The U.S. Congress passed a Darfur accountability act. (JTA)
The final version of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which passed its final vote Monday in the U.S. House of Representatives, expands humanitarian assistance in the Sudanese region where government-allied militias have massacred hundreds of thousands of people and toughens sanctions against Sudanese officials believed to be involved in the massacres.
The bill now goes to the White House for signing.
Jewish groups strongly supported the act. Democrats are backing a separate bill that would encourage divestment from Sudan.
Israeli security forces foiled a Palestinian suicide bombing. (JTA)
Troops raided Balata near the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday, detaining two would-be suicide bombers and confiscating a 22-pound explosives belt.
At least one Palestinian gunman was killed during clashes with the Israeli unit. According to security sources, the Balata bombers planned to strike inside Israel during the High Holidays.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that Israeli forces had thwarted 10 attempted suicide bombings this month.
Hundreds of children in Israeli conflict zones received video games donated by Hollywood actor Adam Sandler. (JTA)
Foreign Ministry staff on Wednesday handed out some of the 400 Playstation consoles and games donated by Sandler at northern border towns that came under Hezbollah rocket attack during Israel’s recent Lebanon war.
Children in Sderot, a southern town frequently targeted by Palestinian rocket crews in the Gaza Strip, are also to receive the gifts.
A Foreign Ministry statement said Sandler, a Jewish man who lives in Los Angeles, had been moved to “bring happiness to the hearts” of Israeli children forced to take to shelters during the rocket salvoes.
A concert in Prague commemorated Czech classical composers killed in the Holocaust. (JTA)
Many Czech composers wrote pieces in the Terezin concentration camp before being deported to Auschwitz.
The key works of Monday evening’s concert, titled “Seven Candles,” were written in Terezin. by Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas.
The Czech Republic was one of Europe’s hubs for innovative classical composition before World War II, and many of the works are only now getting the credit they deserve, experts say, because their authors’ lives were cut short and their music received limited play under the Communist regime.
Photo courtesy Michael Freund
A member of the Bnei Menashe community in India prepares for the Sukkot holiday.
By Dina Kraft
TEL AVIV, Sept. 26 (JTA) — A group of 218 people from a remote mountainous corner of northeastern India who claim descent from one of the lost biblical tribes will be immigrating to Israel as recognized Jews for the first time.
The aliyah of members from the Bnei Menashe community to Israel is a turning point, said Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel which assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.
“This is a major historical event, because these members of a lost tribe of Israel, after 27 centuries of wandering in exile, will at last be coming home,” he said.
News of the planned arrival in November of 218 Bnei Menashe, who have already undergone official conversion in India, was made public for the first time on Tuesday after it was leaked to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
The government decision to bring the 218 to Israel followed months of bureaucratic wrangling in which Israel’s Interior Ministry and Absorption Ministry balked at plans to bring them here, Freund told JTA.
Advocates have been working for years to convince Israeli authorities that the Bnei Menashe were indeed long-lost Jews who had returned to the faith. They hope this group will pave the way for others in the community to also make aliyah.
The group of immigrants went through conversion courses and were approved for conversion by rabbinical judges sent to India last year by Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Amar has declared Bnei Menashe “descendants of the Jewish people” and has been working to help facilitate the aliyah of those who want to live in Israel.
To date, many of the some 1,000 members of the community – who arrived in the country as tourists and later converted to Judaism and became citizens – live in West Bank settlements. Some also lived in settlements in the Gaza Strip until last year’s Israeli withdrawal.
The decision to place them predominately in settlements has drawn criticism.
Their advocates say the move was not a political but a practical decision. They say the settlements were among the only communities in the country willing to financially help the Bnei Menashe who arrived in Israel and had to spend their first year studying for conversion, without much time to hold down jobs.
Tzvi Khaute, 32, lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron, where the largest number of Bnei Menashe reside. He welcomes the government decision to bring more of his community to Israel as Jewish immigrants for the first time.
“It really is a dream come true,” said Khaute, who studies in a yeshiva part-time and works for the Shavei offices.
The group that is scheduled to arrive in November will be living for the first year in absorption centers in the northern towns of Carmiel and Nazareth Ilit.
Some 7,000 Bnei Menashe live in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. They trace their descent to the tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 tribes expelled from ancient Israel by the Assyrians.
They claim their ancestors wandered eastward toward China, then eventually settled to the south in what is now northeastern India and nearby Myanmar.
Most of the community converted to Christianity at the turn of the 20th century. In recent decades, some have returned to the Judaism their ancestors have practiced for centuries, including observing Shabbat, keeping the laws of kashrut, practicing circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life and observing the laws of family purity.
The Jewish Agency will be facilitating their absorption into Israel.
Freund said some $1 million in financial support for the undertaking will be provided by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based group that has raised tens of millions of dollars from Christian supporters of Israel.
Senator George Allen's mother confirms Jewish heritage, according to the Washington Post.
In a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned the Holocaust and defended Iran’s nuclear program. (JTA)
Under tough questioning Wednesday at the council in New York, Iran’s president told one man who saw the Dachau concentration camp shortly after its liberation that the world “should allow more impartial studies” on the Holocaust.
He also refused to discuss specifics of Iran’s controversial nuclear plans and insisted Iran is fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Several Jewish leaders, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, boycotted the event, but decided not to resign from the council.
The Bush administration opposed the event, saying it gave legitimacy to Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel’s destruction.
But the council said it has invited controversial leaders in the past and that its mission is to provide a forum for understanding international affairs.
Some 35,000 supporters of Israel protested outside the United Nations building. (JTA)
Wednesday’s protest in New York, organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and other groups, was held to show solidarity with Israel; ask the United Nations to enforce Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the unconditional release of three Israeli soldiers kidnaped by Hamas and Hezbollah this summer; and denounce Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the 61st convening of the U.N. General Assembly.
“We will defeat any enemy and overcome any challenge,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the crowd, which spanned two city blocks. “We say terror will not defeat us.”
