Which programs are most expensive and most popular? Who is more satisfied, senior citizens or nursery school parents? Increasingly, synagogues are finding answers in data.Click here for the rest of the article...
by Rachel Roth
[Editor's Note: The following post was presented as a drash at an executive meeting of the American Conference of Cantors on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.]
One of the most interesting statistics that I found in the Pew Study is the somewhat low rate of importance of being part of a community as being essential to Jewish Identity. Only 25% of Reform Jews—29% of all Jews—said that being a part of a community is essential to their identity as a Jew. Yet, when I watched the video on the URJ Biennial website, the message to the lay leadership of the Movement is clear: Come to San Diego and be a part of the community that is “the URJ.”
What does that mean?
Martin Buber tells us (in the book The Martin Buber Reader—Essential Writings) that, “The world yearns to become a community…World and humankind are predisposed by creation alone to become a community.” He goes on to say “When people really engage with each other, experience each other and respond to this experience with their own lives, when people have a ‘living middle’ at their center, then community can arise among them.”
Yet, of the Jews surveyed in the Pew Study, only one quarter of them believe that being a part of a community is an important part of their life as a Jew. So, is there a disconnect? Is it important to be a part of a community to be a Jew? Clearly, those of us sitting in this room believe it is important. So, how do we reach the 75% who don’t believe that they need to be a part of a community to be Jewish? They are already proud—the survey told us that 96% of Reform Jews and 94% of Jews overall are proud of their Judaism. How do we, the leaders of the largest Movement in North America, convey to those who are proud but not part of a community that the community still needs them?
Buber’s words seem to be at the center of the lack of community we see today. When people engage, they feel a part of the community and they want to continue. But when they don’t engage—and when they don’t feel a need for engagement—community is no longer important to their identity.
So, what do we do about it? How do we cause the community to arise?
This is something the URJ board and leadership struggled with for this Biennial. When the decision was made to open the Biennial to non-URJ congregational members, it was not without controversy or discussion. It is the dues of the congregations represented around this room that create the financial ability for the URJ to put this together. But, Rabbi Rick Jacobs has a vision. “We have opened the Biennial as a symbol of where we are as the Reform Movement,” he told JTA in an interview. “Openness is our practice. It is not just a technique, a thing to do. It is who we are. It is theology. It is commitment.”
In these few short days, the overarching goal is to create a community that the attendees — those lay leaders of our own congregations – will take with them so they can in turn teach others and engage others in what it means to be a part of a larger community. We hope they bring the “living middle” of the music, the worship, the workshops, the speakers, and the camaraderie back to their friends and families and not just the members of your congregations.
In this room are the leaders of the largest movement of Jews in North America — but not necessarily the most engaged. This week, we have an opportunity to make strides in the direction of engaging the greater community.
Basketball great, Michael Jordan said, “Earn your leadership every day.” As I think about the reason that we have come together this week in San Diego, I can’t help but think about the leadership opportunities we each can earn as we walk the halls, greet people, learn in the classrooms and pray in the worship services of this Biennial gathering. You’ve heard it said many times when we gather together as the American Conference of Cantors that we should “wrap ourselves in the flag of the ACC.” This time, I would ask you to take it one step further and wrap yourself in the flag of Judaism. Not even Reform Judaism. Just Judaism.
Model that behavior of being a committed and engaged leader for your board presidents and Sisterhood members who are here to celebrate together. Model the spirit of collaboration and engagement as we walk the halls and greet each other and make new friends. Let us create that “living middle” that seeks to engage Jews of every generation to be a part of our community.
Rachel Roth is the managing Executive Director of the American Conference of Cantors. This post originally appeared on the ACC’s website.
A former hotel security guard pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for defacing a Jewish school’s Torah scroll and prayer books.Click here for the rest of the article...
(JTA) — A former hotel security guard pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for defacing a Jewish school’s Torah scroll and prayer books.
Justin Shawn Baker, 25, admitted during a plea hearing Monday in a Jackson, Tenn., court to violating the civil rights of students of the Margolin Hebrew Academy’s Cooper Yeshiva High School of Memphis.
Baker was arrested in January after the school’s students and faculty showed up for a worship service in the conference room at the DoubleTree Hotel in Jackson and discovered the Torah scroll and prayer books damaged and covered with graffiti, including “Gentiles win, Jews lose” and “Submit to Satan.”
He also admitted to spitting on the Torah scroll, according to WJJB, the western Tennessee ABC television affiliate.
