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Pope to host Peres and Abbas in peace prayer at Vatican

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 16:52

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will join Pope Francis in a prayer for peace at the Vatican.

The prayer will take place on June 8, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed Thursday, according to Vatican Radio.

The pope made the invitation following the celebration of Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem during his visit last week to the Palestinian West Bank city. A rabbi and a Muslim imam will be present at the service, the pope reportedly said.

In his invitation, the pope said, “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.  …  All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers.”

Later, he added, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”

The offer comes a month after the collapse of nine months of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Peres will leave office at the end of July.

Pope Francis Leaves 'Lord's Prayer' at Western Wall

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 14:33

Pope Francis wrote the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish on a note he left in the Western Wall.

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Pope’s Western Wall note contains Lord’s Prayer in Spanish

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 13:00

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Pope Francis wrote the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish on a note he left in the Western Wall.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation released the contents of the note placed between the stones of the Kotel during the pope’s visit on Monday.

The note, signed “Francis,” was written on papal letterhead.

The Lord’s Prayer, also known as “Our Father,” is a central prayer in Christianity.

A copy of the letter appears below:

ROR Stands With Ruth: Omer Week 7

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 13:00

By Rabbi Richard Levy

This blog is the sixth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform.

We Stand with the Ruth of Today

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom of Chicago speaks with Erendira Rendon, Lead Organizer at the Resurrection Project in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. As Naomi stood with Ruth of Moab, Reform rabbis are standing with the Ruths of today – undocumented immigrants like Ere. Watch the Youtube video here.

We Stand With Ruth of Moab
by Rabbi Richard Levy

The Book of Ruth begins with the introduction, “It happened in the days when the judges judged” and concludes with the birth of King David, the representative figure for Malchut, the sephira of sovereignty.  The book itself is a kind of cri de couer for a better time—free of this book’s rampant poverty, loneliness and maltreatment (in Ruth 2:9 Boaz warns his workers not to molest Ruth, implying that they regularly molested other women).  We know that that is the Biblical view of the period of the Judges, when periodically “Israel did what was wicked in the eyes of Adonai” (Judges 4:1 et al.) because “in those days there was no king in Israel; each person would do what was right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

For while it was a time when the Judges judged, they did not seem able or interested to judge how they might stop the famine which had sent Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and her family into exile in Moab to seek food.  In our own time, so many people come to the United States to flee famine, drought, poverty or political oppression, often because they have given up hope that the powers in their own countries will be able to assist them, or care about assisting them.  They too are searching for a sovereignty which cares for them.  They have learned to believe that Americans do care.

To leave Eretz Yisrael for another land was a major decision, just as it is today.  To leave the country of one’s birth, however oppressive its living conditions, remains a difficult decision, never made lightly.  Today’s immigrants, like those in the Book of Ruth, have to abandon family, friends, the only language they know, sometimes the only place they have known.  Naomi, widowed by the man who led them into Moab, speaks of herself often as a bitter woman.

Her husband’s name was Elimelech, “My God is Sovereign”.  Yet what is sovereign in this book?  Naomi seems to believe that for each person—at least in her family—homeland is sovereign; in the book’s most famous passage, 1:14-17, three times Naomi urges Ruth and her sister Orpah to return (shovna)to their homesthe source for the custom of turning away potential converts three times.  They were all immigrants, Naomi held, and with their husbands dead, the sisters should return to the place from which they came.  But Ruth perceives a higher obligation—a higher sovereignty, if you will; using the same word as her mother-in-law, Ruth says, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to turn back (la-shuv) from you.”  For Ruth, to “return” to her own home would be to turn away from her proper home—the home she felt called upon to go to, because of her loyalty and love for Naomi.  If this book is a tribute to the rewards that come from following the precepts of the Torah (obedience to parents [or in-laws], caring for the stranger, leaving grain for the poor, etc.), Ruth turns to the sovereignty of God rather than the sovereignty of her own native place.  But the sefirah of Malchut also has a human dimension, representing kenesset Yisrael, the community of Israel—since it is through the community of Israel that God’s sovereignty is manifest.  When Ruth embraces the people Israel in choosing to go with Naomi, she embraces this dual dimension of Malchut as well.