Other speakers included the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
A chief Nazi-hunter welcomed the arrest in Germany of an alleged Nazi war criminal. (JTA)
Soeren Kam, 84, was arrested Wednesday at his home in Bavaria, ending decades of diplomatic limbo.
Kam, a former member of the SS, is wanted for his role in the murder of a Danish journalist in Denmark during World War II.
Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem issued a statement Thursday urging Kam’s speedy extradition to Denmark, where he would stand trial.
Zuroff said the move could mark the beginning of a series of extraditions of foreigners who had collaborated with the Nazis, committed serious crimes and subsequently fled to Germany, where they were granted citizenship that protected them from prosecution in their native lands.
A German court decision on Kam’s extradition is expected by the end of end of September.
The former cantor of a New York City synagogue was sentenced to 12 years’ probation for sexually abusing his nephew. (JTA)
The judge on Tuesday also ordered Howard Nevison, 65, former cantor at Temple Emanu-El, to refrain from all contact with children under age 12.
The attacks took place from 1993 to 1997, while the boy in question was 3 to 7 years old.
Two other family members were previously convicted of molesting the boy.
At the sentencing, the nephew, now 17, called Nevison a “coward” who had robbed him of his trust and happiness. “As a cantor in the Jewish religion, you should know that what you did will not sit well with God,” he said.
A group of Israeli psychologists created an online help service for those traumatized by the Lebanon war. (JTA)
The site, www.minustress.com, provides basic guidance and therapy to veterans of the 34-day offensive against Hezbollah or residents of northern Israel who suffered from cross-border rocket salvoes.
One of the service’s founders, Danny Hamiel, said it was not intended for those with serious post-traumatic stress disorder, but only milder cases that can be cleared up in a few clinical sessions.
According to Hamiel, 90 percent of those who suffer from stress in Israel cannot obtain face-to-face professional help, either because of the cost or because there is none available near where they live.
Ehud Olmert came fifth in an Israeli opinion poll on who should be prime minister. (JTA)
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came first in the Yediot Achronot survey published Thursday, with 27 percent of respondents supporting him.
He was followed by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Premier Shimon Peres. Olmert’s low ranking, with 7 percent support, reflected dwindling public faith in his government since the Lebanon war.
On Wednesday night, a group of veterans and parents of slain soldiers disrupted a speech the prime minister was giving to his Kadima Party.
The hecklers demanded that Olmert step down, accusing him of mishandling the offensive against Hezbollah.
Top Israeli retailers agreed not to used underweight models in their advertising campaign. (JTA)
The decision, a safeguard against anorexia, was announced Wednesday. It followed a ban at last week’s Madrid Fashion Week of models who looked unhealthily thin, and calls for similar measures in Britain.
Adi Barkan, a leading Israeli fashion photographer, said he initiated the Israeli campaign after realizing that many of the models he worked with had a body mass index — the ratio of height to weight — that was dangerously low, sometimes less than 14.
He said major Israeli ad companies had undertaken not to hire models whose BMI is less than 18, and that he expected fashion agencies to sign on as well. Legislation that would enforce the BMI threshold is awaiting ratification in the Knesset.
By Dina Kraft
JERUSALEM, Sept. 20 (JTA) — More than a century ago, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, sat down to write his will. His heart was growing weaker and he feared his end might be near.
He stipulated his desire to be buried in the Jewish state — once it was established — alongside his children.
“Today, by bringing the bones of Pauline and Hans, we are completing the mission and completing a historic circle,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, speaking just a few feet away from the fresh graves, which were covered in sand and marked by small white plastic signs.
The two died within a day of each other in September 1930 — Pauline after a long period of homelessness and possible addiction to morphine, and Hans by his own hand. Distraught over his sister’s death, he shot himself in the head.
They were buried in a shared grave in Bordeaux, France. Their reburial in Israel ends a bizarre and dark chapter in Zionist history.
The Zionist establishment was not eager to advertise the unhappy end that the children of their visionary leader met, and did not press for their burial in Israel. Meanwhile, the Orthodox religious establishment was opposed to bringing their remains here because Hans had violated Jewish law — first by converting to Christianity and later by committing suicide.
Only after Israeli historian Ariel Feldestein pursued the case for six years, after coming across related documents in a brown envelope marked “Top Secret” at the Central Zionist Archives, did Israeli authorities begin exploring how Herzl’s final wishes might be honored after so many years.
“Why has this not been done before in recent times?” Feldestein asked at a ceremony Tuesday in Bordeaux when the coffins were disinterred. “I think it’s a question of negligence.”
Officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel “came here to Bordeaux in 1949 but decided not to move the coffins. They returned in 1956 and put up a sign marking agency recognition of the coffins, but did not touch them. For both occasions, I cannot tell you why no transfer was made,” he told JTA.
Feldestein managed to convince Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, that Hans appeared to have recanted his conversion and might be considered a Jew. Amar subsequently wrote a ruling that Hans was a Jew, that his suicide was a byproduct of being mentally unstable and that he should be allowed to be buried in Jerusalem.
“We had the opportunity and we did it, to bring human justice to Herzl,” Feldestein said at the ceremony marking their reburial in Jerusalem.
Afterward, talking to reporters, he said times had changed. In 1956, when the state had closed the case on the subject, Israel had “different rabbis and a different generation.”
The Herzl siblings’ remains were brought to Israel as part of a joint initiative of Olmert and Zeev Bielski, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.
Bielski said the mission was an especially moving and essential one, since it made amends for the way the WZO snubbed Herzl’s children — especially Pauline, when she was destitute and desperate for funds.
“This is about bringing historical justice,” Bielski said.
The family had enjoyed a comfortable, bourgeois existence in Vienna and Paris, but by the time he died of heart failure at age 44 in 1904 Herzl had used up his money pursuing the Zionist cause, leaving the family penniless.
The Zionist movement raised money to support the family after Herzl’s death, investing the funds in Austro-Hungarian bonds, at the time the safest currency in central Europe. But once World War I broke out the money was worthless and the family’s financial state became precarious.
