Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Shrinking Diaspora

This entry was posted in History on by .

Recently I heard Sammy Samuels, one of 20 Jews in left Myanmar speak about his homeland and how he made a difference. In early May, a cyclone ravaged Myanmar killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Samuels was in New York at the time of the cyclone and couldn’t get in touch with any of his family or friends. He was one of the few people able to reenter Myanmar due to its military regime’s impositions. He had raised thousands of dollars in just two days and returned with relief supplies, water tablets and hope. The JTA interviewed Samuels who has a unique family history:

The Samuels family moved to Burma about 80 years ago from Iraq to pursue business interests in the rice and teakwood trade. At that time, its Jewish community numbered in the thousands. Most fled to Japan during World War II and the rest left when the military seized power in 1962 and nationalized many businesses. (The military changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and Rangoon to Yangon in 1989.)

The Samuels family stayed and watched as the community dwindled to about 20. Four are his family — his father, Moses; his mother, Nelly; and his two sisters, Kazna, 29, and Dina, 31. (MORE)

The Samuels family takes care of the beautiful synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. After hearing Samuels speak, I asked if he planned to stay there long term. Samuels replied gently saying that he loved his country and he wanted to help support the Jewish community their. He spoke fondly of his heritage but also stated the obvious issues with living in a country with 20 Jews. There is almost never a minyan (except when tourists come), his Jewish friends are his two sisters, and it is very hard to get kosher food. He also spoke fondly of Israel and how he and his sisters both lived their for different periods of time.

But Samuels’ predicament, expresses a growing issue in today’s Jewish world: The polarization of Jewish communities. More and more Jews are leaving their communities, whether because of political unrest, or economic security, older Jewish communities are dwindling. Granted Myanmar is an extreme case, but a similar situation rings true in Argentina, India, Brazil, Ireland, Zimbabwe and many other countries.

In Argentina, the Jewish community is quickly declining due to economic downturns. In 1970 the Jewish community had more than 280,000 people. Today there are less that 160,000 and that number keeps shrinking.

The Indian Jewish community, specifically the Jews from the city of Cochin are down to 17 members as many have moved to Israel.

But what are the issues to be considered in sustaining these Jewish communities in remote places? If we have a superstructure of agencies and thriving communities elsewhere should we try to merge communities such as the one in Myanmar?

In our globalized society we do have the resources to continue to support these communities but many believe our efforts should be focused elsewhere. As we become aware of the Jewish presence in remote locations the balance of preserving heritage and community will remain a challenge. Should we leave behind synagogues of the past to create a more cohesive Jewish community?

Posted on June 30, 2008

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Going Green: The Israeli Way

This entry was posted in General on by .

The Israel Electric Company is hoping to encourage consumers to install solar panels on rooftops by offering to buy excess electricity for 4 times what customers pay for electricity. (Arutz Sheva)

Israeli consumer and environmental organizations are suspicious of the flourishing phenomenon of “greenwash”, with places and companies claiming to be “greenâ€? when they are not. (Haaretz)

Arnold Goldman, solar power pioneer in Israel, talks about past, present and future efforts in solar power. (Jerusalem Post)

A look at the efforts of the fledgling REAL (Renewable Energy for Affordable Living) housing company to produce “greenâ€? buildings in EdenHills, even while the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, describes Eden Hills as an “ecological catastrophe”. (Jerusalem Post)

Posted on June 30, 2008

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Wanted: Hot Rabbis.

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Earlier this week, another Jewish blog wrote about this story, which reports on the growing absence of men in the Reform rabbinate. But I can’t link to that blog post, because the editors decided to include a picture a female rabbi, who as my mom might say, is a bisel zaftig (Yiddish for a little chubby). Furthermore, they included the headline “Tilting the Scales.”

All done for a few laughs.

Now this rabbi isn’t named, but the picture is as clear as can be. She’s not connected to the story at all. She just happens to have a picture out there of her in a kippah, holding a Torah. To say that this blog post is a personally hateful to her is an understatement.

But it does raise a larger issue. For whatever reason rabbis, particular females, aren’t known for being overly attractive. A kippah and tallis generally don’t not flatter a woman’s body, fashionably speaking (putting religious issues aside).

Sometimes, we go out of our way to show off those rabbis who do defy the norms. A friend of mine, who is a rabbinical student, is a real beauty. Long blond hair, blue eyes, slim body. And it’s no wonder her rabbinical school frequently uses her picture in marketing materials, as well as has her give tours to prospective students. Of course, she is also incredibly personable, intelligent, driven and committed to Judaism, but her looks surely don’t hurt.

To some degree, isn’t it important that our leaders, our public representatives, carry themselves not only with religious and moral ethics, but also with a concern for appearance? They are the outer face of Judaism to the rest of world.
Or have I just offended a lot of chubby rabbis?