The implications of this decision for today’s immigrants is instructive.  While we usually attribute primarily economic motives to contemporary immigrants’ desire to remain in the United States, we do our country a disservice by playing down a motive similar to Ruth’s: a belief, or a desire to believe, that the United States is a more caring country than the one from which they came.  How often do we tarnish that belief with the insensitivity, fear, and hostility we show particularly to undocumented immigrants, but often to all immigrants! How insensitive we often are to the still present American commitment to being a beacon to the oppressed—to the malchut, if you will, of the “American dream”—and of the American people as, at their best, the embodiment of it.

As a result of Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi, the older woman feels an obligation to care for her.  A word that pervades the book, chesed, usually translated “love” or “lovingkindness”, really means love borne of a covenant.  Ruth shows chesed to Naomi, Naomi shows it to her, and Boaz shows it to both of them.  This covenantal love stems from the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which the Holy One will renew with us when the period of the Omer climaxes with Shavuot.  Devotion to the covenant is a sign of acceptance of the sovereignty of the God who made it—ol malchut shamayim, the “yoke” of the rule of heaven, and ol mitzvot, the “yoke” of the mitzvot.  Ol in Hebrew is related to the word al, above, with the sense that the yoke links us to the God above, rather than the more usual image of joining two creatures on the same level.

Are we ready to feel a sense of “covenant” with the undocumented immigrants of our time?  Are we ready to link them with the memories of grandparents or other relatives who endured many hardships to reach these shores—often out of the same motives as today’s undocumented?  And if we say, “Well, our ancestors came legally,” we forget that most of them came here at a time when immigrants were wanted, invited, encouraged by the state.  Now that the state is hostile to immigrants, to which sovereignty are we going to be loyal, that of a welcoming, covenanting God, or a too often frightened state?  Or, in the language of the Book of Ruth, are we going to be  citizens of a too often uncaring rule of Judges, or of the ideal, embracing sovereignty of God’s Malchut?

The season in which we read this book makes our choice quite clear.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. 

We stand with Ruth – and so can you! We have created a special liturgy and text study for our Shavuot campaign. Will you show us your support for this campaign by pledging to use one or both of our resources?

This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list at rac.org/ror.


Top Agudath Israel rabbi slams Reform, Conservative movements

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 12:21

(JTA) — The rabbinical leader of the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Conservative and Reform movements “will be relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history.”

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe, also slammed a more liberal branch of Orthodoxy at Agudah’s annual dinner Tuesday in Manhattan.

Perlow, the head of Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages, said the Reform and Conservative movements “have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation.”

The Open Orthodoxy movement led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, which seeks a greater role for women in Jewish ritual,  is “heretical,” Perlow said. He also called on Modern Orthodoxy to “stand up and reject these new deviationists cloaking themselves in the mantle of Orthodoxy,” the Forward reported.

The remarks were reported Wednesday by the Forward.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared immediately after Perlow and praised Agudah and the haredi Orthodox community for its growth.

De Blasio said his universal prekindergarten program was designed for the Orthodox Jewish community.

“From the very beginning, I knew this would succeed for all of New York City if it was also something that succeeded for this community,” de Blasio said. “The yeshivot were such a crucial part of it. I knew if we did that so many children would benefit.”

Annual Meetings: Taking Stock of Where We Are

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 09:00

by Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder, Ph.D.

Congregations need times for self-reflection. No congregation should coast, go on auto-pilot, or think of its mission as the doing of business-as-usual.

At least once a year, we need to take stock. What have we accomplished? What are the challenges we face? What are the possibilities? Perhaps most important of all, what are our dreams?

For individuals, this kind of reflection takes place during the High Holidays. But congregations have a different cycle. We look at ourselves at our annual meeting.

People have a tendency to disparage meetings, but I don’t take that path. Meetings bring us together for a shared purpose. They are a tribute to our spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. They appeal to our “better angels.”


Annual meetings are also the time when we honestly say thank you. We are indebted to those who have volunteered their personal time to lead and make decisions on behalf of the congregation. Particularly deserving of our in-person gratitude are members of the Board of Directors who are completing their term of service.

