Jewish Ethics and Social Justice

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I was privileged to receive a review copy of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz‘s first book, Jewish Ethics and Social Justice. Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the first and only Orthodox Jewish social justice organization and a columnist for a number of Jewish publications.

Jewish Ethics and Social Justice is an anthology of articles. They were written over the past few years and many have been published in various publications such as The Jewish Press ,The Jewish Week, Conversations, HaAretz, etc.

All the essays are deeply rooted in our every day life. Rabbi Yanklowitz writes about a variety of subjects such as child labor, the role of women in Judaism and in the world, vegetarianism, globalization, the Davos World Forum, life in prison, hotel workers, and so much more. He starts by presenting a topic, then explains what the Jewish tradition has to say about it – drawing from the Talmudic sages, Medieval commentators as well as contemporary Jewish leaders. He then brings his own conclusions on the topic and shows immediate and concrete implications in our post-modern society.

In addition, Rabbi Yanklowitz encourages us to act as a community and constantly reminds us of our collective responsibility as a unique people, making sense of our presence in the diaspora as “light to the nations”. Thus, he never shuns disturbing topics such as the Rubashkin scandal or money laundering among the Orthodox community.

Obviously, what appeals to me may not appeal to other people, but I found that most essays are thought-provoking, engaging and easy to read.

The 54-essay format is also a great idea because s it means the book could be used by reading groups – as well as individuals – on a weekly basis following the Torah reading cycle.

Those who are familiar with this blog know how important it is to me to stress the relevance of Judaism in our time and within our environment, what Rabbi Yanklowitz calls “Street Torah”. This is exactly what this book does. It challenges the reader and won’t leave you indifferent.

The Search for God at Harvard

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I ordered this book after reading Rabbi Fink’s review on his blog. A New York Times journalist, Ari L. Goldman took a sabbatical to study religion at Harvard Divinity School. Being a Jew in a mostly non-Jewish environment I thought that Goldman’s account as an Orthodox Jew living at Harvard and learning about world religions would resonate with my own struggles; and it did.

Ari L. Goldman had been working as a religion writer for some years before he asked for a sabbatical to broaden his knowledge. The Search for God at Harvard recounts this very special year but also provides the background which enables the reader to understand the reasons for this unusual quest: his religious education in various Jewish schools (including a Crown Heights yeshiva and Yeshiva University), his secular education in high school, his parents’ divorce when he was 6 and his first years at the New York Times.

I respect people who steadfastly stick to their views but I deeply admire those who confront different people and beliefs. Ari L. Goldman is such a person. He knows that some of his former rabbis and teachers would disapprove but he sticks to his decision and studies Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, African religions and Christianity, or even of a course on Judaism by Louis Jacobs.

The Search for God at Harvard is not so much what these religions are but rather what they mean to him and how they help him strengthen his own beliefs.

Thus Ari L. Goldman contrasts Judaism – where God choses his own people – and Hinduism where believers choose a personal god among a pantheon of several million deities. He sees Buddhism’s attraction for many Jews who are alienated from judaism as a religious alternative that is not Christianity. “As disillusioned as many of these Jews were with their own faith, they had been conditioned by their upbringing to seeing Christianity not merely as a substitute for but as a repudiation of Judaism”.

A course on the different Protestant denominations sheds an interesting light on Fundamentalism.

“The White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant America the Fundamentalists say they are trying to get back to never really existed. From the beginning, this country had American Indians, Jews and catholics, as well as Protestants. They had red skin and black skin and white skin. To be sure, not all these groups were treated equally. It was most often the whites who were subjugated the others; maybe this is the America to which the Fundamentalists want to return. But, for most Americans, the thought of returning to slavery, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism or anti-American Indianism represents America gone awry and not “America Back to Our Roots. “”

They are poignant moments when Ari L. Goldman struggles between his desire to remain an observant Jew while aspiring to become a New York Times reporter. Surprisingly it is his mother – a religious Jew – who encourages him not to give up.