Posted on June 27, 2008

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Vic Hershkowitz, Handball Legend

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Today’s New York Times reports the death of Vic Hershkowitz one of the great handball players of all time.

Vic.jpg Competing from the early 1940s to the early 1960s, Mr. Hershkowitz captured 23 national amateur titles, including a record nine consecutive three-wall singles championships from 1950 to 1958. He swept the one-, three- and four-wall singles championships in 1952. He later won 12 Masters events and played recreationally in South Florida into his 80s.

The article doesn’t mention Judaism or Jewishness, but it still manages to conjure up a lost world of Jews — a times when guys named Hershkowitz became known for their feats on the playgrounds of Brooklyn.

Plus, you’ll get get a chuckle from the name of Hershkowitz’s close friend:

“Vic had two great hands,� Phil Collins, a winner of many national handball doubles championships and a longtime friend of Mr. Hershkowitz, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “He could hit the ball with his left or right hand and it would look like he was a natural.�

Posted on June 27, 2008

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And Yanklowitz…

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

Yesterday I posted Rabbi Avi Shafran’s response to Shmuly Yanklowitz’s response to Rabbi Shafran’s op-ed response to Yanklowitz’s organization’s response to the recent Agriprocessors scandal.

Below is Shmuly’s latest — and the last I’ll post. I encourage all those interested to continue the debate in the Comments section.

Dear Rabbi Shafran,

Thank you for your letter.

I am confused. You wrote “Our constituents, though, would indeed avoid a product were some kashrut problem be rumored about it, and certainly if there were some good reason to imagine that the product’s kashrut had been compromised.”

Would you write an op-ed in the JPost ensuring that your “constituents” don’t change their purchasing plans based on “rumors?” Why is it that when it is merely rumors you wouldn’t speak out but when there are substantive facts of injustices you do speak out for patience/passivity?

If there were ultra-orthodox Jews in your Agudah constituency would you speak out against them as you do against the progressive Orthodox? Why is it that when it comes to ritual kashrut you wouldn’t be against your constituents speaking out, but in a serious matter of ethical kashrut you condemn the prophetic voice?

The mitzvah to issue tochecha (rebuke) to a sinner that will respond is very clear in the Talmud (Yevamot 65b, Shabbat 55a). How is it justified to lead so passively and wait for secular legal certainty on all accounts when the dignity of hundreds of human beings is at stake? Do not our Torah’s halakhic requirements demand more in cases of chashash for an issur d’oreita of oshek (serious concern of the Torah law against worker oppression)?

You wrote that you were opposed to a “campaign that effectively pronounced and proclaimed guilt in the absence of compelling evidence.” I am also opposed to such a campaign but this is clearly not the case here. Uri L’Tzedek has worked to partner with the Rubashkin family and company to rebuild consumer faith in their practices and products. Thus far, the company has not fulfilled the requirements that its leadership committed to: to produce a document “within 48 hours” with their commitments to US and Jewish law for all workers.

We are still waiting for that and to be relieved of our concerns. They are also yet to respond to a communal request to make their new CCO’s (Jim Martin’s) attempts at reforms transparent to the public consumer. The voice of the ethical kosher consumers have not declared absolute guilt but have rather reached out for partnership while maintaining the pressure that matches our 0 zero tolerance policy for worker abuse in the kashrut industry as commanded from the Torah.

Have you urged that the company be transparent in their practices or will you let them off without making reforms when they negotiate their way out of federal indictment? Has Agudah issued a statement on the serious concerns of worker oppression (including non-Jews)? Has your constituency raised funds for the suffering broken immigrant families in Postville who have produced, under extremely trying situations, the American kosher meat for years?

Rabbi Shafran, would you speak out if it was the 13 year old ben Torah Moishe working in the factory under nasty conditions? If so, why not for the 13 year old Latino immigrant? As a Rav bʼYisrael, I am sure that you would be interested to fight for any victims of injustice so I would request a few examples where you or Agudah has taken up this cause.

I look forward to your response.

Thank you,
Shmuly Yanklowitz (Uri L’Tzedek, Co-Director)

Posted on June 26, 2008

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Rabbi Shafran Responds

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

On Monday, I wrote about Rabbi Avi Shafran’s op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, which expressed discomfort with those groups calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors. The company should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Rabbi Shafran suggested.

I also solicited and posted a response from Shmuly Yanklowitz, a director of Uri L’Tzedek, one of the groups calling for the boycott. Now Rabbi Shafran responds. In an email, he expressed regret that he did not have time to carry on a longer discussion about the issue, but he did want to respond to Shmuly — a response that I’ve posted below.

Dear Mr. Yanklowitz,

Just as a point of fact, Agudath Israel is neither in the kashrut certification business or the business of warning kosher consumers away from problematic foods.