Those coming on to the Board as new directors also deserve your vote of affirmation for the commitment that they are making. And, appropriately, without your vote, no one can be elected to lead this congregation. A quorum is an expression of the democratic character of the congregation, and the best democracies are those in which the members actually participate.

This is the season of annual meetings. Perhaps yours will begin with the requisite bagels, coffee and conversation. The meeting probably includes the election of the new Board of Directors, and a vote on the budget for the coming year. This is the way leadership and priorities are embodied.

Just as important, though, are the reflections on the past year, the vision of the future, and the thoughts and feedback that you share.

Here’s to annual meetings. They enable us to recognize the significant milestones we have passed as a community. They afford us moments to see the big picture. They are an accounting of our resources, our potential, and what it will take to achieve our collective vision.

Let’s make our annual meeting a priority. It’s the moment that reminds us that we are all in this together.

Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder, Ph.D. is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA.

Schechter School Closing Adds to Boston Anguish Over Rabbi Barry Starr Scandal

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 07:39

It’s been a rough few weeks for Conservative Jews in the Boston suburbs. First, a prominent rabbi was caught in a scandal. And their day school is closing.

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Storybook Boston Suburb of Sharon Shaken by Rabbi Barry Starr Hush Money Sex Scandal

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 13:29

Even the Hebrew school students know the lurid details of the scandal that has engulfed Rabbi Barry Starr and Temple Israel, a Conservative pillar in the Boston suburb of Sharon.

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A Formula for Engaging Jewish Teenagers

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 09:00

Working with teenagers is simply heartwarming. We experienced this yet again at our recent Havdala Under the Stars, Congregation Or Ami’s year-end gathering of our Triple T (Tracks for Temple Teens) youth program.

Picture this: a large group of teens, 7th to 12th grades, sitting around a campfire, singing songs, playing games, and grouping and regrouping in ever changing configurations of young people. Bucking trends in Jewish life – where so many teens drop out soon after b’nai mitzvah – these teens showed up smiling. (Thanks to the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, we rethought our entire youth program.)

Rabbi Julie Weisz, the energetic visionary behind Congregation Or Ami’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, invited the teens to reflect upon what made their Triple T time so meaningful. The responses were heartwarming:

  • Making new friends
  • Being a madrich (counselor) at the 4th-6th grade retreat
  • Creating a movie short with my JEWTube track
  • Working with the younger students as a MIT (Madricha-in-training)
  • Leading sports days for the at risk kids in Future Coaches
  • Creating social action projects with VolunTEENS
  • Being part of LoMPTY
  • Going to regional NFTY SoCal events
  • Bonding with everyone here

It seems that our faculty and rabbis have hit upon what we believe is a formula for continued youth engagement:

  • Relationship building.
  • Leadership development.
  • Multiple pathways (we call them “tracks”) to participation.
  • Confirmation as the culmination for all tracks (including youth group)
  • Choices

And lots of listening, loving and patience.

Youth work is incredibly exciting, deeply rewarding, intensely frustrating, and ultimately so incredibly important. Just as teens are coming into themselves, we youth professionals get to love them, accept them unconditionally, and present Judaism to them as a healthy pathway to finding oneself. There are moments, so many moments, when the neural connections are fired up just right, and through their time in temple, they find the acceptance and love that they deeply crave.

Of course along the way they go through all the same struggles as everywhere else. And so they experience social anxiety, face cliquishness, lose elections, and feel slighted. Because it is all real life. Being a teen is frustrating and often painful. Being a teen’s parent is a lesson in powerlessness and oftentimes frustration as we sit on the sidelines unable to fix it all.

That’s why youth professionals often make a real difference. When we do it right – listen, love, eschew simple problem solving in favor of long-term growth and compassionate struggle – the synagogue becomes a safe place for young people to learn and grow.

