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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meor At U. Penn Removes Stipend After Parent Pressure

     Back in August of 2013, I put up a post about Meor's practice of offering stipends to students in order to entice them to get involved in their programming. You can find the original article, "Shedding Light On Meor," by clicking the title. That post garnered many passionate responses from both sides of the discussion. Today, an anonymous reader sent me links to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania's independent student news organization, and to The Jewish Daily Forward, both of which covered the most recent developments regarding the University of Pennsylvania's decision to no longer allow Meor to offer a stipend to students. You should definitely read "Jewish Group Stops Student Stipends After Parent Complains" and "University of Pennsylvania Jewish Group Kills $400 Stipend."
     Hopefully,  parents of college students will continue to research religious programs and the tactics they use to lure students into their classrooms, and continue to speak out about practices that seem questionable and/or unethical. College students are often impressionable and idealistic, and the college campus is a great place to put that idealism to practice. College should not be a place where students are targeted by well-funded kiruv organizations looking to recruit new members.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Recommended Reading: Rabbis and their female followers – how close is too close?

 Sharon Shapiro posted a very interesting post on her blog Kol B'Isha Erva today, and I wanted to take a quick break from my hiatus (I'm working on several projects which have had to take the front seat these past few months) in order to mention her article. She writes about kiruv (outreach) rabbis crossing lines that are better left uncrossed, and often taking on the role of parent in the student/rabbi relationship. This isn't the first I've heard of this, but it is interesting to see it from the perspective of a woman who happens to have gone from non-orthodox Judaism to orthodox Judaism during her college days. 
     She writes in Rabbis and their Female Followers--How close is too close? that she "was shocked at how quickly this rabbi took over a parental role among [her classmates], almost acting in conspiracy against the biological parental protests. The girls were encouraged to keep certain secrets from their parents, in some cases in order not to cause hurt or machlokes (argument)."1 A close friend of mine told a similar story--her own child had begun to explore Judaism in college, causing a fast transformation to orthodoxy coupled with secrecy during the process. These scenarios do exist, no matter how much kiruv rabbis try to convince people that they don't. When people start speaking up, maybe these tactics will change, and perhaps those interested in doing Jewish outreach will begin to act more responsibly towards their students, the families of their students, and to the Jewish community as a whole. Please read Rabbis and their Female Followers. It's definitely worth the read.

1. Shapiro, Sharon. Rabbis and their Female Followers--How Close is Too Close?. Kol B'Isha Erva. 14 July 2014.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kiruv in Israel: 10,000 Families to be Targeted by Outreach Professionals

     Haaretz reports that the Jewish Identity Administration, created by the Religious Services Ministry, will be putting together four kiruv/outreach programs aimed to attract secular Israelis to religious observance. These programs will be run by Ohr Torah Stone, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s conglomerate of educational institutions, according to Haaretz.
The four projects include appointing community-based “Judaism coordinators” to organize “activities in the field of Jewish identity”; a project to “deepen Jewish identity” among university students; one to arrange meetings between religious and secular families; and one to “increase synagogues’ influence on the community.”
The Judaism coordinators will be members of the communities they serve, so they can “foment the process from within” and not be seen as outsiders, the ministry decided.1

Laga’at Baruach, an outreach/kiruv organization in Israel meant specifically to target college students, will be "setting up study centers around [Israel.] In exchange for studying at one of these centers for 4.5 hours a week, students will get an annual stipend of 4,000 shekels. The goal is to recruit 800 students initially, all people with “proven abilities for the State of Israel and Israeli society.”"2 Like American ultra-orthodox kiruv programs, students are offered monetary compensation for the time they spend studying orthodox teachings taught by outreach professionals. This sounds remarkably similar to Meor's Maimonides Leaders Fellowship program, in which college students are enticed by the promise of being paid for their time, giving them some extra pocket money in return for allowing  professional kiruv workers the opportunity school them about their brand of ultra-orthodox Judaism.
     As with all ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach programs, they are rarely, if ever, done without a higher goal in mind. "The religious-secular meetings project is meant to reintroduce secular families to “basic characteristics of Jewish life” that they have lost touch with. The program will include reciprocal visits between religious and secular families from the same town, as well as “finding people capable of being leadership figures” who can provide “professional advice” on spousal relations, family life and rearing children."3 While this sounds innocent, the truth is that this program is subsidized the Wolfson Foundation, which "was launched by the late American ultra-Orthodox billionaire Zev Wolfson, [and] funds dozens of Haredi yeshivas – mainly in secular communities – whose students are asked to learn Torah with nonreligious residents."4 It's important to note that Zev Wolfson "supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities ... as well as Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Germany."5 Apparently, Wolfson had lofty goals, and pushed hard for success, collecting donations from fundraising efforts as well as government sources. With these funds, he was able to get countless outreach efforts off the ground, "typically supplying a third to half the operating budget, much of it with funds he received from government sources."6
      When Haaretz reports that "the goal [of this program] is to involve 10,000 secular families from 20 communities,"7 I can only hope that secular Israelis will be motivated to stand up to this blatant act of disrespect for their non-orthodox lifestyle. It is quite possible to live side by side without  missionizing one's neighbor. Hopefully, these kiruv professionals will see the light.

