Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Chabad's Kiruv Double Standard: Outrage Over Being "Duped"

     By now you've probably heard about Baci Weiler, the University of Chicago student who was mistaken for a male by a Chabad kiruv worker who then went on to help her don tefillin. If you haven't, feel free to read the story here. Orthodox Jews consider the wearing of tefillin to be a male-only mitzvah, (commandment) despite stories that the daughters of Rashi, a well-known biblical commentator from the Middle ages, wore the little black boxes.
     As expected, much of the orthodox community--especially the Chabad community--is outraged  that an unsuspecting yeshiva bocher (student) was "duped" into believing that Ms. Weiler was a guy based on her haircut and clothing. It is the responsibility of the Chabad missionary to make sure he's practicing what he believes in the correct manner. It isn't the responsibility of the person he approaches to rebuke him, because many times, that random person on the street might not know the minutiae of Jewish law--or that there even is a law.
     As it turns out, Baci Weiler does wear tefillin on a regular basis, and obviously has no issue with egalitarian Judaism. And yet, many Chabadniks--the very people who publicly preach about loving all Jews, who often refer to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's belief that all Jews are like one body and each Jew is important, had no problem blaming Baci Weiler for "taking advantage" of this kiruv worker.
     Now, to be clear, I don't blame anyone. I don't believe that there was any wrongdoing in this situation. If anything, there was a misunderstanding. He offered, she accepted, she wore it, it was good. She posted a picture on social media, it got around. Now, many in the Chabad community are showing their true colors and rather than seeing the good (nothing bad happened, this woman's Judaism was inspired, maybe others might be inspired,) many are choosing to denigrate Baci Weiler. You know, blame the woman, the evil temptress who led the man astray--you know, the typical witch hunt accusations that have been tossed around throughout human history. But this isn't about feminism, right?
     I've provided a few screen shots of some of the comments from, a Chabad community news site. There are some comments that genuinely reflect modern, progressive, and mainstream views. There are more that represent a community mired in both fear and ignorance of gender equality, feminist issues, and progressive thought. There are some people who feel bad for the yeshiva student. (Click pictures to enlarge.)
Click individual frames to enlarge.
Click to enlarge photo.2
     The above are some examples of what people in Chabad are saying online. Baci Weiler did write an explanation on her public Facebook page, and I'm including that as well. Towards the end, she states:

On another level, and more importantly, the photo is powerful because it depicts an instance of accidental pluralism and of shared joy in the mitzvah of hanachat tefillin. It is a serendipitous glimpse of the world I wish I lived in: a world where both he, a bearded chabadnik guy, and I, a buzz-cut egalitarian girl, could be “frum”, regardless of gender or labels, equally bound by mitzvot.2

Baci's response sums up so many issues inherent in ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach.
     Within kiruv, there is a constant and deliberate white-washing of women's roles within the ultra-orthodox community. During the kiruv process, women are pushed into the community's rigid gender roles while receiving nice, stock answers about why women do certain things and not others, all while pushing them away from egalitarian thought and practice.
     Within kiruv, all are accepted as Jews, but Chabad (and other ultra-orthodox groups) do not recognize Reform, Conservative, and other liberal forms of Judaism as legitimate expressions of Judaism. The only pluralism that exists is the "accidental pluralism" that Baci Weiler experienced. Chabad writer Shalom Paltiel claims that "the problem is the labels" and asks:
Why can't we all just be "Jewish"? Why the need to label ourselves based on our level of observance?
It's true some of us are more religiously observant than others. Is that reason to categorically divide us into splintering groups? Let us each observe Judaism and its precepts to the best of our knowledge and ability, without the need of a name tag proclaiming ourselves a particular brand.
In addition to dividing us, the labels also limit our growth as Jews. Once we've been labeled, we no longer feel the need to learn more about our heritage than is typical for members of our particular group. Remove the label, and Judaism is yours to explore, completely and freely, without fear you might cross the line and observe some tradition that's not for your type.3
Click to enlarge.4

