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.

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: