Caulfield Shule President misses the crucial point

In a letter to the Australian Jewish News, Anthony Raitman does a good job of explaining that Shules need to become part of Centres of Orthodox Jewish interest attracting more people. The days of people who simply buy a seat are perhaps waning. Yes, if one attends 3 days a year, even if you have a great Chazan supported by a great Choir, there are challenges charging only for this. In days gone by, this was not the case. The community attended more often, many daily. This was a year long rental of a seat and all that goes with it, and a reasonable price. Caulfield Shule, which classes itself as Modern Orthodox does a great job at hosting and innovating new activities to attract people into the building.

Anthony, however, has missed one important point in my view. This relates to whatever the mission statement of the Shule may be. All the activities are means to an end. The end, though, is to have people feel affiliated to the extent that they will come to shule on more than 3 days. Many don’t come for Yizkor, let alone “Bar Mitzvah” anniversaries and all the new techniques. Ultimately, the cornerstone of all activities must be serious weekly and varied Jewish education, as part of the mix. Without that, people can see it as a Modern Orthodox Beth Weizman. I don’t think this was ever the view of the father of Centrist Orthodoxy, Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik. Serious Torah learning, varied, specialised classes for women on topics that relate specifically to them, etc must accompany all entrepreneurial approaches. Shule can’t simply be a performance. People must be transformed, and transformation can only apply through quality education.

I would hope that more Shules would adopt this as part of their mission statement. Some Chabad shules seizing on the opportunity, simply shift the financial onus from seat rental to raising money. However, they too need to be involved in not just the ‘feel good’ aspects. Torah education must be central to a centrist Orthodox Shule.

Unfortunately, Melbourne did not make use of Rabbi Kenneth Brander from YU, who turned a Shule from 60 members to 600 and is in charge of Yeshivah Universities outreach. He offered lots of free follow-up. I know of many Rabbis who haven’t even made contact with him. Yes, they have their own networks, but you can see the copycat styles even to the extent of canned pre-prepared Shiurim. Whilst pastoral care is critical, education is even more critical as it ensures continuity and revival.

How many Shules offer to say Kaddish on a Yohr Tzeit etc but could do it better by actually meeting the people, re-acquainting them with Kaddish and having them come to Shule and say it, with Tefillin? That’s a level higher.

Following on from Rabbi Genende’s critique of Noah and love of Abraham’s open flimsy tent …

I noticed a fan wrote a populist but sourceless response in the Jewish News. They say where there is a Rabbinic will there is a Halachic Way. In that spirit, I bring you some more open tents of Abraham as per the simile of Rabbi Genende, [Hat tip anonymous]

What I’d like the Caulfield Board and/or Rabbi Genende to answer is whether they see themselves as affiliated with the RCV or the Open Orthodox breakaway of Chovevei Tzion. I know the president of Caulfield reads my blog. I’d love a clear answer. I believe this is a reasonable and respectful question to ask.

Hevre,

As this email reaches your inbox, Dr. Elsie Stern, our vice president for academic affairs here at RRC, is notifying our rabbinical students that on September 21, 2015, RRC’s faculty voted to no longer bar qualified applicants with non-Jewish partners from admission to RRC, and to no longer ban RRC students in good standing from graduating as rabbis, because they have non-Jewish partners. As you are likely already aware, this policy change is the result of many years of discussion within the Reconstructionist movement.

Why have we taken this step? We no longer want to prevent very wonderful and engaged Jewish leaders from becoming rabbis. After years of study, research, and discussion with many members of the Reconstructionist community, we have concluded that the status of a rabbinical student’s partner is not a reliable measure of the student’s commitment to Judaism—or lack thereof. Nor does it undermine their passion for creating meaningful Judaism and bringing us closer to a just world. The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to fight or police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.

As many of you asked us to do, we have strengthened our admissions standards on reviewing an applicant’s commitment to Jewish continuity in their personal, familial and communal life. We make this change while also revising our curriculum in major ways, focusing intensely on how to train rabbis (and other leaders) on practices and teachings of Jewish distinctiveness, even as we are preparing them for leadership in a multicultural world.

It has been a long journey to come to this place. No one in the process takes this historic decision lightly. We do feel that it reflects some of the realities in Jewish communities today. Our congregations have members with non-Jewish partners, and we need rabbis who can provide them with role models for vibrant Jewish living. Reconstructionism has always been predicated upon changing as Jews and Judaism change, even when these changes are emotionally challenging.

In this season of Sukkot, we can’t help but think of the theme of the ushpizin, the guests we welcome into our sukkah each year. Some of them are family, and some of them are temporary strangers. Each of them has a life story to share with us. As we continue to welcome guests further into the inner sanctum of Jewish life and into our own families, we are humbled. Know that our faculty has wrestled with this issue for many years, on our own and in conversation with many of you.

In the coming days and weeks, we will schedule calls to discuss this further with congregations, rabbis, board members, supporters, and congregational and communal leaders. Stay tuned for details.

Please join me in moving ahead into the new season.

L’shalom,

Deborah Waxman

Rabbi Deborah Waxman
President, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Give us back our boys (Part 2)

After the Caulfield Shule event there was much murmuring from sections of the community about aspects that they didn’t like. This is not to imply they had a problem with the event. The feeling was positive.

I’d like to consider each one (that I know of) and that have been broadly canvassed, and offer my view, for what it’s worth. These are in no particular order.

  1. Umbrage was expressed that the Rabbinic President of the RCV and ORA was using his phone from the daïs to take panoramic pictures/videos from his place while people were involved in the event.
    My view is that this was ill-advised, and not in keeping with the solemnity and angst of the event. There were adequate photographers and the ubiquitous Channel 31 fellow quite able to take pictures and video as need be.
  2. Offence was expressed that some Rabbinic figures failed to sing HaTikva
    My view on HaTikva was formed many decades ago when I discussed the matter with a Rav from Mercaz HaRav, as a young Yeshivah Bochur during the summer break at Moshav Keshet. That is a story in of itself. The Rav was fiercely Religious Zionist, and our site was literally on the border with Syria. When we threw a rock over the barbed wire fence near where we worked each day, it was common for a mine or some other incendiary device to detonate. The Rav was obviously very spiritual. I remember waiting twenty minutes for him to finish davening Mincha after we had all finished to engage him in discussing the matter. His view was that it was unfortunate that God’s name is not mentioned therein and that there was no seeming connection to Torah. Nonetheless, he felt that when in a place where people were singing it as an anthem, not doing so, would likely cause some to make the wrong reading, and that this itself could estrange Jews from Judaism, so to speak. He told me that he made one substitution when he sang it in such situations. Instead of Lihyot Am Chofshi, he used Lihyot Am Torah B’Artzenu and suggested I focus on Hashem’s hand and Ein Lecha Ben Chorin Ela Mi Sheosek BaTorah. Since that time, I have tried to do so. Chofshi, can mean many things, but to secularists this can range from freedom to possibly freedom of the yoke of religion/heaven (from the vantage of a more Charedi reading). As my own children grew up, they noticed me making this substitution. Whether they do, is a matter for themselves. 
    That being said, it is unwise to be standing there in public view without one’s lips moving even if someone is theologically opposed. I understand that some might turn their back so nobody would notice. I understand that some have other objections. I could even foresee the bleeding left-wing objecting to the anthem on the grounds that it is difficult for an Arab Israeli to sing (this has been in the news in fact). Either way, one should absent oneself in an inconspicuous manner so as not to create heat. I saw one Rabbi leave as soon as Tehillim was over. That’s his right. It’s for his congregation to interpret. Nobody forces a Rabbi to sit anywhere they don’t want to.

    In of itself, there is nothing holy about an anthem, of course. This does not imply that one is opposed in some way to the notion that the birth of the State was Yad Hashem and a miraculous event. Let’s face facts. The majority of the RCV are not Religious Zionists, including the President nor do they need to be in terms of any constitution or mandate that I am aware of.