Sounds great in theory, and yet, there is no true freedom in a Judaism (or any religion, culture, community, etc.) divided by prescribed community gender norms and expectations.
In a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, dated July 21, 1959, it's quite clear that Chabad's official stance is that anything other than orthodox Judaism is heretical. To explain Paltiel's question regarding why we all can't "just be Jewish," it needs to be understood that according to Chabad doctrine, if you are born of a Jewish mother, you are Jewish, but your liberal denomination is not Judaism. Paltiel, Schneerson, the Chabad commenters, and many ultra-orthodox Jews do not recognize other forms of Jewish expression as Judaism, but rather, as heresy. Sure, they'll reach out to you and tell you that "we're all Jews" without a second thought as to the duplicitous nature of their own actions when they want a donation, or when they want to nudge you towards greater observance. What is being left out of all kiruv, is that these outreach organizations--including Chabad--don't, and won't, consider non-orthodox Judaism as legitimate.
     There exists a double standard within the Chabad community. Chabad missionaries deceive by intentionally withholding information in order to do kiruv, yet many in Chabad (and other orthodox communities) feel that Baci Weiler's choice to not reveal her gender was what was truly deceitful. Knowing what the Lubavitcher Rebbe preached, and knowing what his followers believe, I can only hope that those who are so outraged by Baci Weiler allowing this Chabad bochur to put tefillin on her, will take a good look in the mirror and realize that this is minor compared to the deception that they are perpetrating daily through the willful suppression of information that might change the minds and actions of the non-orthodox Jews that Chabad approaches.

Works Cited
1. Rabbi Calls Out Liberal Hypocrite. Collive. June 23, 2015

2. Weiler, Baci. Facebook post. June 23, 2015.
3. Paltiel, Shalom. Labels are for Suits.
4. Schneerson, Menachem M. The Conservative and Reform Ideology. Correspondence by Rabbi Menachen M. Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe. July 21, 1959. qtd. on

Saturday, June 20, 2015

What BuzzFeed Forgot to Tell You About The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Chabad

     On June 19, 2015, BuzzFeed posted an article entitled "11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World" in honor of the twenty-first anniversary of the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It was a very lovely tribute to the man who headed Chabad and still inspires people all over the world to explore orthodox Judaism. I figured I'd quickly add a bit of information that's missing.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Judaism in the public thoroughfare." They cite the ubiquitous Chabad menorahs as further proof that Judaism is now very public. 
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The truth is, Chabad is everywhere, and the same way people don't necessarily want missionaries approaching them, is the same way they may not want Chabad shluchim (emissaries) approaching them. Add a dose of Jewish guilt to the mix and the next thing you know, you're eating cholent and singing Shabbos zmiros. (That's a joke, I think.) A New York Times article about the Rebbe states:
[The Rebbe] tried to reach [non-orthodox Jews] through broad public campaigns that included, in addition to the mitzvah tanks, full-page newspaper advertisements announcing the time that candles should be kindled to welcome the Sabbath.
While some passers-by accepted the invitation to put on tefillin -- black leather straps and boxes containing verses from the Scripture and worn by the faithful during prayer -- the "Are you Jewish" question rubbed others the wrong way; many thought religion too private to discuss with strangers on street corners.1 

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Speak to the youth." The article goes on to say "instead of viewing children as merely unfinished adults, the Rebbe viewed the vigor, openness, and pursuit of truth among youth as a unique advantage they could teach and inspire world-weary adults. In the same vein, the Rebbe would dedicate special talks to children, engaging with their minds and hearts with the deepest secrets of the Torah."2
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The Rebbe was a firm believer in "reaching the parent through the child, beginning Torah education early."3 Chabad's handbook for shluchim discusses education for children and the importance of beginning early. It states:
Chabad's Mommy and Me programs are places where mothers and children are invited to meetings where innocuous topics as childcare and health are discussed. The children are busy with arts and crafts. Mitzvos and Judaism are introduced after a few sessions. . . . Mommy and Me . . . serves as an exceptional tool to . . . involve them with other Chabad activities.4
Chabad tells people working with non-orthodox parents who were convinced to put their children in a Chabad-directed school:
     In order to be successful in involving and bringing families closer to Yiddishkeit, we, the administrators and teachers, need to establish warm and positive personal relationships with individual families. They then feel comfortable with us, trust us and want to work with us.
     Once parents feel that we do, indeed, care about them on a personal level, they will then be more inclined to become involved with the school's programs. With friendly encouragement they will begin to make personal commitments to mitzvos as well. The more exposure and contact we have with the families the closer they will become. 5

     Without going into a tirade about campus kiruv, a New York Times article about the Rebbe mentions that "one Reform group attacked him for luring non-Orthodox children to Hasidic lives in which they rejected the values of their parents."6

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Rebellion is Revelation" and states:
The Rebbe’s approach declared, “Finally the iceberg of America is beginning to melt! Finally, its young people are demonstrating that conformity is not the sum of life’s goals! They have smashed the idols of false progress — they need now only be led back to the living waters of their heritage.7
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While refusing to conform to the norms of the secular world may be seen and celebrated in a positive light, try telling a person living in the Chabad world that they don't need to conform to the standards of their ultra-orthodox community and see what they say. Both women and men who wish to leave Chabad and orthodoxy struggle to retain custody of their children. Women often struggle to obtain a proper get (Jewish divorce) from their husbands. Families often completely shun their grown children who refuse to conform and opt out of orthodoxy. A double standard exists in this world: if you refuse to conform to the secular and/or non-orthodox worlds, you are celebrated. If you refuse to conform to Chabad's strict orthodoxy--which is not the same happy-go-lucky orthodoxy sold to you at the Shabbos table--you are rejected.