Our constituents, though, would indeed avoid a product were some kashrut problem be rumored about it, and certainly if there were some good reason to imagine that the product’s kashrut had been compromised. That would not, however preclude us from maintaining the presumption of innocence (at least if there were no hard evidence to the contrary). What I decried in my essay, in any event, was not the suspicion anyone might have about Agriprocessors or any individual’s choice to forgo the firm’s products if he felt that there was sufficient reason to think that the company had done something unconscionable.

What I decried was a public campaign that effectively pronounced and proclaimed guilt in the absence of compelling evidence – through a public campaign to boycott or threaten one.

I did not make the case for any distinction between ritual and ethical punctiliousness; all I did was point out that punctiliousness extends also to the ethical imperative to not seek to harm another Jew based on an unconfirmed assumption. And that is, sadly, precisely was has been done here. Even if Agriprocessors turns out to have knowingly hired illegal aliens, not properly paid them and abused them, that fact will remain: they were pronounced guilty before their guilt was established. And that is an ethical sin.

Please consider a scenario. I discover that you had to pay a large number of traffic citations and, further, that the sanitation department has cited you repeatedly for not properly placing your trash out for pickup. Then someone comes to me and accuses you of beating your wife. Do I have a right, in Judaism’s eyes, to worry that you may be more than a scofflaw, that you may be a wife-beater? Perhaps (although I am not certain). Do I have a Jewish right to make a public declaration from the bima on Shabbat that you had better stand up there and declare that you will pledge to not beat your wife anymore and, after Shabbat, sign a document to that effect, or face a campaign to have your employer fire you? I am quite certain that you do not.

“Interviews� are not proofs of anything. If your group chooses, as you put it, to consider Agriprocessors guilty based on such “evidence�, that is your choice. But I do not believe that it is a defensible Jewish choice or that any true Jewish religious authority would consider it one. That is what I wrote, and I stand by it entirely.

AS

Posted on June 25, 2008

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Sarkozy (and Suicide) in Israel

This entry was posted in History on by .

Some wild and unfortunate events ended French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Israel today.

An Israeli official says a policeman committed suicide at an airport farewell for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, setting off panic at the ceremony.

The shooting at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport sent Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, running up the stairs into their airplane. Security guards surrounded the French leader and whisked him aboard as well. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was also hustled away. (MORE)

Yesterday, Sarkozy addressed the Knesset and in addition to expressing his support for Israel and his stance against a nuclear Iran, the President called for a freeze on settlement activity and the eventual division of Jerusalem.

This last point was aggressively rejected by the National Council of Young Israel, an American synagogue group, today.

The French President has no business suggesting that Israel divide that which is indivisible.  Israel can agree to a divided Jerusalem no more than General Charles de Gaulle and the French were able to agree to a divided France under the Nazis during Work War II.  The position of the National Council of Young Israel continues to be that there can be no division of Jerusalem at any time, under any circumstances. (MORE)

While I can sympathize with an intense attachment to Jerusalem, language like this — the reference to WWII and the absolute non-negotiability of Jerusalem — seems wholly inappropriate from an American Jewish group.

Most interestingly, the NCYI seems to explicitly introduce theological beliefs into its policy stance when it says that Israel cannot divide something that is “indivisible.”

They cannot, of course, be speaking about physical divisibility. Before 1967, Jerusalem was, indeed, divided. And security logistics aside, there would be no reason why it could not be physically divided again.

Thus, NCYI must be appealing to some metaphysical idea of Jerusalem. And whether you agree with their political take on Jerusalem or not, this a Pandora’s box that worries me.

Posted on June 24, 2008

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Religion in America

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Today’s New York Times reported more findings from a recent Pew study on religion in America, with attention to the nature of theological tolerance — at least among laypeople.

70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,� including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did.

Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.

Pew and the NY Times would like us to think this is surprising, but I don’t think it is. Instead, it seems to reflect a survey with poor wording.

I find it hard to believe 80% of Jews would know what you were talking about if you asked about “eternal life” — let alone 80% of Jews believing in eternal life — so forget about 80% of Jews believing that people of other faiths are eligible for eternal life.

To be fair, the NYT article does point out some of the reports seemingly contradictory findings.

My favorite: 1 out 5 atheists believe in God.

Posted on June 24, 2008

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Frum Entertainment

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

This week’s featured homepage article is written by MJL’s go-to movie critic Saul Austerlitz. But recently in the Forward, he looked at a different aspect of Jewish culture that most of us know next-to-nothing about: Frum Entertainment:

The look I received from the proprietor of Heichal Judaica, A bookstore in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Midwood district, was understandably puzzled, bordering on suspicious. After all, my yarmulke may have said yes-yes, but my jeans and sneakers said no-no. As it turns out, I was in the market for some frum Jewish entertainment and wanted to find out what Orthodox teenagers, some of whom might not be allowed to listen to secular music, were watching and bopping their heads to these days. (MORE)

Posted on June 23, 2008

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