Some 50 high school students and faculty from the school were spending the Sabbath at the hotel on their way to a ski trip in the Smoky Mountains.
Baker is an Iraq War veteran.
A new independent rabbinical court to address the issue of agunot, so-called “chained women” whose husbands refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, will be launched next year.Click here for the rest of the article...
(JTA) — A new independent rabbinical court to address the issue of agunot, so-called “chained women” whose husbands refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, will be launched next year.
The announcement of the court, or beit din, was made Sunday at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in New York.
Rabbi Simcha Krauss of Jerusalem will head the court, which will have no institutional affiliation and begin operating in New York.
Krauss, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi and widely respected scholar, told JTA that the court will utilize little-used, obscure resources in Jewish religious law to free agunot, including the excommunication from communal prayer of their husbands and Sephardic laws that allow for greater initiative from women in divorce cases. Krauss said he will leave “no door unopened” in his quest to address the plight of agunot.
Eventually, Krauss said, he wants to open an affiliate court in Israel. He also is working on attaining approval from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is necessary if the court’s judgments are to be upheld under Israeli law.
“The goal of this project is to humanize the beit din,” Krauss told JTA. “You can’t solve these situations with sleight of hand. But hopefully we can use the right methodology, so that even these situations get solved.”
Krauss acknowledged that the biggest challenge facing any avowedly independent religious court is mainstream acceptance, particularly within the haredi Orthodox communities.
“Nobody wants agunot,” he said. “So hopefully, if [haredim] see that we are solving these cases, maybe they will come to us. Or maybe they will follow.”
“Jewish Cultural Affirmation” offers a path to affiliation with the Jewish people that does not involve religion and all the other demands of ritual and observance.Click here for the rest of the article...
(JTA) — When Max Grunberg wants to know more about the sex lives of the couples he treats, he asks the women to describe what happens after they return from the mikvah.
Grunberg, a Dutch-born couples therapist specializing in the Orthodox Jewish community, needs to ease clients into talking about sex, an activity many religious couples undertake within hours of a woman’s monthly immersion in a ritual bath. Even in the privacy of a therapist’s office, most are still too hesitant to speak about sex directly.
But as a determined campaigner for the rights of religious women to experience sexual pleasure, Grunberg wants his clients to go way beyond merely discussing sex.
In a move that some say reflects a growing openness in Orthodox circles to sexual coaching, he has obtained the endorsement of prominent rabbis for a guidebook he has written aimed at enhancing women’s pleasure during sex and, more controversially, through masturbation.
First published several years ago, Grunberg’s book, “Femfeeling,” is part of a growing number of sex resources aimed at the Orthodox. But unlike other kosher sex guides, “Femfeeling” advocates the virtues of female masturbation, an activity many in Orthodox circles view as immoral.
“It is my mission to make as many people as possible realize that women have the right to sexual pleasure,“ said Grunberg, a baby-faced 61-year-old who lives in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana. “It will make for happier people and a better world.”
In the guide, Grunberg provides drawings of a woman’s erogenous zones but stops short of giving explicit instructions about how to masturbate. But the book leaves little doubt about his support for the practice, telling readers they can use the guide on their own or with a partner and encouraging women to pursue personal sexual fulfillment.
Grunberg says masturbation allows women to better know their bodies and communicate their preferences to their husbands.
“In Jewish tradition female masturbation is allowed when it’s for exploring oneself and one’s sexual feelings,” Grunberg said. “It is valuable for gaining knowledge about the different parts of your anatomy through touch, which is needed to be a sexually knowledgeable women in order to communicate without fear your sexual needs to your partner.”
To secular readers, such advice seems innocuous. But in sexually conservative Orthodox circles, Grunberg’s recommendations are taboo breakers. Over the years, many Orthodox rabbis have denounced female masturbation as an illicit act that causes psychological harm and does damage to the marital union.
“Some of the things he wrote potentially are deeply empowering to Orthodox women,” said David Ribner, an American-born Orthodox rabbi and sex therapist in Jerusalem who has written several books on sex aimed at religious Jews. “That is a positive contribution and a step in the right direction.”
Grunberg was unable to find a religious publisher for “Femfeeling,” which he ultimately published on his own. He has sold several hundred copies, but believes his message has reached thousands more through a website of the same name as well as women sharing the information with their friends.
Even more noteworthy, he has received the endorsement of several Orthodox rabbis, including Nathan Lopes Cardozo, an internationally recognized authority on Jewish law and dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. In an interview with JTA, Cardozo dispelled the notion that female masturbation is counter to traditional Jewish teaching.