He also recalls painful episodes when choosing a community as a young couple not long after the Harvard experiece. His wife once tells guests at a Shabbat meal that she and her husband look forward to situations where not everyone around them is an Orthodox Jew because they consider them broadening and a challenge. Sadly they soon realize that they are not on the same wavelength as these people when they become the synagogue gossip.

The Search for God at Harvard is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Summer Reading

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In a recent post West Bank Mama writes about her summer reading and asks what is on her readers’ reading lists. Feeling that I wished to develop a few things about my own, I have decided to write this post as an answer.

Following a year (in the Jewish sense of the term) of little religious reading and a lot of frustration in my shul attendance and religious practice for a variety of reasons, I feel the need to interrogate my beliefs and observance. Therefore most of the books I plan to read over the summer are connected with Judaism one way or another.

One People, Two Worlds – a Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them. This is the book I am currently reading. It is quite thought-provoking even if I find myself uncomfortably sitting in between these two views of Judaism. I also admire that these two men took the time to answer each other via letters and explore their differences in an honest and open way.

After reading Rabbi Fink’s review of The Search for God at Harvard by Ari Goldman – an Orthodox Jew who spent a year at Harvard Divinity School – I wanted to read it for myself. Being a Jew in a mostly non-Jewish environment, I thought that his struggles would probably echo my own.

In the Narrow Places by Erica Brown, a book that examines the meaning of the three weeks looks quite interesting. It is no longer available in France but can be downloaded via Kindle.

This morning I received The Pages in Between by Erin Einhorn – a book Leora had suggested for a lesson plan on the Jews who emigrated to the USA after WW2. Another fellow-blogger Rayna-Eliana added her own recommendations and I will most certainly get a few more books on the topic.

Last but certainly not least, I plan to write a review of Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor.

Interviewing a Rabbi

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Interviewing rabbis is not easy; we all know how busy they are so when Rabbi Josh Yuter agreed to take part in this new series and replied to my questions, I felt honored. I hope that you will all enjoy this interview as much as I did. Thank you Rabbi for your participation.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Josh Yuter and I have been the Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York’s historic Lower East Side since 2008. I’ve also worked professionally as a computer programmer primarily with web application development.

I’ve been blogging since 2003, now at www.JoshYuter.com, and I created and currently manage www.JewishGuitarChords.com archive. I have diverse interests, many of which I incorporate into a Jewish context, and I make horrible and often esoteric puns.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

The community of The Stanton St. Shul is one of the most diverse I have ever encountered, which is quite remarkable due to its relatively small size and being an Orthodox congregation.

Our membership ranges from recent college graduates to seniors who have spent most of their lives in the Lower East Side. We have members who have grown up observant and attended yeshivot and others with virtually no background and who might not be observant in their private lives. On a typical Shabbat you can find someone in a suit and tie sitting next to someone in jeans and a t-shirt, and no one is particularly bothered.

The motto of the synagogue is “all are welcome; all will feel welcome” and the true uniqueness of the community is its ability to live up to this standard.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family? When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father has been a pulpit Rabbi for most of my life, though I would not categorize him as a “typical” Orthodox affiliated rabbi. For the purposes of this interview I would best describe his approach as “academic” in that religious texts must be understood critically and their interpretations must fit within the rules the grammar and philology. Perhaps more controversial is the formalistic approach to Jewish law which often challenges the accepted status quo and encourages others to do the same.

Being raised in this environment, my initial interests in going to rabbinical school was not professional, but practical. Most of the subjects learned in rabbinical school such as kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc. are laws which are relevant to any observant Jew. My intent was to learn the primary sources with the guidance of experts and the accountability of examinations such that at the end of my program I’d feel confident that I’d either know the halakha or I’d be able to find the answer with relative ease.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school? Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

For rabbinical school I studied at Yeshiva University, primarily because there were no other options at that time for a “modern orthodox” rabbinical school. YU’s main competition today is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but YCT only came into existence in my second year of rabbinical school and there was absolutely no reason to switch. Not only was YCT still in the process of figuring out its full curriculum, but in terms of complete rabbinic training, YU provided a better overall program for future rabbis.