      What BuzzFeed lists: "The Power of the Feminine Soul" stating that:
When the world struggled with including women within the rubric of Jewish tradition, the Rebbe had already long empowered women to be leaders and thinkers, masters of Jewish future and bringers of light in the world.8
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While this sounds nice on paper, this is specifically about Judaism, and not the world at large. This also neglects to mention that women must follow certain gender-based laws within Judaism, as interpreted by the Lubavitch movement. Women are still bound by the same laws of orthodoxy as all orthodox women. For example, women must follow the Rebbe's orders that they cover their hair specifically (and are often chastised by other women if they don't,) women are told how to dress, and young girls are groomed from the time they are in school on how to be a proper daughter of Israel--according to Chabad's teachings. Women's issues are sugar-coated by apologists who still bow to the religious patriarchy which still enforces many antiquated beliefs.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "No person is far gone." Chabad is famous for the outreach work they do to Jews in prison. The article states "even someone imprisoned for crimes committed, could not be overlooked or ignored and can and should be rehabilitated and activated for good."9
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: While the Rebbe may have been a great guy for bringing Judaism to the tinok shenishba (Jews who aren't religious due to ignorance) in prison, believing that he/she can be spiritually reformed, the same belief isn't always held for those believed to be heretics and apostates. Heretics and apostates are often excommunicated, cast out from both family and community, sometimes out of fear that they will have a negative influence on others in the community. In a nutshell: criminals--not far gone, people leaving Chabad and orthodoxy--far gone.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Joy." The article states "Judaism deserved not to be mourned and eulogized, but to be celebrated."10
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Even in living Judaism with joy, it is still orthodox-centric. Mixed dancing is prohibited, men are not allowed to listen to women sing, and all joyous activities must still follow orthodox guidelines. As for Judaism being celebrated, I do wonder about the balance of joy. While there are some families where fathers are taking a more active role in childcare and home-related chores, I know that there are many that aren't, or that traditionally haven't, and while men are out farbrenging (a farbrengen is a joyous Chasidic celebration,) the women are often at home, caring for children.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Always Practical." The Rebbe wanted people to do mitzvot (commandments,) often translated as "good deeds." He felt that it was more important to do something--no matter how simple, rather than nothing.
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The motivation is that every mitzvah/deed that a person does brings Moshiach (the messiah) and redemption closer. Getting non-orthodox Jews to help Chabadniks score points by agreeing to put on tefillin (phylacteries) or make a blessing on an apple and honey for Rosh Hashanah may seem innocuous, but understand why these things are being pushed.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "We are All One Community." The article states "as the Rebbe told then New York Mayor David Dinkins, “We are one side. We are one people, living in one city, under one administration and under one G-d.”11
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: The Rebbe may have felt that "we are one people" but I have to wonder when there is infighting between sects, the infighting within sects, hateful and condescending comments often made about the Conservative, Reform, and other liberal denominations, racism, and the shameful elitism often found in online Chabad forums.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Harness Technology."
The Rebbe . . . considered [technology] a valuable component to achieving greater good.
Using the latest means of communication, the Rebbe encouraged that radio in the 1950s, satellite in the 1980s and Internet in the early 1990s all be used to promulgate knowledge and education. When technology was harnessed properly, he taught, it not only was not a negative, but itself a portent G-dliness[sic] and goodness in the world.12
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Technology is a very important tool in Chabad's method of kiruv. They have a huge, active website, and each Chabad House around the world appears to have a website that is linked to the main site. Their program calendars are listed, as are the services that they offer. Chabad also uses technology to keep in touch with their shluchim (emissaries) who often live far from their families, friends, and communities. Children of shluchim often use the internet as an educational tool. It's not that the Rebbe is telling you to spend your days and nights on Facebook, but rather that technology can be used to their benefit in furthering their own outreach goals.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Think Global." This brief section is simply about the thousands of kiruv workers sent to live and work all over the world, in order to missionize non-orthodox Jews.
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: This isn't quite the same global thinking that environmentalists have in mind.