  3. Some from the more Charedi spectrum, who made an effort to attend in name of unity, felt that the Tefilla Lishlom HaMedina was contentious.
    It is true that Charedim, Chabad, Litvaks et al do not agree that the birth of the state implied that one should say Reishit Tzmichat Geulateynu. Some add the word “Shtehe” (rumoured to be R’ Moshe Feinstein’s suggestion) or Smichat Geulatenu.Having finished a book about the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Amiel ז’ל, of the Gush, a holocaust survivor himself and ardent Zionist, and having a copy of his seminal book המעלות ממעמקים which I read decades ago, it is clear that even some Religious Zionists (like Rav Amiel) have problems with the issue of certainty when it comes to predictions of redemption. It is also for this reason also that I am uncomfortable when people say that XYZ is Mashiach. This type of eschatology, to me, is unimportant. The end is the goal. Exactly who and when and how things happen, as noted by the Rambam in Hilchos Melachim is unpredictable. Having said that, one wasn’t forced to say this prayer. One could easily have just stood like everyone while it was being said. Those who felt that it was just too theologically uncomfortable, could have attended a Tehillim event that was apparently held at Adass Israel on a previous day, although it would be good if they publicised these things in a better manner: they know how.
  4. There were comments about allowing a Conservative Cantor recite Tehillim.
    To be honest, I didn’t know who the (Sefardi) Cantor was. I only noticed the errors in Tehillim that he had made and wondered whether he had bad eye sight. Either way, unless the person is a Kofer/Apikorus, I don’t see an issue with saying Tehillim after him (I haven’t asked my Rav). I would assume the President of ORA checked this out and was satisfied that he wasn’t a Kofer/Apikorus.

To end on a positive note, [Hat tip BA] listen to this excellent speech from the Chief Rabbi in London.

R’ Shmuley Boteach, R’ James Kennard, and Diversity within Chabad

I am not a supporter of R’ Boteach’s approach. I am not a Chabadnik, and for reasons which I won’t go into, I most certainly don’t advocate the glamour and glitz approach of R’ Boteach. Recently, R’ Boteach spoke at Caulfield Shule. I am told it was a packed house and many enjoyed his talks. Yoshke isn’t Kosher in my eyes, and in the eyes of many, but came they did to hear Boteach’s messages on that and “Kosher Sex” and more.

Enter an Ashkenaz Shule, Sydenham, in South Africa. Yes, my Mechutan is the Rav of the Shule and a Chabadnik. He’s actually moderate for what it’s worth. They, for whatever reason, also had R’ Boteach speak. I don’t know how it went, but I’d imagine it was popular. R’ Groner in Melbourne spoke firmly, personally and with gentle persuasion to R’ Boteach to use his talents in other ways. That did not work.

Now Caulfield Shule is led by an arguably left-wing modern Orthodox Rabbi, who I believe is from Rhodesia? Either way, he allowed the talk to go ahead.

The Shule in South Africa, led by a Chabad Chosid, also allowed the talk to go ahead. That’s not to say either Rabbi agreed with the approach of Boteach. I don’t know the circumstances.

If we are to accept that a large Ashkenaz, mainly non-observant Shule in South Africa ought to also have a more diverse Rabbinate (as in Melbourne, Australia) as alleged by Rabbi Kennard, then I ask, in practical terms: what was the difference between the Caulfield event and the one in Johannesburg?

I think the answer is that were the Rabbi of Caulfield someone who asked his Sheylos to R’ Hershel Schachter, the pre-eminent Posek of the Centrist Orthodox community, and senior Posek of the OU, then he may have been advised that it was unwise. On the other hand, the Rabbi in Joannesburg found himself criticised in the Jewish Press by  scions of Chabad in the guise of the respected R’ Ezra Shochet. No doubt though he discussed it with his trusted colleagues.

If there is one thing I’ve observed about Chabad, is that it’s a binary system. The Rebbe was it, and everyone else is at the same 0 level. That is, a 1 and many 0’s. Again, while I agree with R’ Kennard that we do need home-grown Rabbis and more diversity, Chabad cannot be painted (any longer, if at all) with one brush. I’d say the quality, honesty and energy of the personality  is at least if not more important than their Hashkafa (in our day and age)