“There is no prohibition on female masturbation,” Cardozo told JTA, adding, “The Jewish tradition has a healthy attitude toward sexual pleasure. I think the Orthodox world was influenced by Christianity to view it as a taboo.”
Ribner says support for the book among Orthodox rabbis is part of a growing acceptance in the religious world of efforts to help couples struggling with sexual intimacy.
A new website with educational resources aimed at observant Jews was launched in September. Growing numbers of Orthodox day schools are using the sex education curriculum “Life Values and Intimacy.” And Ribner’s book, “The Newlywed’s Guide to Intimacy,” was translated recently into Hebrew. Ribner says he has even been given rabbinic approval for some of his patients to use a vibrator if they have trouble reaching orgasm.
“Over the past decade, you started having more Jewish Orthodox sex therapists,” Ribner said. “And sex therapists in general have become more aware of the need to work within the cultural context of their patients. So rabbis today have more confidence that I or my colleagues won’t do anything to contradict them.”
Another factor is the easy online access to sexual information that compels the Orthodox world to provide alternatives that take religious sensibilities into account. “Femfeeling,” which includes information on foreplay, sexual positions, role play and lubrication, is designed so readers can stash or throw away parts they consider too racy.
Rabbis also may have a more practical consideration in mind.
“Orthodox women marry later in life these days, and rabbis realize this raises the risk of them having premarital sex,” Grunberg said. “So even if some rabbis wouldn’t like women to masturbate, they figure it might at least keep them from having sex.”
MTV’s “Rebel Music” series covers Israeli and Palestinian musicians trying to cross a cultural divide through music.
Thousands of Jews packed a Johannesburg synagogue to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela — a man they dubbed South Africa’s Joseph.Click here for the rest of the article...
Can juice cleanses fill the need that people have for old-fashioned religious ritual, order, asceticism and ultimately, hopefully, transcendence?Click here for the rest of the article...
Gematria is the rabbinic term for finding significance in the numerical value of the letters of Hebrew words. The practice goes all the way back to Greek geometry.Click here for the rest of the article...
One of the first things that Nelson Mandela did after being elected president of South Africa was visit a synagogue. In May 1994, Mandela dropped by Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation on the Shabbat after his election.
Here is an excerpt from JTA’s report:
The congregants heard Mandela make an appeal from the pulpit for Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa.
Pointedly excluding aliyah by saying he understands the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel, Mandela said: “We want those who left (for other countries) because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country.”
He added that those who do not return should contribute their money and skills to South Africa.
Mandela thanked the Jewish community for its contribution toward the development of South Africa and assured Jews they have nothing to fear from a government of national unity.
He said he felt an affinity with the Jewish community, since it was a Jewish firm that gave him an apprenticeship in the early days of his law career, when discrimination was rife.
He also said that he had befriended his Jewish defense counsel during the treason trial which led to his imprisonment in the 1950s and that he was still in contact with the lawyer.
He stated that he recognizes the right to existence of the State of Israel, along with the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland.
He noted that he considered it significant that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week signed an agreement in Cairo implementing Palestinian self rule — the same week that South Africa elected its new leadership.
At the reception following the service, some of the younger members of the congregation raised clenched fists in solidarity with the ANC, while the shul choir led in the singing of the country’s new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ IAfrika.”
The national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies called the visit “a peak in Jewry’s relationship with the new South Africa.”
Here is an in-depth roundup of decades’ worth of JTA coverage of Mandela’s relationship to the Jewish community. One 1998 JTA article describes how Mandela arranged to get a pre-wedding blessing from South Africa’s chief rabbi, who was unable to attend the nuptials because they were held on the Jewish Sabbath.
Most Hispanics in the U.S. still call themselves Catholic, but more and more are joining Protestant churches, especially the younger generation. The explosive growth of the Protestant Hispanic population can be seen in places like New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, which draws more than 17,000 worshipers every week.
The European Union regrets the attendance at an event it sponsored of an anti-Zionist rabbi who has been accused of Holocaust denial, the parliament spokeswoman has said.Click here for the rest of the article...
South African Jews joined the rest of the nation and the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela Friday with prayers and memories of the iconic figure who led the country from apartheid to freedom.Click here for the rest of the article...
Can’t join us next week at the URJ Biennial? You can be a part of the convention from the comfort of your own home! We’ll be live-streaming all plenary sessions and Shabbat worship at www.urj.org/biennial, or you can watch the sessions on cable when they play live on JLTV.