     What BuzzFeed lists: "Act local." The article mentions that "emissaries are largely funded locally, forming a holistic part of the local community."13
     What BuzzFeed leaves out: Actions cannot take place without funding. While Chabad programs are often highly subsidized with a suggested donation and a pay what you can/we won't turn you away attitude, the truth is, shluchim often live on community donations and receive very little funding from the main Chabad offices, and usually only during the first year. This is one of the reasons why Chabad trains future kiruv workers in the fine art of fundraising. And yes, they're pretty good at it.

Works Cited
1. Goldman, Ari L. Rabbi Schneerson Led A Small Hasidic Sect To World Prominence. The New York Times. June 13, 1994.
2. BuzzFeed Community Member "Mordechail." 11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World. June, 19, 2015.
3. Plotkin, Goldie, qtd. in Shlichus: Meeting the Outreach Challenge. Nshei Ubnos Chabad, 1991. p76.
4. Lerner, Nettie, qtd. in Shlichus: Meeting the Outreach Challenge. Nshei Ubnos Chabad, 1991. pp. 75-6.
5. Fajnland, Ronya, qtd. in Shlichus Outreach Insights. Nshei Chabad Publications. 1996. p.69.
6. Goldman, Ari L. Rabbi Schneerson Led A Small Hasidic Sect To World Prominence. The New York Times. June 13, 1994.
7. BuzzFeed Community Member "Mordechail." 11 Ways the Lubavitcher Rebbe Forever Changed the World. June, 19, 2015.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.
10. ibid.
11. ibid.

12. ibid.
13. ibid.

Monday, June 15, 2015


     Recently, a good friend reminded me about this internal email sent around a while back to Shabbat/Shabbos hosts, allegedly from Rabbi Klatzko, the head of kiruv organization that sets up hosts and guest for Shabbos meals and observance. What follows is a set of guidelines for hosts to follow in order to promote orthodoxy. My comments follow after each suggestion. The suggestions from the email are indented but I added everything within the [brackets.] Additionally, in my commentary, I use the word "allegedly" since I was given the text of this email and not actual screen shots.
From Rabbi Klatzko - Suggestions for Hosting guests at your Shabbos Table

1- NEVER speak about these four things:
1- Women's issues- eg. agunah, [married woman whose husband refuses to grant a religious divorce, despite her request for a divorce,] mechitza, [separation of men and women at synagogue]
2- avoid speaking about denominations (reform, conservative, etc.)
3- don't speak about homosexuality
4- don't speak about Chareidim [ultra-orthodox Jews] and the army
     When someone suggests that you never speak of something, the first thing you should ask is "why are these topics forbidden?" Let's take a brief minute to go through each forbidden topic.
      Why shouldn't ultra-orthodox hosts discuss women's issues? This leads to dangerous territory for kiruv professionals. Modern educated women and men are not going to be happy when they learn that women's separation is about women being a distraction, about women being possibly considered impure if they are menstruating, and about women being held captive by husbands who refuse them a get (a Jewish divorce) that will permit them to remarry within observant Judaism.
     Why shouldn't Shabbos hosts discuss non-orthodox denominations of Judaism? Ultra-orthodox Judaism does not accept non-orthodox denominations of Judaism as legitimate Jewish practice. Notice how the text says "about denominations" and not "about denominations of Judaism." Why not speak about these denominations of Judaism? Perhaps because they want to avoid having to denounce them, and thus turn off non-orthodox Jews. Let them find out later how you really feel, after you've hooked them.
     Why shouldn't Shabbos hosts discuss homosexuality? Ultra-orthodox Jews believe that homosexuality is wrong (the term "abomination" is often tossed around casually,) and some have pushed gay people into programs such as JONAH, which attempt to make gay people straight. Obviously, a discussion of how the Torah claims that homosexuals should be stoned to death is not something they want to discuss at the Shabbos table with people of various backgrounds.
     Why not discuss Chareidim and the army? Non-orthodox Jews who may or may not be Zionists might find it a bit odd that ultra-orthodox Jews get a free pass from the Israeli army, while non-(ultra) orthodox Jews are risking their own lives for the safety of ALL who live in Israel. Regardless of one's position on Israel, most people would probably find this to be extremely unbalanced.

2- General Rule- NEVER GO NEGATIVE
people don't remember arguments- they remember IMPRESSIONS
were you disparaging, bullying.
- don't assume people have preconceived notions about being frum
- Stay in your element- don't try too hard, be yourself- don't put on a show
- Stay away from stories that are difficult to believe! They can't relate to them.
Speak about moral ideas- how to have compassion, how to treat others, etc
Suggested reading: Zelig Pliskin- "Love Your Neighbor" - moral in each parsha
     Number two starts off fair. No matter who you are, it's a bad idea to bully and belittle your guests. I hope this is common knowledge everywhere. The fact that he has to remind people of this makes me wary of how well the hosts on this site are screened before people are sent off to their homes. My only real issue with this section is this line: "Stay away from stories that are difficult to believe! They can't relate to them." In the secular world, many stories that are difficult to believe require the suspension of disbelief. We usually refer to those as fiction.