The most significant and underutilized advantage of Yeshiva University is that it is in my opinion the most pluralistic institution of Orthodox Judaism in the world, defining “pluralistic” as the number of different ideologies and approaches to Judaism under one roof. I had the pleasure of studying Talmud in different styles – including “academic Talmud” in YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Judaic Studies and learning halakha from different perspectives. Even if I did not agree with an approach or a conclusion, being exposed to contradictory ideas is crucial for religious development. On a personal level I could be proven wrong in which case I’d correct a mistake or at the very least I’d have a better understanding as to why I would reject one idea over another. Furthermore, such exposure is crucial for anyone to be an effective Orthodox Rabbi since at some point, any Rabbi will have to confront people whose opinions and perspectives differ from his own, and the more one understands how another side operates, the better a rabbi can respond.

What do you like best about your job? / What do you like least about it?

Like any job, being a pulpit rabbi can alternate between the frustrating and the gratifying depending on the day. The most gratifying aspects about being a pulpit rabbi for me are times when I can engage with members Jewishly either through teaching classes or simply by being a part of their lives. Obviously this is much more pleasant in better times. I cannot imagine anyone enjoying grief counseling or officiating a funeral, even though to be the religious representative in such a time is less a responsibility than it is an honor.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

In terms of The Rabbinate in general, people often assume that my synagogue operates like theirs. Meaning, many people assume that the mutual relationship between a congregation and its rabbi are uniform when in truth every community is unique and what might be “normal” for some could be harmful elsewhere.

In my own shul I’ve worked hard to “lift the veil” so to speak about being a Rabbi, or at least how I operate. Part of this is that I think transparency is beneficial and hopefully will preempt misconceptions in the future.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

In 2000-2001 I participated in a fellowship program run by Clal which brought together rabbinical students from other denominations, though my exposure since then has been limited to individual colleagues. This is not so much an ideological decision but a practical one. Above all else, my primary focus is, and I think must be, the development of my own synagogue. Even with my Orthodox colleagues on the Lower East Side, we are all preoccupied with our synagogues that we do not have the time to dialogue regularly. However, I have found my local colleagues to be phenomenal professional resources, and I try to provide whatever assistance I can be to anyone regardless of their denomination.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

The internet has been instrumental for my synagogue. Given our limited resources, the internet has been the most efficient cost effective method to engage our membership. Between our email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, we can readily communicate with our membership and our website allows us to reach out to others. The reality is that people, especially those under 35, use the internet as their primary source of information and we have had numerous people who have found our shul simply by searching Google. Getting people in the door is the hardest part, especially if people don’t know you exist.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

In terms of the future of the shul, my goal is to continue our sustained growth. As tempting as it can be to simply fill seats, without a sense of community people can leave just as easily. The biggest challenge I see myself facing is being able to reevaluate where we are in the present and to adjust accordingly. We’ve made extraordinary strides in the past two years to the point where it would not be a stretch to say we are a different shul entirely. While it’s a challenge to see the synagogue anew, all things considered, it’s a wonderful problem to have.

From Paris to Antwerp

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I recently interviewed a friend who was born and bred in France and has moved to the Jewish community of Antwerp. The interview was conducted in French and translated by the owner of this blog. Thanks to SuperRaizy for proofreading it.

– Can you introduce yourself briefly?
I am 32 years old, have been married for almost 3 years and have a one-year old daughter.

– Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?
We live in Antwerp, right in the heart of the Jewish district. Leaving Paris for Antwerp seemed quite obvious for two reasons. First, my then future wife had been living there for three years and I was dissatisfied with the level of observance in Paris. Besides, I could not imagine asking my wife to move to Paris where life is so different from anything she had known in either Antwerp or in Amsterdam where she had grown up.