After Herzl’s death, his wife, Julie, spent time in a series of sanitariums and died three years later, at age 39. According to the most authoritative book written on the family, “The Labyrinth of Exile,” Julie was cremated, but Hans is said to have left the urn with the ashes somewhere on a train.
All three of the Herzl children suffered from varying degrees of mental illness. Their messy personal lives and hardscrabble existences hardly resembled the royal future Herzl imagined for them.
For the World Zionist Organization that Herzl founded, the children became an embarrassment. WZO offices turned down a request for financial assistance from Pauline. By some accounts, the homeless Paulineine may have died of hunger.
Hans, the son Herzl envisioned would one day serve his people as a prince, lived in London and struggled for years to get by, earning a paltry living translating his father’s writings.
Battling depression and seeking a feeling of connection, he converted to Christianity in 1924, joining the Baptist Church and then hopping among various denominations. He tried being Catholic and then Protestant, Unitarian and Quaker.
Trude, the Herzls’ youngest child and her parents’ favorite, was killed in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. She likely was buried in a mass grave.
Her son, Stephen, the last hope for Herzl’s imagined dynasty, also met with a tragic end. He survived the war in England, where he served as a lieutenant in the British army, visited British Mandate Palestine once in 1945 but refused to settle there, and took a diplomatic posting for the British government in Washington.
Two months after hearing of his mother’s and father’s deaths in Theresienstadt, he committed suicide in November 1946 by jumping off a Washington bridge.
On Tuesday, the bodies of Hans and Pauline were removed from the cemetery in Bordeaux in a ceremony organized by the Jewish Agency’s Paris office. It was hailed by JAFI officials, Israeli government representatives and members of the French Jewish community as a historic moment.
“Our community was proud to watch over the graves of Hans and Pauline,” said Eric Aouizerate, president of the Consistoire of the Gironde-Bordeaux area. “But now the time has come for them to take their place on Mount Herzl.”
Bielski told JTA the idea for the reinterment had come about five months ago from Olmert.
“He said, ‘Let’s bring Herzl’s children to Israel,’ ” so the Jewish Agency “went into action,” he said.
On Wednesday, under the shade of a white tent over the graves of Pauline and Hans Herzl, relatives living in Israel took in the scene of politicians, flowered wreaths and television cameras.
“At last they have come here in a respectful way,” said Rachel Telmon Herzl, 82, whose grandparents were both cousins of Herzl.
JTA correspondent Brett Kline contributed to this story from Bordeaux, France.
Danny Siegel to Speak in Birmingham about Living a Life of Tzedakah
It all started with less than $1,000.
In January 1975, Danny Siegel visited Israel for the ninth or 10th time. On previous trips, he would bring money that others gave him, to be distributed as tzedakah, following a tradition that says those traveling to do a mitzvah will be safe from harm. This time, he asked for people to give him such contributions, and set out with $955.
He didn’t go with any plan, just the idea that the money should “make a difference” and go to those who were doing good things on limited budgets.
That began an odyssey that has led to Siegel being considered an authority on “microphilanthropy.”
The Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which Siegel established in 1981 as that year’s Tzedakah donations hit five figures, is now nearing $10 million in cumulative donations and distributions.
Siegel will be in Birmingham the weekend of Sept. 14 for a series of community programs about small-time philanthropy and its huge potential.
Siegel, who has published numerous books of poetry, has written extensively about “mitzvah heroes,” who take a small idea and run with it, such as collecting leftover food from restaurants and bakeries, and delivering it to homeless shelters.
One “mitzvah hero” he frequently cites is Trevor Ferrell, who at age 11 saw a report about the homeless in Philadelphia, Pa. He started taking blankets to street people sleeping on steam vents in downtown Philadelphia. Friends and relatives were inspired by his example, and a house was refurbished for the street people, and named Trevor’s Place.
Siegel also travels with United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage each summer. A past USY International president, Siegel leads tours of mitzvah projects in Israel, teaching about how small projects can yield big results.
Some “mitzvah heroes” he visited in Israel included Hadassah Levi, who made her life’s work the rescue of abandoned Down Syndrome babies from hospitals; Myriam Mendilow, who found Jerusalem’s poor, elderly residents on the streets of the city and gave them respect and new purpose in her program, Yad L’Kashish (Lifeline for the Old),;and Uri Lupolianski, a young teacher who started Israel’s now famous medical equipment lending program, Yad Sarah, in his living room (and is now the current mayor of Jerusalem).
The Ziv fund receives small contributions from across the country, then makes allocations to projects around the world.
In addition to his poetry and tzedakah books, Siegel co-wrote “The Unorthodox Book of Jewish Records and Lists,” and authored a children’s book that was illustrated by Garth Potts, executive director of the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham.
On Sept. 14, Siegel will speak at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, asking “What do Bruce Springsteen and Steven Spielberg Know About Mitzvot That We Don’t Know?” The evening will begin with a family fried chicken dinner, at 5:30 p.m. The program will be at 7 p.m. Cost for the dinner is $7 for adults, $5 for children. The program is appropriate for ages 8 and up, babysitting is provided for those who are younger. Reservations are requested at the Day School office.
On Sept. 15, Siegel will kick off a joint weekend of activities between Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El. Siegel frequently visited Birmingham during the tenure of Rabbi Steven Glazer at Beth-El, as the two were roommates at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
A Joint Social Action Shabbat will kick off with a 5:45 p.m. service at Emanu-El, followed by a Social Action Fair. Representatives from community organizations will be on hand to answer questions about local needs and how to volunteer. The fair will include hors d’oeuvres and a wine tasting. A dinner will follow, with the cost being tzedakah for social action.
At the dinner, Siegel will speak about “How You Can Redeem The World.”
On Sept. 16, joint services will be at Beth-El, starting at 9:30 a.m. Siegel will speak about “The Awesomeness of Being Human: Where Heaven and Earth Touch.” A luncheon will follow the service.
That night, the joint Selichot service will be at Emanu-El. Siegel will speak about “Be All That You Can Be: How To Become a Mensch.” The program will begin at 7:30 p.m.