You can also join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #Biennial13; we’ll be live-tweeting all the plenaries, and we look forward to interacting with you through our account, @URJ. Don’t forget to check out our Facebook page for highlights, photos, and more.
Below is a schedule of Biennial plenary sessions and services that will be streamed live. It’s the next best thing to being there in person!
Wed., Dec. 11th, 7:30-9:30pm PST (10:30pm-12:30am EST)
At this opening session, we’ll kick off the URJ Biennial by welcoming attendees to San Diego! Jay Feinberg, founder and CEO of Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, will receive the Maurice N. Eisendrath “Bearer of Light” Award, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs will present the Alexander M. Schindler Award to World Jewry to Rabbi David Hartman, z’’l, an award accepted by his son. We’ll also honor Jews who serve in the United States Armed Services, hear an update about Reform Jewish issues in Israel, be treated to stand-up comedy from Joel Chasnoff, and rock out at a performance from Jewish musicians Rick Recht & Julie Silver.
Thurs., Dec. 12th, 7:30-9:30pm (10:30pm-12:30am EST)
Our featured speaker will be Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. We’ll introduce you to URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, one of the URJ’s two newest summer camps, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the URJ’s senior vice president, will speak about “Building Our Movement.” Spoken-word artist Andrew Lustig will perform, followed by a show from Jewish rockers Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols.
Fri., Dec. 13th, 10:15 am-12:15pm PST (1:15-3:15pm EST)
We’ll discuss the implications of the recent Pew Center Research study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” featuring Rabbi Elka Abramson of the Wexner Foundation and Dr. Sarah Benor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We’ll also celebrate 10 years of the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah initiative, recognize award-winning congregations, and celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the American Conference of Cantors. Rabbi David Saperstein and Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation will discuss accessibility and inclusion in the Jewish community, and we’ll end the session with a performance from Billy Jonas.
Kabbalat Shabbat T’filah
Fri., Dec. 13th, 5:45-6:45pm (8:45-9:45pm EST)
Services will be led by the clergy team at Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, MA.
Shabbat Song Session
Fri., Dec. 13th, 9:15-10:15pm (Sat., Dec. 14th, 12:15-1:15am EST)
This Shabbat event is a Biennial favorite, featuring all your favorite music from camp and youth group – live!
Shabbat Shacharit T’filah (starting at the Barechu)
Sat., Dec. 14th, 10am-12:30pm (1-3:30pm EST)
Morning services will be led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, and Rabbi/Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan. The Torah-reading will begin with a Seder Kriat haTorah by Storahtelling founder Amichai Lau Lavie and the Dance Exchange’s Liz Lerman, and our d’var Torah will come from Rabbi David Ellenson, outgoing president of HUC-JIR, who we’ll honor in the lead-up to his retirement.
Plenary Four, including Havdalah and WRJ Centennial Celebration
Sat., Dec. 14th, 8:30-10pm (11:30pm-1am EST)
We’ll do Havdalah together and then spend the evening honoring Women of Reform Judaism as they celebrate their 100th anniversary. This session, “Extraordinary Women Shaping Reform Judaism,” will include the presentation of URJ Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award to Women of Reform Judaism & presentation of the WRJ Jane Evans Award to Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center. We’ll also honor the 75th Anniversary of the founding of NFTY, and then head into musical performances from some of the best women in Jewish music today: Beth Schafer, Michelle Citrin, Peri Smilow, Naomi Less, Elana Jagoda, and Julie Silver.
Sun., Dec. 15th, 8:30-10:30am (11:30am-1:30 EST)
We’ll wrap up the Biennial with an address from Rabbi Aaron Panken, president-elect of HUC-JIR, on “What’s Next for our Youth? Setting Inspired Engagement in Motion.” We’ll also kick off the World Zionist Congress Election Campaign, hear from ARZA president Rabbi Josh Weinberg, and end with a performance from Jewish musical favorite Craig Taubman.
Angela Warnick Buchdahl was named Senior Rabbi of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue last night in a unanimous vote by the synagogue’s Board of Trustees, making her the first Asian-American leader of one of the nation’s largest Reform synagogues. Buchdahl currently serves as the synagogue’s Senior Cantor and will succeed Senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, who announced his retirement in March after leading the synagogue for 23 years.Click here for the rest of the article...
Rabbi Berland fled from Israel to Morocco after being accused of sexual assault. His presence has drawn attention to the dozens of Israeli fugitives that have made the country their home.Click here for the rest of the article...
Rabbi Sergio Bergman was sworn in to Argentina’s National Parliament on a Tanach.Click here for the rest of the article...