UPDATED 3/4/2014-Just to clarify, Riskin and Ohr Torah Stone are Modern Orthodox. My concern is that this programming is funded by the Wolfson Foundation, which is known to support ultra-orthodox efforts. The fact that non-orthodox Jewish organizations were left out is disconcerting.

1. Kashti, Or. "Masorti Fume as Orthodox Get Funding to Woo Secular." Haaretz. March 4, 2014.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z”L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great - See more at:
5 Wohlberg, Andrew. "Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z"L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great." The Jewish Home, reprinted in The Yeshiva World News. September 20, 2012.
6. ibid.
7. Kashti, Or. "Masorti Fume as Orthodox Get Funding to Woo Secular." Haaretz. March 4, 2014.
upported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at:
upported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at:
In addition to supporting Jewish causes in Israel, Mr. Wolfson supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at:
In addition to supporting Jewish causes in Israel, Mr. Wolfson supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany. - See more at:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Crying Anti-Semitism

     This past week, I was quoted in The Photo News. Local reporter Nancy Kriz wrote this week's cover story, "It's Not About Religion," in which she interviews several Jews, myself included, in the Monroe area, on whether or not Kiryas Joel's attorney Steven Barshov's comments that Monroe residents are anti-Semitic were accurate. While local politics in my own town are probably not of great importance to readers of this blog, I'm sharing this because of the much larger issue raised.
     Does disagreeing with orthodox Jewish interests make one anti-Semitic?
     This has been discussed before on this blog, usually in the comments section when someone decides that it is anti-Semitic or anti-orthodox to criticize ultra-orthodox kiruv. We all know that I disagree. However, there seems to be an all too pervasive trend for people who disagree with orthodoxy or with opinions held by orthodoxy, to be incorrectly labeled as anti-Semitic, anti-orthodox, or if Jewish, as "self-hating Jews." Whether it happens on my blog, or in local politics, or on a global level, it is not only inaccurate to label those who disagree as anti-Semitic, it's also a bastardization of the term. It weakens the power of the word to describe actual anti-Semitism when it does occur, and it weakens the possibility of people listening and taking action in the face of legitimate anti-Semitism. The groundless rally cry of anti-Semitism turns into little more than the cry of the little boy yelling "wolf!" in the town square. After a while, people will cease to listen and heed his cry. When finally the wolf does come, those who would have protected the boy are no longer interested and ignore his pleas for help, because too often in the past, his screams were for naught.
    And so, I raise the issue here, among my readers. As people of the world, as the proverbial "light unto nations," as people with a history of discussion, debate, and study, I want to urge all of us--regardless of our stance on kiruv, regardless of our personal observance (or lack thereof)  of Judaism, to be strong in our arguments, to stick to the issues, and to not fall into the habit of claiming victim status in lieu of giving intelligent answers when hard  questions are asked of us. 

Attorney Steven Barshov

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rabbi Meir Schuster, Heritage House Founder, Dies at 71

Photo credit: Heritage House
Failed Messiah reports: "Rabbi Meir Schuster, who spent decades searching out young non-Orthodox (or, sometimes, Modern Orthodox) Jews at places like the Kotel (Western Wall) and trying to get them to sit in on classes at Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, Neve Yerushalayim or other smaller ba'al teshuva (missionary outreach) yeshivas and seminaries passed away today."
I urge you to click the above link and read what I believe to be
a very fair portrayal of Rabbi Meir Schuster. He was certainly a character in the Old City. While I may not have agreed with his  methods or his life's work, I do recall him from my travels and, I have to agree wholeheartedly, the man was definitely genuine. Despite my often harsh criticism of kiruv, my heart goes out to his family and to all who loved him. May all who mourn find comfort, strength, and peace.