 3- Things that make big impressions:
- seeing the husband helping out- eg setting or clearing the table
- wife should thank husband for buying flowers OUT LOUD
- Thanks to guests for coming AND thanks to your wife for making the shabbos
      This section leads me to believe that it's assumed that men are not helping their wives out on Shabbos. Otherwise, why the need to suggest that they do? Is it because in many modern households there's a pretty even division of labor that may not necessarily exist in ultra-orthodox homes?
     In suggestion 2, Klatzko allegedly states "Stay in your element- don't try too hard, be yourself- don't put on a show," so then why the need to stress that the "wife should thank husband for buying flowers OUT LOUD" and that the husband should thank his wife for making Shabbos? Are these simple expressions of gratitude a foreign concept in these homes when impressionable kiruv projects guests aren't present?

4- Everything you do on shabbos should be done with PURPOSE and JOY
sing with feeling, say kiddush with feeling; make them feel comfortable.
      Again, let me mention the point about not putting on a show. This sounds very much like a scripted production.

5- Don't flinch if they do something against halacha. They are not chayav for aveiros- [guilty of transgressing/breaking Jewish law] should they turn on a light, use cell phone, let it go
     I appreciate number five. However, I believe it should always be like this. Accept people for who they are without the need to deceive them (by avoiding topics that may be uncomfortable or emotional.)
6- Don't sing your usual zemiros [Shabbos songs]- they will tune out. Choose a popular Hebrew song,
eg. Oseh Shalom, Haveinu Shalom Aleichem, David Melech Yisroel,
Ushavtem Mayim Bsason, Moshiah Molshiah aya ya ya ya yae,
Lo yisah goi el goi cherev, Adon Olam, Hava Nageela, Hine ma Tov,
Siman tov umazel tov, Am yisrael Chai, Etz Chaim Hi....
OR: Teach them a new song without words, hum along.
     Are the real zmiros really that bad? In all seriousness, this makes sense. Without accepting non-orthodox Jewish denominations, Klatzko allegedly accepts that guests may have familiarity with some of the songs and prayers. I wonder if women are allowed to sing or if women aren't informed until much later that their voices shouldn't be heard.

7- Goal is that they should want to incorporate this experience - yahadus-into their lives:
People choose religion because of:
1- who our heroes are (Rev Moshe Feinstein, gedolim in Eretz Yisrael)
2- what is the ultimate vision of our religion for the world. Judaism- vision of peace
3- they look at the user experience- are people enjoying practicing their religion
4- do ideas translate into action- the proof is in the pudding- does it work?
5- people are looking for truth- Judiasm is emes [truth.] If you don't know an answer to their question, be honest- say you will find out. But only give honest answers.
 Last but not least, number seven. The second point tries to sell Judaism as a "vision of peace." I keep thinking of the Amalek--the group that Jews are commanded by the Torah to smite in every generation--and how anti-Zionists have made claims that Zionists are also the Amalek. I am also reminded of the infighting within orthodoxy and I really have to wonder.
     The list of suggestions mentions "user experience--are people enjoying practicing their religion?" The fact that just a few sentences ago, people were instructed that "everything you do on shabbos should be done with PURPOSE and JOY, sing with feeling, say kiddush with feeling" makes me think that perhaps people are not enjoying the practice, otherwise, why the need to remind them to be joyful? Usually, when people enjoy something, they don't need to be reminded to exhibit the joy. It comes naturally.
     The question is raised that "ideas translate into actions--the proof is in the pudding--does it work?" Does what work? What does this refer to?
    Finally, number five. Judaism is only truth to those who believe it is truth. I like the idea that honest answers should be given, however, that's after manipulating the conversation to avoid certain topics that Klatzko allegedly doesn't want you to talk about.
     Here's my question to kiruv professionals and ultra-orthodox hosts. Why not be honest in the beginning? Why not discuss the difficult topics? Is it that you're afraid of turning people off to Judaism? Or is it that you fear that you may discover certain truths that might taint your personal vision of ultra-orthodox Judaism?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Orthodox Kiruv, Rape Culture, and an Unrelated Interview with the Blogger

     I'd like to extend a warm thank you to all of the readers who have messaged me with their stories, their questions, and their comments about this blog. Over the past months, I've been ridiculously busy with many other projects. I was also touched to receive a request for an interview for the OTD Stories project, started by a good friend of mine. In this interview, I discuss my journeys both on and off the derech (path of orthodox Judaism,) as well as a bit about my current projects. I figured I'd share that here, in case you're interested. While you're there, take a look around. It's a really great site, and totally worth your time.