On Sept. 17, Siegel will meet with a team of local philanthropists — the Teen Tzedakah project. Last year, 41 teens participated in the program, through which they raised or contributed $250 for a fund in the Birmingham Jewish Foundation, which was matched by the Frank and Fred Friedman Family Foundation. Participants had several opportunities to learn about tzedakah over the course of the year, and then made allocations of the interest from their endowment funds at the end of the school year.
At noon, Siegel will meet with new members, then with all members at 1 p.m. The program topic will be “My Parents Say They Want Me to Be Happy, Healthy, a Mensch and a Jew, but All They Really Want is for Me to Get Good Grades.”
All programs except for Teen Tzedakah are open to the entire community.
The weekend is underwritten by the Ted Levite Fund of the Temple Beth-El Foundation, the Jacobson Cultural Arts Fund and the Ida Seigel Fund of the Rabbi Grafman Endowment Fund for Temple Emanu-El, and the Frank and Fred Friedman Family Foundation.
Dedication in Downtown Mobile on September 17
A historic marker will be dedicated this month at the site of Alabama’s first synagogue, at 559 Government Street in Mobile.
On Sept. 17, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life will host a 2 p.m. ceremony to mark the location of Sha’arei Shomayim’s first building. The Historical Mobile Preservation Commission is also coordinating the event.
According to the commission, the marker is at the closest right-of-way to the original site. A Burger King is currently located there.
Today, ha’arei Shomayim is known as Springhill Avenue Temple, based on its location since 1955. It was chartered in 1844 as Sha’arai Shomayim Umaskil el Dol, Gates of Heaven and Society of Friends of the Needy.
The JASHP seeks to identify and recognize sites of American Jewish historical interest. One major project is identifying the site of the first synagogue building in each state. Society President Jerry Klinger explained that instead of marking the oldest congregation, recognizing the first building shows Jewish permanence in a state.
The society has already erected markers for the sites of the first synagogues in several Southern states.
In Louisiana, the society erected a sign on Rampart Street in New Orleans, at the location of Gates of Mercy Synagogue, which built there in 1845. In the early 1900s, Gates of Mercy merged with Touro Synagogue.
In Florida, the first synagogue building was in downtown Pensacola, housing Temple Beth El. The congregation, which moved in 1931 to its current location, built the first synagogue in Florida in 1876.
More recently, the society erected a plaque in downtown Jackson outside a Conoco station, the site of Mississippi’s first synagogue, Beth Israel. While Beth Israel’s building dated back to the 1860s, B’nai Israel in Natchez is an older congregation, though it did not build the first synagogue building in the state. Nevertheless, the society recently dedicated a marker in Natchez as well.
Sha’arei Shomayim dedicated the Emanuel Street Temple in Mobile in 1846, but soon outgrew it and moved to a new structure on Jackson Street between St. Michael and St. Louis Streets in 1853. The congregation then moved to the corner of Government and Warren Streets in 1907 before moving to Springhill Avenue.
While the congregation’s first building was on Emanuel Street, it did not belong to Sha’arei Shomayim. That structure was built for the Episcopalians, who later sold it to the Unitarians. Sha’arei Shomayim leased it from the Unitarians.
The Unitarians had owned the Jackson Street building also, but had previously sold it to the Mobile Musical Society. Sha’arei Shomayim purchased it from the society while Israel Jones was president of both institutions.
The Jackson Street Synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1856 and rebuilt on the same site.
There was talk of placing the marker at the Jackson Street site, since it was the first synagogue that was actually owned by the Jewish community, but the Government Street site, being on one of Mobile’s main thoroughfares, was deemed preferable.
The oldest synagogue building in continuous use in Alabama is Temple Beth El in Anniston, which was completed in 1892. The oldest synagogue building still standing is Temple Beth Or’s original building in Montgomery, which is now the Catoma Street Church of Christ. It was completed in 1860, and was Beth Or’s home until 1902.
Young men attend meeting to hear how their anti-semitic actions affected West Boca community, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The Poughkeepsie Journal reports about the oldest surviving Jewish residence in North America.
Globes reports that Israel ranks 26 of 175 countries in "Business Friendliness."
Jewish candidates scored victories in primaries across the United States. (JTA)
The right to contest seats in the U.S. House of Representatives was won Tuesday by Gabrielle Giffords and Ellen Simon in Arizona, both Democrats; Steve Kagen in Wisconsin, a Democrat; Paul Hodes in New Hampshire, a Democrat; and Alan Fine, a Jewish Republican in Minneapolis who will face Keith Ellison, a Democrat who could become the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress.
U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders handily won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Vermont and Eliot Spitzer, New York’s attorney general, came one step closer to the governor’s mansion by easily picking up the Democratic nomination.
Douglas Gansler won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in Maryland, but balloting problems left a number of other races undecided in that state, although U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin was leading in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Two Jews and a man bringing up his children Jewish were neck in neck to replace Cardin.
In Rhode Island, U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican and Israel’s toughest critic in the Senate, had national party backing in his successful bid to fend off a a pro-Israel rival.
-----A Jewish-led campaign aims to expel Iran from the United Nations. (JTA)
Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and lawyers Irwin Cotler and Alan Dershowitz are backing the Jerusalem Council for Public Affairs’ campaign.
The group will circulate a document calling for the United Nations to oust Iran because it has violated the U.N. Charter with its threats to destroy Israel.
Meanwhile, Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, urged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to redisplay a U.N. Holocaust exhibit during next week’s visit by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map.
Israel signalled willingness to weigh releasing a jailed Lebanese terrorist as part of efforts to retrieve two soldiers held hostage by Hezbollah. (JTA)
After Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah reiterated Monday that the reservists abducted on July 12 would not be freed unless there was an exchange including the release of Samir Kuntar, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz indicated this was not out of the question.
"The matter of Kuntar is on the agenda and will be considered," Peretz told Army Radio on Tuesday.
Jerusalem had previously ruled out including Kuntar, who is serving a life prison sentence for a 1979 terrorist attack in which three members of an Israeli family were killed, in any swap with Hezbollah. The Shi´ite militia is also demanding amnesty for another two-dozen Lebanese held in Israeli jails, including guerrillas captured in the recent war.
