we plan to observe both?
As the sun sets over the “fruited plain,” will we be lighting Shabbat candles and fireworks? How will the Sabbath Queen look in red, white and blue?
Those who traditionally observe the Sabbath by not kindling fire surely will take a pass on the “rockets’ red glare.” But for many U.S. Jews and congregations, the day represents an opportunity to integrate Jewish themes into a national day of celebrating our freedom.
As a kid, like many boomers, I remember the Fourth as a day of firecrackers, spark-shooting fountains, backyard barbecues, parades and family picnics. Several synagogues this year will incorporate the same elements into their congregational programming.
On that Friday, when singing “Lecha Dodi” and hearing the boom of fireworks, or seeing them explode in the sky, I wonder how the verse “Awake and arise to greet the new light, for in your radiance the world will be bright” will resonate. Could it apply to celebrating the birth of a nation?
Should observant Jews text on Shabbat — and if not, why not?
I personally do not text on Shabbat because I believe doing so violates the prohibition on working on that day. Gershom Gorenberg eloquently expressed the same viewpoint in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog.
I’m not sure how well this message would resonate with the younger people in America’s Modern Orthodox community. Many of those people put themselves in the so-called ‘half Shabbat’ camp, and observe some but not all of the traditional restrictions. Telling them that they are sinners for talking to their friends on Shabbat is likely to simply drive them further away from Orthodoxy and Judaism in general.
Shabbat commands that Orthodox Jews abstain from all forms of Malacha, which is loosely translated as work. But many young Orthodox Jews who keep half Shabbat don’t see electricity or texting as a form of labor per se. The reason that they use their cell phones or Facebook accounts on Shabbat is because they want to socialize with friends, not to work.
When I came to a Modern Orthodox high school in Columbus, Ohio, a school where most of the student body was not traditionally Orthodox, I was first exposed to the phenomenon of keeping half Shabbat. This meant that a person would practice some if not most of the traditional elements of Shabbat — such as prayer, ritual at meals, and the prohibition of driving — but certainly not all. By far, the most conspicuous difference between half Shabbat keepers and my fully Orthodox friends was that the former used cell phones.
The Orthodox prohibition against using cell phones on Shabbat is believed to derive its source from Rabbinic literature, as explained on the Orthodox Union’s website. Growing up in the Modern Orthodox community, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of half Shabbat-keepers I’ve encountered hide their “sinning” from family and adults, often acknowledging their non-traditional behavior with feelings of apathy, and sometimes even guilt. “I can’t risk my parents finding out,” a former roommate of mine once said as he sent off a text and shoved his cell phone into his suit pocket in the middle of Shabbat.
Using a cell phone on Shabbat symbolizes much more than one would think in the younger Modern Orthodox community. Within that community, clandestine Shabbat transgressors are fully aware of the potential social consequences of their actions, which could result in community shunning. Only some Orthodox leaders have even addressed the issue. According to Rabbi Steven Burg of the Orthodox youth organization NCSY, half Shabbat texting is a “big problem” and he even refers to it as an “addiction.”
Unfortunately, most leaders in America’s Orthodox community fail to acknowledge and accept the prevalence of half Shabbat observance, which only encourages younger people to keep their actions secret, further distancing them from mainstream Orthodoxy. The unhealthy anxiety that this approach creates in the the younger community only serves to propel younger people even further away from traditional Judaism, and in a very bad way.
So if the Modern Orthodox leadership in America intends to preserve an Orthodox understanding of Halakha, it’s time for it to create more innovative ways to accept modern realities that resonate with the younger crowd, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of traditional Shabbat observance.
When Jack Lew was appointed chief of staff to President Obama in January, many in the Jewish community wondered how he could observe Shabbat in such a demanding position.
Luckily, Lew has the most powerful man in the world to keep track of time as the sun starts to dip low in the sky on Friday afternoons.
“I saw the president on many occasions on Friday afternoons look at his watch, and ask: ‘Isn’t it time for you to get going?’” Lew said, “or, ‘Why are you still here?’ The president was not checking the clock “because he doesn’t think I can keep time,” Lew said. Rather, the extra care on this issue reflects the President’s wish “to remind me that it’s important to him, not just to me, that I be able to make that balance.”
Lew, who is Orthodox, revealed the details about his keeping Shabbat in an extraordinary interview with the Forward that touched on his need to observe the Jewish holy day.
“And he’s respected that time and again,” the chief of staff said of Obama.