Rosenberg, Shmarya. Baruch Dayan HaEmet: Rabbi Meir Schuster. Failed Messiah. February 17, 2014.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

All of the Benefits, None of the Kool-Aid: A Review of D. Gutbezahl's Article on Kiruv

     I recently had the pleasure of reading David Gutbezahl's article "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." After telling readers about his background--David Gutbezahl fits in somewhere between Conservative and Reform and has spent time studying Judaism at Pardes in Jerusalem--he informs his readers that his desire to learn more brought him to consider, and ultimately take part in, the Lakewood Fellowship, an ultra-orthodox study program in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of Gutbezahl's concerns was that he "would have to spend a week living in the homes of extremely observant orthodox Jews, experiencing the way they lived."1 He tells his readers "I was definitely a bit nervous, I think my parents might have been more scared, but I went along with it...."2 Having heard many stories from parents of college kids who opted to study at ultra-orthodox institutions and ended up "frumming out" (becoming religious,) I can completely understand both his and his parents' concern. However, Gutbezahl appears to have clearly understood that this is the program's goal--to bring people into such a world and hopefully convince them to make the move to an ultra-orthodox lifestyle. He states:

Don’t get me wrong.  I think they all actually would like to see me start wearing a black suit and white shirt. These sort of programs don’t just exist as a way to teach a little Torah and get us to be more accepting of their lifestyle—that is a goal, but there is a further agenda too. Torah Links is a kiruv organization, meaning they are Orthodox outreach, and their goal is to “convert” people into Baalei Teshuvot, secular Jews who have “returned” and become more religious.3
     Gutbezahl advises people attending such kiruv/outreach programs to go in with a healthy level of self-confidence. He wisely tells us that "if you go in with no confidence in the way you live your life, convinced that your beliefs and your Judaism is wrong or inferior to theirs, guess what? You’ll likely suck up everything they say, leaving no room for your ability to think a bit for yourself."4 Sadly, in some programs, mentors will often stick negative quips about other forms of Judaism into their lectures, so participants who are already unsure of their Judaism may fall prey to their own lack of confidence in their own belief systems. While I completely agree with Gutbezahl's advice, I can easily see how those with minimal exposure to a Jewish life can fall victim to ultra-orthodox outreach. If kiruv professionals undermine the way prospective recruits were raised (whether they were raised as secular, cultural, Atheist, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, etc.,) and those recruits aren't too sure about their own beliefs for whatever reason, they become an easy, or easier, target than those who are already sure of their beliefs or lack thereof.
     Readers are also advised to "think with your brain, not your stomach."5 This is invaluable advice. I remember going to someone's home for a Shabbat meal when I was in college and remarking that the chicken was delicious. I was told that it was good because it was on a higher spiritual plane due to it being kosher. That's not why it's good, folks. It's good because it's been soaked and salted. Anyone can brine a chicken. It has nothing to do with elevated spirituality.
     David Gutbezahl reminds us to "remember while you’re having fun, or after really, that half the fun and half of what you’re seeing is partly just show meant to get you to want to adopt this lifestyle."6 This is the most important thing that non-orthodox participants in outreach programs need to really internalize. Families that may seem perfect while you're a guest in their homes may be wonderful people and may really love their lifestyle, but that doesn't mean their life is perfect, or that they aren't struggling in some way, or that they walk around blissed out on regular day when they have no guests. Adopting an ultra-orthodox life doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems, just as being secular, or Christian, or Buddhist (you see where I'm going here?) doesn't suddenly absolve people of their problems.
     While Gutbezahl tells us that he can see himself being more observant (but not orthodox) after taking part in the Lakewood Fellowships, it seems that this outcome wasn't a direct result of this program. He appears to be someone who has been Jewishly inspired throughout his life, and was looking to find another learning opportunity. I believe that his advice to those interested in these programs is sound. Gutbezahl was already aware of the purpose of  outreach programs and this awareness enabled him to go in with an open mind, as well as a clear strategy for walking away with only what he wanted to gain from the Lakewood Fellowship. For people in his shoes with his wisdom, these programs can serve to enhance one's life. It's those lacking this awareness, and lacking the self-confidence that David Gutbezahl writes about, who may end up having their lives changed in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.

1. Gutbezahl, David. "Eat the Food Without Drinking the Kool-Aid: How to Get the Most Out of Orthodox Outreach Programs." New Voices. January 21, 2014.
2. ibid.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. ibid.
6. ibid.