     I'd also like you point you over to this article, The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy by Esther Tova Stanley, in which Ms. Stanley discusses how young women targeted by kiruv professionals are often put in very compromising positions in a relationship with rabbis who are seen as trusted authority figures. She states:
You see, there’s an odd relationship between male authority figures (“Rabbis”) and female students that is considered “normal” within the post high-school year abroad programs. It not only accepts, but actively encourages a relationship in which an adult male takes young female students under his wing in the name of “kiruv” (loosely translated to bringing someone closer to G-d.) [sic]

The Rabbis do this by cultivating a false sense of trust, telling the young students that they see something special in them, encouraging them to share details of their personal lives and sometimes offering (inappropriate) personal details of their own. As my seminary Rabbi once said to me in reference to “his girls” and his method of kiruv, “I like to break them and then make them.”  This creepy comment was followed by an even creepier wink. (Lucky for me, I left that school almost as fast as I got there.)
The idea is for this relationship to inspire the student, spiritually.  To see that living an ultra-orthodox life is the only REAL way to truly LIVE. Those Rabbis who engage in it are seen as possessing a gift, are considered selfless for giving up so much of their time to educate and uplift young, easily influenced souls and bring them onto the path of observance. It’s considered a mitzvah (a good deed.)1
     Most campus kiruv organizations push students to go on extended trips to Israel, many of which include time spent learning in yeshivas or seminaries, depending on one's gender. In addition to being away from home and healthy doses of skepticism, students are encouraged to spend time with rabbis, who often take on the role of spiritual advisers. This puts students in a position of heightened vulnerability, a position they may not even realize they're in at the time.
     I strongly suggest reading the article in full for a good understanding of how there really can be a grey area between trusted rabbi and sexual predator, and how the boundaries of appropriateness can easily be both obscured and crossed in the male-rabbi female-student relationship.

1. Stanley, Esther Tova. The Grey Area of Rape Culture in the Black and White World of Jewish Orthodoxy. qtd. on Not for Ourselves Alone: Gender Politics and Parenting in the 21st Century blog by Juliet C. Bond. April 20, 2015. 6:58am.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Show Me the Money

     The talk around town has been about the scandal surrounding Rabbi Barry Freundel's alleged videotaping of women at the mikvah during the process of orthodox conversion to Judaism. Forward writer Uriel Heilman covered this story from an interesting perspective--from that of those who have been waiting for conversion and how this affects them. The reason I bring this up is because of something very interesting I found within the body of Heilman's article.
     After a discussion about how long the conversion process generally takes (approximately two years, but seems to be unclear, with rabbis judging each case individually,) Heilman mentions that:

Converts are expected to pay about $400 in fees, but the beit din sometimes will waive costs based on financial need and on occasion has played a proactive role in helping converts get tuition discounts at Jewish day schools.
That can be a dangerous proposition, however, [Rabbi Zvi Romm, the administrator of the RCA’s New York beit din for conversion] says, because the beit din wants to be confident that the convert will be able to afford the higher costs associated with an Orthodox lifestyle: kosher food, Jewish education, housing in an Orthodox neighborhood.
“One of the considerations we make is, can the person hack it financially?” Romm said. “If a person says I have no money whatsoever, I can’t afford the $400 fee paid out over time, the question you have to ask is, how are you going to make it as an Orthodox Jew?”1
     I was surprised to find that a person's ability or inability to afford an orthodox lifestyle weighs heavily enough to be mentioned prominently in an article about the conversion process. This raises several questions in my mind.
Why are potential baal teshuvahs/BTs not made aware of the huge expenses of an orthodox lifestyle? Where is the concern from kiruv (outreach) rabbis that young college students being urged to take time off from university to attend yeshiva programs might not be able to "hack it financially" down the line? What is honest about the deliberate withholding of information regarding what to expect after the honeymoon phase of orthodoxy wears off? Do campus kiruv rabbis assess prospective recruits by their current and potential financial worth?
     Both kiruv rabbis and conversion rabbis are in a position of trust and power. Abusing that power by withholding information, abusing that trust, and violating what really should be a professional relationship as that of a teacher and student, is an abuse of their power. All potential recruits to orthodox Judaism--whether converts or BTs--deserve basic respect, as well as freedom from deceptive practices.