– What do you like best about living in Antwerp?
When you go to Antwerp for the first time you are struck by a number of things. First, the omnipresence of Jewish life; here every day life and Jewish life are synonymous. There is no place for religion as a hobby. Being religious is as natural and as vital as breathing.
Another striking element is the convenience. Hechsherim (religious certifications) are serious and one needn’t question their validity. It is not necessary to check them out. You can buy practically all Kosher certified products.
In addition, there is a wide variety of Jewish communities. Almost all Jewish movements exist here, with a strong emphasis on Orthodoxy – from Modern Orthodox to the strictest of Chassidim.
Finally, Antwerp has a vibrant Jewish community. Unlike other communities in Europe (Paris or Amsterdam for instance), the trauma of the Second World War did not shake the foundations of the “edifice”. Here there is no memorial to a lost world; life is steeped in the present.
In my opinion the strongest proof of the everlasting quality of the Jewish people is to hear children speaking Yiddish as a mother tongue right here in Europe, as if nothing had happened 60 years ago.

– Do you identify yourself as a Chassid?
I studied at a yeshiva in Paris (Yeshivat Yad Mordechai) whose Rosh Yeshiva was a strict Litvak, so I was rather prejudiced against Chassidism. Yet even before I was married I decided to wear a lange rekel (a long coat) and since my daughter’s birth I have been wearing a shtreimel. Then I discovered traditional Chassidic writers and what this movement had meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe. My overall vision of life gradually evolved as I witnessed how Chassidim live their faith in a festive atmosphere, which is joyous without ever being “light”.

– What Chasidic group do you associate with?
Last December I officially became a Makhnovka Chassid. It is a tiny group that has members in Antwerp, New York, London and Bnei Brak where the present rebbe lives. It is an old dynasty which originated in the village of Makhnovka (the former Komsomolske) in Southern Ukraine. Progressively it established ties with other Chassidic groups, particularly Belz, to which the present rebbe is linked via his mother. We have shared the same minhagim as Belz for quite a while now.

– Why did you choose this particular group?
I had been attending the Makhnovka shul in Antwerp for two years when I decided to go and visit the rebbe. I had the time to see if their minhagim and their point of view were for me. The visit to the rebbe in December confirmed what I had been feeling for two years.
Becoming a rebbe-chassid implies accepting him as a guide in all the momentous decisions of one’s life. You consider him to be the person who is able, through his insights into the “secrets” of the Torah and his knowledge of the sacred texts to perceive more truths than the rest of us. At the birth of our next child, im yirtsa Hashem, we’ll ask for his advice on what to name the baby.

Mitzvah Girls

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This past week, I have been reading Mitzvah Girls – Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by Ayala Fader. While Boychiks in the Hood reads like a travelogue with author Robert Eisenberg traveling around the United States and across the world to visit Hasidic communities and describing them rather briefly as he moves along, Mitzvah Girls is an in-depth ethnographic study of how Hasidic parents and communities educate girls so that they become “women responsible for rearing the next generation of nonliberal Jewish believers. ”

Ayala Fader did not concentrate on rituals and prayers, instead she listened to everyday talks between women and girls in homes, classrooms and other places where Hasidic interact. Sometimes she even recorded them. She thus primarily focuses on socialization through language and shows how it enforces strict gender roles.

I hope to find the time to review particular aspects of this book; for instance how girls are encouraged to “fit in” and how mothers and teachers deal with “defiance”. I was also very interested in the fact that men and women and thus boys and girls use different languages in their everyday lives – Hasidic Yiddish and Hasidic English respectively. The way these women see themselves and want to be perceived by the outside world is also quite fascinating.

The book is one which readers with an interest in Hasidic life, Jewish women and even gender studies will find riveting. Fader’s study is always respectful of the people she observes and she never guides our judgement, even when the attitudes she uncovers shed a negative light on Hasidic Jews.

Where I Have Been This Week

chezcatrin.jpgEveryone Needs Therapy gives sound advice to parents on how to bring about a healthy discussion about high-risk behavior with your teenagers.

At Hirhurim you will find the beginning of an ongoing series of guest posts by leaders from across the Jewish spectrum about why people become Orthodox. So far two Conservative rabbis, Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Charles L. Arian, have shared insights.

Cooking with Yiddishe mama points to a CNN report about 5 foods that are good for you. A most welcome article as it includes 3 of my favorite foods.

I’ve just discovered a blog run by a young French woman who is studying to become a journalist. Apparently all the students in her school have been assigned to keep a blog. Yasmina has chosen to devote hers to Israeli films.