The public may vote on finalists for the best Jewish fiction of the past decade. (JTA)
The voting, at www.jbooks.com, will decide among “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow, “Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer, “In the Image” by Dara Horn, “The Puttermesser Papers” by Cynthia Ozick, “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth and “The Wedding Jester” by Steve Stern.
The winner, as well as the other winners of this year’s Koret Jewish Book Awards, will be announced Nov. 15 in San Francisco.
The Koret awards are managed by Jewish Family & Life in cooperation with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
A non-Jewish business group in Ontario called on Quebec corporate leaders to join the fight against anti-Semitism. (JTA)
Tony Comper of Fighting Anti-Semitism Together made his pitch Monday in Montreal.
In Ontario, a curriculum-based multimedia program called “Choose Your Voice: Anti-Semitism in Canada” already is reaching children in many schools.
The organization plans to introduce a French language, made-in-Quebec version of the program.
Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip. (JTA)
The soldier died Tuesday during an incursion over the Kissufim border crossing when his unit came under fire.
The Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian faction, claimed responsibility.
It was Israel’s first combat fatality in Gaza since tanks and troops re-entered the territory in June following the abduction of a soldier by Palestinian gunmen.
By Sue Fishkoff
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — San Francisco’s Mission Minyan may be the only prayer community that regularly employs the “trichitza” today, but it pops up in a handful of other, temporary congregations, including college Hillels and Israel summer programs. And it was not uncommon in American synagogues before World War II.
From its beginning almost three years ago, the Mission Minyan instituted tripartite seating — men’s and women’s sections on the side, and mixed seating in the middle — so that all members of the community could worship in the same room. It was a practical compromise, not an ideological statement.
They got the idea from Jews in the Woods, an online community of young, activist Jews that organizes mass Shabbatons in rural settings four or five times a year.
“We regularly have people from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, renewal and secular humanist backgrounds in one davening place,” says Zachary Teutsch, co-coordinator of the 2003 Jews in the Woods gathering. “Because of that diversity we needed a creative solution. We had no idea it was used in the 1920s.”
In fact, the trichitza arrangement was “very common” in Orthodox and Conservative congregations between the two world wars, says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University.
The 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were “years of great fluidity,” he notes, a time when the line of demarcation between the movements wasn’t as set as it is today.
“You had every variety you could think of,” he says. “You’d have mechitza at certain services and not at others, congregations that had mechitzas during the year and not on High Holidays, others that had moveable mechitzas.”
The further one got from New York, Gurock says, the more experimentation one found. He describes a congregation in Tulsa, Okla., where one side of the congregation was for men only, the other side was for mixed seating, and a mechitza divided the two.
Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Chicago witnessed a “trichitza” in an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria, Ill., in 1974. And Gilah Langner of Washington notes that an Orthodox minyan that met at Congregation Adas Israel, a large Conservative shul there, used triple-section seating in the 1980s when she was a member. It abandoned the practice by 1990, when it became egalitarian and joined the larger congregation.
None of this would happen in an Orthodox synagogue today, says Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of America.
“Many things were done ‘back when’ because the leadership of a particular organization felt it was better than nothing at all,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s a viable precedent.”
The new, independent minyans use the system consciously, as part of a search for a pluralism that works for them, says Ben Dreyfus, a co-founder of the Kol Zimrah minyan in New York.
“What’s interesting is that the issue of who is sitting where can be considered separately from who reads from Torah,” notes Dreyfus, who started a trichitza dialogue on his blog, www.mahrabu.blogspot.com. “You can mix and match these things.”
Photo: Kimberly Wild/Good Times
Dina Babbitt, who survived Auschwitz by painting portraits of gypsies for the notorious Josef Mengele, in front of reproductions of two of her portraits.
By Dinah A. Spritzer
PRAGUE, Sept. 10 (JTA) — Museums chronicling Jewish life and death — including the Holocaust — safeguard the memory of millions who can no longer speak.
These institutions often rely on artifacts — items bequeathed by those who want to share their family’s history with the world for posterity, to tell their stories.But at former Nazi concentration camps that are now museums, the artifacts were largely items that were already on site, so they were obtained without the consent of former owners or their heirs.
So who has the right to claim them?
It is perhaps the ultimate ethical nightmare for a Jewish museum.
That nightmare is embodied in the case of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who has a claim against the Auschwitz Museum in Poland.
The 83-year-old Jewish artist, Czech-born and now living in California, was forced by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz to paint watercolors of gypsies — also known as Roma — as part of his effort to document their genetic inferiority.
Babbitt has unsuccessfully been trying for years to get seven of her paintings back from the Auschwitz Museum. The museum argues that the artworks’ role as crucial evidence in one of the 20th century’s greatest crime against humanity supersedes her ownership rights and her emotional attachment to the works that saved her and her mother’s life.
Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt suggests that acknowledging owners’ rights to thousands of Auschwitz artifacts would undermine the museum’s ability to educate the public at a time when Holocaust denial has reached new levels. He explains the museum’s position, which it is also taking with a French man who took legal action earlier this year in an attempt to reclaim his father’s suitcase.
“A good example is the Arbeit Mach Frei gate. We know the author of this sign. Within the Babbitt way of thinking, why shouldn’t the author claim the gate and hang it on his wall?”
Despite Mensfelt’s reasoning, Babbitt’s case has elicited outrage among artists and museum directors that a concentration camp survivor should be thwarted by a museum devoted to depicting Jewish suffering. But experts in curatorial ethics and historians are by no means united about the museum’s position.
The International Council of Museums has 21,000 members in 141 countries and works in tandem with UNESCO.
The chairman of the council’s legal committee, Patrick Boylan, accused the Auschwitz Museum in an e-mail of behaving like a institution wanting to keep Nazi-looted art from Jewish heirs. “That the museum is going to keep the disputed items because [the museum asserts] they are more valuable to the museum than to the legal owner is deeply repugnant in ethical terms — and an argument that Jewish and other groups demanding Holocaust restitutions have strongly denounced when museums or governments have refused to return items from public museum collections.”