Heilman, Uriel. After Freundel Scandal, Converts in Waiting Complain of Unexpected Obstacles. The Jewish Daily Forward. October 28, 2014.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why the Shabbos Project is Dividing Us: A Guest Post by Suzanne Oshinsky and Shloimie Ehrenfeld

     On October 24-25, 2014, the creators of the brand new, worldwide “Shabbos Project” and the tens of thousands of its supporters on Facebook and other social media are encouraging all the world’s 14 million or so Jews to celebrate the Sabbath together. Those reading this for the first time are likely struck by the same question that struck us when we first learned of this project: “Hasn’t Shabbat Across America (and other countries) been around for many years already?  What’s new about this project?”  Further adding to our puzzlement was seeing that the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), the creators of Shabbat Across America, apparently helped facilitate the creation of the Shabbos Project.  Why would anyone want to mess with the already-successful Shabbat Across America initiative, which appeals to all Jews who are interested in enjoying Shabbat in whatever way they choose?

     When we looked at the Shabbos Project’s website, however, the difference became clear: While Shabbat Across America has succeeded in encouraging Jews to celebrate Shabbat together in their synagogues or temples or in whatever environment, in whatever way suits their derech (way), the mission of the Shabbos Project is to get all Jews to celebrate in a very specific way – the Orthodox way, the way of the project’s founders.  The detailed instructions on “How to Keep It” involve heating food in crockpots and on hot plates, putting electric lights on timers, substituting tissues for toilet paper, buying liquid toothpaste and liquid lip gloss, and even picture Artscroll books in the section suggesting what to do during the 25 hour period of Shabbos.

     What we find troubling is not that Orthodox rabbis would encourage other Jews to explore what observing Shabbat according to Orthodox Jewish law is really like.  No doubt many people would find keeping a Shabbat the Orthodox way a very rewarding experience.  What is truly disturbing is that this sectarian form of Sabbath observance is being presented as if this is the way the Sabbath always has and continues to be celebrated. As the homepage declares:

     “We will keep it in its entirety, in all of its halachic detail and splendour as it has been kept throughout the ages.”

     “Its rhythm will unite us with each other, with Jews around the world and throughout the ages.”

     One can easily notice, however, that most of the examples of how to keep Shabbat that the Shabbos Project lists on its site have not been kept “throughout the ages.”  Our sages in the Talmud did not use slow cookers to make their cholent or a hot plate to keep their food warm, nor did they use timers for their electric lights.  They did not cut toilet paper or buy tissues, nor did they brush their teeth with liquid toothpaste or apply liquid lip gloss.  They did not serve tea at Shabbat lunch with their percolators, nor did they program their thermostats to maintain heat in their homes.  The “Shabbos lamp” did not even exist 15 or 20 years ago.  The site states, “It’s a nice custom to bring home flowers or chocolates,” but, while it may be nice, calling this practice a “custom,” as if there is some history behind it, seems unfounded. 

     From the food to the home environment to the prayers, examples abound of practices that did not exist in earlier times.   The site discusses the Shabbat prayers and highlights Kabbalat Shabbat; however, Kabbalat Shabbat as a separate prayer service with the Lecha Dodi poem as its centerpiece did not even exist before the 16th century.  Indeed a typical Orthodox Shabbat in 2014 is so different from a typical Shabbat in centuries past that a Talmudic sage would probably find today’s Orthodox Shabbat unrecognizable.  Ironically the Shabbos Project website cites the following Talmudic passage, which only further demonstrates how different their Shabbat experience was from ours:

Rabbi Abahu would sit on a stool of ivory and fan the fire [used to cook for the Sabbath].  Rav Anan would put on a black smock [on Fridays to demonstrate that this was not a day for keeping clean and neat but rather for cooking food for the Sabbath].  Rav Safra would singe the head [of the animal being prepared for the Sabbath meal].  Rava would salt the shibbuta [fish for the Sabbath meal].  Rav Huna would light [oil] lamps [for the Sabbath].  Rav Pappa would twine the wicks [for the lamps].  Rav Chisda would mince the beets.  Rabbah and Rav Yosef would split wood.  Rabbi Zeira would kindle [the fire] (Talmud Shabbos 119a).”
     Our sages never called the Sabbath “Shabbos,” because the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet was not originally pronounced like an “s.”  (It was most likely pronounced like the “th” in the word Sabbath.)  But since the purpose of the Shabbos Project is apparently to get people to observe Shabbat in the style the project’s creators observe it, calling it Shabbos, which is how most Orthodox Jews call it today, rather than Shabbat, as most non-Orthodox Jews call it today, as Shabbat Across America chose to do, is consistent with the project’s apparent mission.