As our teen songleader led us to close the evening with a sweet havdala ceremony, the teens enjoyed a group hug, evidencing with their physical closeness the reality that permeates their hearts. This diverse group of kids are finding a path forward – past B’nai Mitzvah and into young adulthood. The path is not always straight. The temple cannot shield them (or their parents) from heartache, but there is no question that the combined efforts of caring, engaging faculty and available, committed rabbis can provide a safe loving space for our teens.

Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – the work with teens is a continuous, never-ending process. But when approached with an open mind and an open heart, it is even the exhaustion is exhilarating.

Israel Minister Calls for One-State Solution on Jerusalem Day

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 08:45

An Israeli minister marked Jerusalem Day by calling for a one-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians — as the Temple Mount was closed following clashes between Muslim worshippers and police.

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Orthodox Rabbi Stuns Agudath Gala With 'Heresy' Attack on Open Orthodoxy

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 06:52

A top Orthodox rabbi condemned other streams of Judaism and called the religiously progressive Open Orthodox movement heretical at the Agudath Israel gala.

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Temple Mount closed after Arab rioting on Jerusalem Day

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 06:51

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Temple Mount was closed following clashes between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police amid Jerusalem Day celebrations.

Four Palestinians and an Israeli police officer were reported injured in the Wednesday morning clashes.

Masked Palestinians threw rocks and firecrackers at Jewish security forces on the Temple Mount. The attackers barricaded themselves in the Al Aksa Mosque after being pursued by Israeli police, who used rubber bullets to disperse the rioters, according to Palestinian reports.

Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount also threw rocks Tuesday at a group of Jews visiting the site.

Jerusalem Day marks the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967. The annual Jerusalem Day flag procession through the Old City of Jerusalem will take place late Wednesday afternoon, with thousands expected to participate.

Meanwhile, at a Tuesday evening program in honor of Jerusalem Day at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel said there would be no more housing freezes in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

“We will not come to terms with the delays and restrictions [on construction] in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and we will continue to build in all parts of our land,” Ariel said. “Jerusalem will never again be divided. Between the Jordan River and the sea, there will be only one state — the State of Israel.”

Yeshiva U. Sheds Burden of Albert Einstein Medical School — But at What Cost?

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 22:00

Yeshiva U. has ceded control of Albert Einstein Medical Center in a ‘historic’ deal. It’s shedding a massive financial burden— but is it giving up a ‘crown jewel’ of Jewish education?

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400-Year-Old Syria Synagogue Destroyed in Civil War

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 18:16

A historic synagogue on the outskirts of Damascus was destroyed amid fighting in Syria’s civil war.

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Dutch Ramp Up Security at Jewish Sites After Brussels Museum Attack

Tue, 05/27/2014 - 11:49

Dutch authorities said on Tuesday they were deploying more police officers at Jewish sites, including cultural centers, schools and synagogues, after three people were shot dead at the Jewish Museum in Brussels this weekend.

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Pope Francis Wraps Up Whirlwind Trip With Benjamin Netanyahu Meeting

Sun, 05/25/2014 - 22:35

Pope Francis completes a tour of the Holy Land on Monday, paying homage to Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust and looking to affirm Christian rights at a disputed place of worship in Jerusalem.

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Two French Jews attacked

Sun, 05/25/2014 - 09:04

(JTA) — Two French Jewish men were attacked while on their way to synagogue.

The men, brothers aged 18 and 21 from the Paris suburb of Creteil, were attacked from behind Sunday by two men on bicycles, according to a statement from the French Jewish organization SPCJ. The attackers, men in their twenties, wore brass knuckles and hit the brothers in the face. The attackers fled after the brothers defended themselves.

A passing car stopped to pick the men up and drove them to the hospital. According to SPCJ, the men’s faces are “heavily injured,” and  will need surgery, but the men are expected to recover.

The attack comes one day after four people died in a shooting at the Jewish Museum of Brussels. Police are still searching for a suspect in the shooting.

Gang of 4 Rabbis Indicted in Orthodox Divorce Torture Extortion Scheme

Sat, 05/24/2014 - 08:49

Four Orthodox rabbis and one of their sons were indicted on charges of conspiring to kidnap and torture Jewish men to force them to grant religious divorces to their wives.