To those focused on Holocaust education, the need for the public to be aware of what Babbitt’s paintings represent is paramount. The works are part of an exhibition on the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Roma. Estimates of gypsy victims range from 250,000 to half a million, but what is agreed upon is that they lost a greater percentage of their ethnic group, about 50 percent, than any other group besides Jews.
A permanent exhibition on the Roma’s plight only opened four years ago at Auschwitz, representing society’s late awakening to their suffering.
Czech Roma activist Karel Holomek said, “The most important thing are the circumstances under which these portraits had been made and for which purpose. They acted as one of the instruments of liquidation of the Roma people and as a proof of their imperfection of their anthropological attributes — according to the Nazi theory. The portraits belong to the place where they are and there they should stay.”
Yehuda Bauer, a renowned Holocaust scholar and adviser to Yad Vashem, also said the Babbitt paintings were essential to the museum.
“Do you think that if Rembrandt was alive, he should have the right to reclaim his paintings, whether paid for or not, as his private property, six decades after he had painted them?” Bauer wrote in an e-mail.
He added that it was “a scandal” for Babbitt “to demand that pictures of Gypsy victims that testify to genocide should become her private property, to be sold on the market or hung in her private apartment.”
Babbitt has expressed a desire to move the paintings to an American museum.
Kalman Sultanik of the Auschwitz International Council said that although he thinks that this move would be wrong, the Auschwitz Museum needs to reach some sort of compromise with Babbitt that would honor her role as the painting’s creator.
The Holocaust Museum in Washington would not weigh in on the Babbitt case, although in a written statement the museum expressed understanding for both sides in the conflict.
A Yad Vashem spokeswoman noted that the museum had dealt with a handful of victim claims, some concluding with the return of property.
Michaela Hajkova, a curator for the Jewish Museum in Prague, explains that she had dealt with a small number of situations in which heirs sought to recover artworks.
The most significant case for the Prague museum’s collections involved 174 expressionistic portraits of life at the Theresienstadt camp painted by artist Bedrich Fritta before he was murdered at Auschwitz. The hidden paintings were given to the museum by Fritta’s friend after World War II, and it was only in the mid-1990s that Fritta’s son Tomas claimed them.
“We knew he didn’t have the facilities to store these or a clue of how to take care of them. We knew the paintings were essential as documents from evidence. We were worried they might be destroyed,” said Hajkova.
But even with that knowledge, “We just gave them back,” said Hajkova. “We recognized his moral right.”
Photo: Mahsaan Nasser
By Dina Kraft
MAJDAL KRUM, Israel, (JTA) — Light streams through the two-story community center in this northern Arab and Druse village that until recently stood freshly painted and newly built, but empty.
Funds from the Jewish Agency for Israel helped fill the rooms with chairs and tables and outfitted a computer lab. The donation is part of a shift in agency policy to begin assisting not only Israel’s Jewish population but, to some degree, its Arab citizens as well.
“We will continue to be with you,” JAFI chairman Zeev Bielski said on a recent visit to the neighboring village of Deir el-Asad. “We will bring more Jewish donations... There have been years of neglect of Israeli citizens who are no different from any other citizens.”
Bielski was referring to the discrepancy in government funds and infrastructure provided for Israel’s Arab minority as compared to the Jewish majority.
The shift in JAFI policy began on the first day of Israel’s war this summer with Hezbollah. If Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets weren’t discriminating between Arab and Jewish victims, Bielski announced, neither would the Jewish Agency make distinctions in dispersing assistance.
During the war, most of the agency’s focus in the community was on bringing Arab, Druse and other non-Jewish children to the safety of camps in the center of Israel. The agency also helped fund a week of activities and field trips for children during the last week of summer vacation, part of an effort to give kids a feeling of normalcy after weeks living in bomb shelters or being shuttered inside their homes.
Since the war ended the agency has been investing in equipping community centers, several of which had lacked basic furniture and supplies. Officials say they also plan to help in longer-term projects such as coexistence gatherings for youth in mixed cities such as Haifa and Acre.
Historically, the Jewish Agency has focused its efforts only on Israel’s Jewish population. It was founded in the 1920s, during the British Mandate, to represent the Jewish population in Palestine and its interests. At the time it focused on Jewish immigration, the purchase of land from local Arabs and setting the policies of the Zionist movement.
Since 1948, the agency has been charged with overseeing immigration to Israel, promoting Jewish and Zionist education worldwide and building ties with Diaspora communities.
The subject of the Jewish Agency and its Zionist ethos is a sensitive topic for Israel’s Arab citizens. Historically the agency was involved in determining where new Jewish towns and villages would be built, and many Arabs claim that such decisions came at their expense.
Most recently, with Israel having uprooted thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip last year and aiming for a far larger withdrawal from the West Bank, JAFI has been involved in efforts to develop the Galilee and the Negev, both major Arab population centers. Some Arabs fear the planned additional Jewish development in their regions might infringe on their land rights.
Not everyone welcomes the agency’s overtures. At the community center in Majdal Krum, a JAFI plaque was hung inside because of fears that it might be stolen or defaced if left outside.
At a gathering in the center’s auditorium, Mayor Ahmed Dabah thanked JAFI for its support.
“This is what should be happening. All of Israel’s citizens need to feel that we are treated the same way, and then the tensions will disappear,” he said.
Not every one in the Jewish Agency is pleased with the idea that money raised by Diaspora Jews will go to Israel’s non-Jewish communities.
“I think the Jewish Agency — in contrast to the Israeli government, which is obligated to all of its citizens — has a job to focus on the Jewish citizens of Israel,” said Danny Dannon, chairman of World Likud and a member of the agency’s board of governors. “If I were a Jew in Boca Raton, Fla., and gave $100 to my local federation, I would want to know it was helping the Jewish enterprise in Israel.”