     Unlike Shabbat Across America, this project epitomizes the mindset that there is only one derech in Judaism.  Therefore, there’s only one way to observe the Sabbath.   According to this worldview, Shabbat Across America isn’t good enough, because it gives Jews the impression that they could celebrate the Sabbath in the way that suits each person’s own derech.   Why else would there be any reason for such a “new” initiative?

     We believe that those seeking to unite Jews around the Sabbath should create Shabbat programs that really do unite Jews, rather than tell them “Do it my way, because it’s the only way.”

Suzanne Oshinsky and Shloimie Ehrenfeld are involved in a website to be launched later this fall that will provide resources and support for Jews who are exploring a lifestyle that is different from that of their upbringing.  Shloimie can be reached at freethinkingjew at gmail.

Friday, October 3, 2014

An Open Letter to Paula Abdul About The Shabbos Project

n open letter to
Paula Abdul:
      I used to listen to your music when I was a kid (my friends and I used to belt out "Straight Up" when we were in Junior High School in Brooklyn.) I never knew you were Jewish until I received an email from Aish HaTorah's Project Inspire about the importance of The Shabbos Project. With all due respect, I was quite taken aback to see you promoting this project that was introduced to you by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa. Let me explain why.
      On July 22, 2007, Failed Messiah printed this:

It should be noted that South Africa's chief rabbi ... is Warren Goldstein, a 34 year old kiruv (outreach; missionary) rabbi who formerly worked for Ohr Somayach.
Rabbi Goldstein's doctoral thesis is an apologia of Jewish law attempting to make it seem advanced and modern compared to western law. To this end Rabbi Goldstein extols Jewish law's treatment of women, apparently never mentioning the very real problems of agunot, for example.
This type of dishonesty is central to kiruv theology.1

Click image to enlarge.
     The fact that Rabbi Warren Goldstein is a kiruv (outreach) rabbi is very troubling. He contacted you, Ms. Abdul, and gave you a script to read, thus using you--a celebrity--in order to do kiruv for Project Inspire--a well-known kiruv organization. I'm sure he was very nice and persuasive, even when he had you discuss how much you enjoy keeping Shabbos. What you may not know is that The Shabbos Project is being sponsored by a Jewish missionary group.
     Project Inspire is an Aish HaTorah affiliate whose stated goal is to make people orthodox. On January 3, 2014, I wrote about this practice here, citing sources from Aish HaTorah (Project Inspire's parent organization) that clearly explain the goal of kiruv (outreach.) Now, of course, by having you advocate for the Shabbos Project, you're not actively making people orthodox, but you're misleading people. Kind of like how Rabbi Goldstein is misleading people, including you, when he uses you to represent this initiative.
     If you look at the flier I've posted, you'll see that Project Inspire wants attendees to "invite [their] less-affiliated friend, relative, neighbor [sic] or business associate for Shabbos." Ms. Abdul, unless you are ultra-orthodox, your observance and practice of Judaism has just been insulted by the very organization you are representing. This is not the first time that language insulting non-orthodox Jews has been used by Project Inspire. I've written about it here, here and here. By agreeing to give Project Inspire publicity through the use of your words and likeness, you are inadvertently supporting a group that is looking to make people orthodox, a group whose own adherents would frown on your career, your cheerleading, your dancing and singing in public, and who would never want their children to grow up to emulate you. In fact, non-orthodox Jews who get involved with Aish HaTorah and Project Inspire, are ultimately taught to reject this non-orthodox lifestyle, as well, and are re-educated to believe that these very activities are somehow wrong, if not done according to their interpretation of Jewish law. You probably didn't know this at the time, but you've unwittingly represented people who not only share this belief, but who are looking to push that belief and others on who have little or no experience with ultra-orthodox teachings.
      As a bit of background, ultra-orthodox kiruv is something that is done mostly by a few key groups who are generally Ashkenazi Jews, hailing from Ashkenazi-style yeshivas, sects, groups, and/or organizations. Aish HaTorah is an example of one of these yeshivas. Their goal is specifically to influence secular Jews to become orthodox, and to create rabbis who will help them to further that goal. These kiruv organizations often use deceptive tactics (such as love bombing, peer pressure, and bait-and-switch styled programming) in order to bring young people into the realm of orthodoxy. By using you, Ms. Abdul, it makes young people think "wow, if a celebrity is endorsing this, it must be legitimate!" But the problem is that this endorsement is deceptive.
     While it may be too late to back out of your endorsement of The Shabbos Project due to possible contractual agreements, I hope that you'll consider this information and research these organizations before agreeing to represent them in the future.

     Thank you for your time and consideration of this issue.

Respectfully Yours,

Rebecca M. Ross

1. Failed Messiah. Ohr Somayach Rabbi Banned From South Africa, Having Affairs With Many Women. July 22, 2007.