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The pope’s rabbinic travel buddies

Fri, 05/23/2014 - 20:09

Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, presenting the honorary doctorate award of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Oct. 11, 2012. (Courtesy Universidad Catolica Argentina)

Pope Francis is bringing along not one but two Argentinean rabbis on his trip to the holy land.

The pope’s close friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka is well known. Skorka even wrote a book with the then archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Skorka told JTA that he would be with the pope “all the time except, of course, at the private meetings he will hold with the different dignitaries.”

But he will be joining the trip a bit late.

“Since the departure of the Pope from Rome will be close to Shabbat, I will only meet with him on his arrival to Bet Lehem,” Skorka wrote to JTA in an email.

But the other Argentinean rabbi traveling with the pope — Rabbi Alejandro Avruj — will accompany the entire trip, starting in Jordan and then going to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and to Israel, though he won’t be as close a papal traveling companion as Skorka.

Avruj will be making the journey with a Catholic priest, Jose Maria “Pepe” di Paola, with whom he has worked closely since the 2001 Argentinean economic crisis. The rabbi and the priest together manage the Shalom charity project, which brings daily meals to hungry children in Buenos Aires.

“I met Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, at a shantytown in Buenos Aires. Bergoglio was the boss of my teammate Pepe and he came with us to bring food and recreational activities to the kids,” Avruj told JTA.

Like Skorka, Avruj developed a friendship with Bergoglio. The future pope participated in a 2012 Kristallnacht commemoration ceremony with Avruj, who later invited him to help light the Hannukah candles at the synagogue where he served.

“One day before the ceremony, he called me to confirm his appearance and asked me which subway station was closest to the temple. He arrived very sweaty in a 6 p.m. rush hour from a crowded subway,” Avruj recalled. “He is a very simple person, very focused on the really important things in life — relationships, values, friendship and, of course, God.”

The pope and Skorka will also be traveling with Omar Abboud, who is the Muslim representative at Argentina’s Institute for Interreligious Dialogue and former secretary general of Islamic Center of Buenos Aires.

Skorka has known Abboud for decades.

“He is a person of high values and spirituality. That the Pope travels with a Rabbi and an Islamic leader is a sign that only walking together and through a path of dialogue will we be able to achieve changing the present world reality,” Skorka wrote to JTA.

Skorka expressed hope that the pope will make a contribution to advancing peace in the region.

“My expectations are that Pope Francis could engrave a deep message of peace and spirituality,” Skorka explained. “It is a great opportunity to introduce a pure spiritual dimension in looking for new paths which can lead to an approach to peace.”

Four rabbis indicted on kidnap conspiracy charges

Fri, 05/23/2014 - 17:08

(JTA) — Four Orthodox rabbis and one of their sons were indicted on charges of conspiring to kidnap and torture Jewish men to force them to grant religious divorces to their wives.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein and his son David Epstein, Rabbi Martin Wolmark, Rabbi Jay Goldstein and Rabbi Binyamin Stiller were charged Thursday in New Jersey federal court with participating in a kidnapping ring. According to the indictment, the ring was organized to force reluctant husbands to grant their wives a get, or a Jewish divorce, in exchange for fees running to tens of thousands of dollars.

The ring operated between 2009 and 2013 and employed methods such as beating the victims and shocking them in their genitals with electric cattle prods, the indictment said.

The four rabbis were previously indicted on separate kidnapping-related charges in October of 2013 as part of a larger group, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. That group included two of Goldstein’s sons, both of whom have since pleaded guilty to extortion charges related to that indictment.

Attorneys for Wolmark, Goldstein and Still denied the charges, the Associated Press reported.

According to the indictment, Mendel Epstein stated to an undercover agent that the fee for the kidnapping would be $10,000 for the beth din, or rabbinical court, to issue the divorce, and $50,000 to $60,000 for the “tough guys.”

A sworn statement by FBI agent Bruce Kamerman quoted Epstein as saying that it was essential that the torture of the kidnapped husband not leave a mark so that police would dismiss any allegation as “some Jewish crazy affair.”

The defendants face fines of up to $250,000 for each kidnapping count as well as prison sentences of up to life in prison, according to the U.S. attorney.