In an interview with JTA, Bielski said the agency is determined to reduce the social gaps in Israeli society. Israel’s Arab population, which makes up nearly 20 percent of the country, is among the worst-off socioeconomic groups.
Faris Sarhan, an unemployed 31-year-old cook who has been volunteering for months at the Majdal Krum center, said he welcomed JAFI’s involvement.
“It was really difficult getting by without any equipment,” he said.
Sarhan hopes that one day soon he’ll be paid for the meals he provides to the center and the work he does with youth — but so far there are no salaries for center staff.
“Without donations, we have no funds coming in,” said Kadah Malwa, 21, who also works at the center without a salary.
Sammy Bahar, JAFI’s director for northern Israel, said he sees the agency’s work in minority communities as something that’s just beginning to take form.
“We need to deal with things with a lot of sensitivity. It’s a different type of work here,” he said while standing at the entrance to Deir el-Asad. “We’re entering a long and interesting process that I hope will help change things.”
Photo: Uriel Heilman
Kafale Aviaw, right, who left Ethiopia for Israel nearly six years ago, is now in the IDF. He embraces his niece as she arrives with a Falash Mura group in January 2006.
By Uriel Heilman
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Finance Ministry is proposing substantial cuts to Ethiopian immigration next year as part of widespread belt-tightening following Israel’s war in Lebanon.
The plan, announced Tuesday as part of Israel’s proposed budget for 2007, would halve the number of Ethiopian immigrants brought to Israel per month, to 150 from the current rate of 300.
If adopted, the change would represent a major setback to U.S. backers of Ethiopian aliyah, who launched a $100 million campaign last year designed in part to pressure the government to increase the rate of Ethiopian immigration. Israel’s Cabinet decided in March 2005 to double the rate of Ethiopian immigration to 600 people per month, but the decision was never implemented.
“I hope the Jewish leaders overseas will understand this breaks all the rules, all the agreements, all the understandings,” said Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-Israeli politician and head of the World Zionist Organization’s department of Zionist issues. “We won’t let this happen. It’s a scandal.”
The proposal to slash Ethiopian immigration signals the failure of a complex agreement reached a year and a half ago to complete mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.
That agreement would have seen the takeover of Jewish aid compounds in Ethiopia by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the end of lobbying campaigns for immigration by the main Jewish advocacy group in Ethiopia and the raising of more than $100 million by North American Jews to help Israel foot the bill for the airlift and absorption of up to 20,000 additional Ethiopians.
The collaborative effort was intended to bring the mass Ethiopian aliyah to a close in under three years.
Now it seems the estimated 12,000 remaining Ethiopian petitioners for aliyah — known as Falash Mura — will have to wait even longer in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa before they can emigrate to the Jewish state, if at all.
“I think it’s morally reprehensible,” Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said of the proposed budget cuts. “We’re going to obviously ask the government not to go in that direction.”
The Israeli government repeatedly has delayed implementing the decision to accelerate the aliyah, with various ministries shifting the blame. Under the current budget proposal, an increase in the aliyah rate wouldn’t be reconsidered until the 2008 budget discussions.
Last year, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group of North American federations launched a campaign called Operation Promise to raise $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and motivate the Israeli government to move ahead with its March 2005 decision.
The UJC raised about half of the amount before the campaign stalled and was overshadowed this summer by special emergency fund-raising for the war with Hezbollah.
“Even considering a cut from the current level of 300 a month would be unacceptable,” said Howard Reiger, UJC’s president and CEO. “UJC and the federations will continue their partnership with the government to help populations most in need, including the Falash Mura. We hope and expect that the government of Israel will keep its commitments in this regard as well.”
Some U.S. Jewish leaders say they’re not sure whether the proposed slash in the Ethiopian immigration budget is a legitimate cutback resulting from the war or just an excuse to avoid bringing more Ethiopians to Israel.
One federation official told JTA he’s beginning to doubt Israel’s commitment to accepting the Falash Mura as immigrants.
“I think there will be great skepticism that this is not about something beyond money,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “I think many of us are aware of the complexity and costs involved, but the signal that will be sent if the number is in fact reduced will, in my judgment, weaken the partnership with world Jewry.”
“Every prime minister has said to us over and over again that the issue of aliyah is a No. 1 priority,” Ruskay said. “The rabbinate has indicated that these are Jews. Ultimately, this is an issue in the hands of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system.”
The government’s reticence to bring the Falash Mura to Israel has been both economic and ideological — and, some charge, racist.
Each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of his lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. The Ethiopians are considered far more expensive than other immigrants since the background they’re coming from is so different than Israel, and they need extensive support services after immigrating.
Many Israelis also doubt the Falash Mura’s Jewish credentials, despite their being classified as Jews by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the three major religious denominations of American Judaism.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity several generations ago to escape social and economic pressures. Now they have begun returning to Judaism — in order to emigrate to the Jewish state along with their extended families, some charge.
Given the state of record-keeping in Ethiopia, the Falash Mura’s Jewish pedigree is virtually impossible to prove. Unlike Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, the Falash Mura have not continuously maintained Jewish traditions and practice, so Israel has been accepting only those Falash Mura who can demonstrate a familial connection with Ethiopians already in Israel. Some of those now coming to Israel have no claims to Jewish heritage at all and are linked to descendents of Jews only by marriage.
It’s not clear exactly how many Falash Mura remain in Ethiopia, though aid officials say the number is probably not more than 12,000.
The longer it takes Israel to bring the current group of Falash Mura, the more petitioners for aliyah there will be, warn Israeli and American Jewish officials stationed in Ethiopia.
“It seems to me they don’t know what they’re doing,” Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian Israeli advocacy and aid group, said of the Israeli government.
“It’s just Jewish abuse,” Neguise said. The Falash Mura “are in a tough situation, the government took a decision, told them that by the end of 2007 they would bring everyone, and they continue to live there in difficult circumstances. Instead of accelerating the pace, they are going backward. It’s total disregard for the community.”
Photo courtesy j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen, New York Jewish Week
NEW YORK, Aug. 31 (JTA) — In what will be a watershed moment for the Conservative movement — akin to admitting women into the rabbinate a generation ago — the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and the sanctioning of same-sex unions are likely to be approved by the denomination’s legal scholars, according to movement leaders.
But in a step unique to the Conservative movement, a contradictory religious opinion that would continue the prohibition against gay ordination and same-sex unions will also come up for a vote. Each view only has to receive a minimum of six votes from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which has 25 voting members, to be accepted. That means both opinions, for and against, could pass.
In 1992, the law committee arrived at a consensus statement on homosexuality that maintained the movement’s ban on gay marriage and ordination. In March, four opinions — two in favor of maintaining that position and two opposed — were submitted to the committee for review. The final vote is slated to take place in December.
If ordaining gays gets the Conservative stamp of approval, it will open the door to the seminaries accepting them as students. And the heads of both North American Conservative rabbinical schools, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, have stated their intention of doing so.
In the meantime, movement leaders are working fast to lay the groundwork for dealing with the law committee’s final decision as well as any confusion likely to result if both positions are approved.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, is convening five gatherings with rabbis and congregants around North America. The tour kicked off last week with invitation-only meetings here and in Toronto. They will continue through November with meetings in Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta.
“No matter what happens, our congregations will have a challenge that we will want to help them be prepared for,” said Epstein, whose organization includes some 760 Conservative congregations.
If contradictory religious views are approved by the law committee, “the burden may be put on congregations to decide which way they’re going to go. It’s important for them to have clarity and understand that this is not just a matter of personal interest, but that they have to look at this from the point of view of Jewish law.
“Their challenge may be how they keep a congregation together with perhaps diverse points of view,” he told The Jewish Week.
Though few issues in popular and religious culture today arouse as much passion as gay rights, Epstein said that his task “is to prevent this from being a divisive issue. Just because there’s a divergence of opinion doesn’t mean it has to be divisive.”
He compared these meetings to the ones held as the subject of women’s ordination was considered in the early 1980s.
Authors of two of the papers that will be up for consideration in December — Rabbi Joel Roth, a Talmud professor at JTS considered by many to be the denomination’s pre-eminent expert on Jewish law, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chair of the law committee and a professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism — appeared at Congregation Shaare Zedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side last week to discuss their positions.
Roth favors maintaining the current policy, saying that Jewish law prohibits homosexual acts and, by extension, the ordination of someone presumed to engage in them. Dorff, on the other hand, believes that gays and lesbians should be ordained because the Torah passages in Leviticus that relate to sexual relations between men can be re-interpreted as prohibiting a specific act rather than homosexuality in general.
Roth said that if gay ordination were approved, then “the nature of the Conservative movement” would change. “We will still be a big umbrella, but will not be the same movement that we have today.”
While Dorff said that no congregation would be forced to hire a gay or lesbian rabbi, Roth said that he feared that synagogues would not be allowed to exclude them from their search process, as they cannot now exclude women, though movement policy permits non-egalitarian, as well as egalitarian, practices.
The move would initially likely have little immediate practical impact beyond the seminaries. Rabbi Julia Andelman, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Zedek, said that congregations in New York tend to be left leaning, so a new policy may be less controversial here than it would be elsewhere. Andelman, who was ordained last May and was a student leader for the gay ordination cause, added that many of her colleagues already conduct same-sex commitment ceremonies.
When JTS approved women being counted in a minyan, or prayer quorum, ushering in the Conservative movement’s egalitarian era, it was a major change, said Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, spiritual leader of the Upper West Side’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism. “Seeing women on the bima,” or prayer podium, “was disconcerting” for many people at first, added Strassfeld, who attended the Aug. 24 meeting.
Having gays in the rabbinate “will move much more slowly because it doesn’t call for any immediate decisions for congregations. Also, people in the world are much more ambivalent about this,” he said. Rabbi David Lincoln, the spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue, who also attended the meeting, said he opposes gay ordination and commitment ceremonies. “Jewish law is flexible in many instances, but there are certain things that are very straightforward, like this,” he said.
If the law committee votes in favor of permitting gay and lesbian ordination, the University of Judaism’s rabbinical school will begin accepting their applications “the next day,” Dorff told The Jewish Week. Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect at JTS, said he intends to organize discussions with faculty and students on the subject as soon as school starts the week after next.
“There’s nothing more major this year than this” topic, he said. “We’ll start this process in the fall and if the decision comes down as scheduled in December we’ll be acting on it immediately.”
While he has said he wants JTS to ordain openly gay clergy, he also said: “I’m not going to act unilaterally on this. I really believe in faculty process and we haven’t had one yet. It’s a serious matter and needs to be weighed.”
Gay and lesbian ordination has been a volatile and much-debated issue within Conservative quarters for nearly two decades. While the movement has prohibited gay ordination, it has also tried to promote a welcoming attitude towards gay congregants.
Some institutions, such as JTS, currently maintain a U.S. military-like policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it has not always worked. At least one student chose to leave the rabbinical school rather than deny her sexual orientation after she was outed.
The topic has been revisited by Conservative rabbinical students and rabbis outside the law committee in meetings, discussions, articles and petitions. A student organization at JTS, Keshet — Hebrew for “rainbow” — was formed a few years ago to advocate for gay ordination, and an aligned group of clergy, Keshet Rabbis, was also organized.
Debate breaks down mostly along generational lines, with older rabbis hewing to the traditional stance and younger rabbis agitating for change.
The issue also crystallizes the larger — and perhaps even more important — debate about the message and direction of Conservative Judaism, a movement which for decades was the country’s largest but which in recent years has fallen behind the Reform movement in adherents.
The larger denominational conflict is over whether the Conservative movement should hew to Jewish law, albeit with a different perspective than Orthodox Judaism, or break with that principle in favor of the view supported by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements that ethics trump law.
The meta-debate will likely not end with whatever resolution the law committee comes to over gay ordination in December.
“How we discuss this subject is the most important thing we do in the coming months,” Eisen said. “I hope we do this with seriousness and respect for the law and one another, and without vituperation.”
Dan Ain contributed to this report.
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