Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shabbat-O-Gram for Oct. 24: Blessing of the (Stuffed) Animals, Challah-ween, DC’s Jewish “Watergate” and Israelis in Berlin

Blessing of the (Stuffed) Animals, Challah-ween, DC’s Jewish “Watergate” and Israelis in Berlin.

Shabbat Shalom!

We celebrate two b’nai mitzvah this Shabbat – for Hannah Nekritz on Shabbat morning and Macayla Roth in the afternoon.  Mazal tov to them and their families.  On Friday at 5:30 we have Tot Shabbat, where in honor of the portion of Noah, I’ll be blessing everyone’s stuffed animals!  Bring ‘em on!  And at our 7:30 Kabbalat Shabbat service, we’ll celebrate the beginning of the new month, Marcheshvan, whose name means “Bitter Heshvan” but it’s not so bitter after all.   Know that each Kabbalat Shabbat service has unique, stunning musical moments.  Join us this week to see what the buzz is all about!

The Jewish Watergate

Erica Brown writes in the Jewish Week about the scandal that has shocked so many of us, Rabbi Barry Freundel’s shameful betrayal of those seeking the privacy and sanctity of the ritual bath, the Mikvah.  As such, he has also betrayed all his rabbinic colleagues, giving people one less reason to trust rabbis.  This sordid story of this abuse of women and in particular of converts is almost unbelievable.  I must confess, when I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke and imagined many a Purim parody about this “Porky’s on the Patomac.”  But what happened is dead serious.  It gives us one more episode to add to the list of recent rabbinic abuses, including the DC rabbi who starred in “To Catch a Predator,” the Boston area rabbi who allegedly sexually exploited a teenager and then stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from congregational funds to conceal his crimes; and the mother of them all, Fred Neulander, the Cherry Hill rabbi who hired a hit man to murder his wife. 

The Freundel scandal points to a more widespread problems about the conversion process and the abuse of power,  in particular against women by the Orthodox rabbinate, as described in this article by the JTA:

If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women.

Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.)

The award-winning film “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurit Jacobs Yinon, painfully demonstrates how the experiences of female converts in the mikvah violate their most basic dignity. Three male rabbis watch every woman dunk in the water, as she is naked except for a robe or sheet separating her skin from the rabbis’ eyes. Some rabbis interviewed in the film — including the Israeli modern Orthodox rabbis David Stav and Beni Lau — admit that this practice is humiliating for women, but describe their own helplessness in changing the practice.

I must confess that, while all my conversions require mikva, I am never in the room with female immersers, unless they happen to be in diapers.   Not only do I zealously protect the privacy of all converts, I believe that immersion at the time of conversion is an extremely sacred moment.

If such utter humiliation is the price of acceptance into the Orthodox world, one wonders why a woman would put up with it, now that there are other choices.

But my greatest concern is that we now face a trust deficit, which is potentially more dangerous than any other deficit currently coming out of Washington, and we can’t just blame Watergate for it.   He has made my job, and the job of the other 99% of clergy who are accountable and honorable, much more difficult.   People like Freundel are part of the problem, to be sure, but so is a culture featuring 24 hour cable news arsonists and top films, TV shows and literature romanticizing the art of betrayal, whether sexual, political or financial.  Anyone seen “Gone Girl” or “The Affair” lately? Echoing X-Files-style paranormal paranoia, our national motto has become, “Trust No One.”

EM Forster wrote, “One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.”  I know the immense trust that has been placed in me.  Every lifecycle event that I perform is my Super Bowl.  I know that for each family, that wedding, funeral or bat mitzvah is possibly the most important event in their lives.  Every High Holiday sermon has the potential to change hundreds of lives, and maybe even save a few.   Every hospital visit, every phone call, every nod and wink can be significant.  There are no real objective standards that can fairly regulate or monitor such work.  

In the end, it all comes down to faith in spiritual leadership.  And the Jewish Watergate has opened a floodgate of mistrust.

All Pudding Aside, Let’s Celebrate the Return to Berlin

The current brouhaha in Israel over the cost of a popular Israeli pudding snack in Berlin trivializes and distorts what should be considered a great triumph of the Zionist mission.  Contrary to what many Israelis believe – and all pudding aside – the renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin is an affirmation of Zionism, not a negation, as well as one of the most astounding stories of the post Holocaust generation.  If the return to the land of Israel was the ultimate vindication of Jewish life in the face of death, so is the return to the belly of the beast itself.

I visited Berlin for the first time this summer, and while I did not have the pleasure of purchasing a cut-rate “Milky” there, signs of Jewish rejuvenation were everywhere.  Aside from the ubiquity and unselfconscious centrality of Holocaust memorials, synagogues and restaurants, even Jewish street names herald a renewed recognition of the city’s rich Jewish heritage and strong ties to Israel.  One might have guessed that a repentant Berlin would have streets dedicated to such Jewish luminaries as Mahler, Mendelssohn, Spinoza and Heine.  But who could have imagined the city of Goebbels sprouting boulevards honoring Yitzchak Rabin and David Ben Gurion.  (Come to think of it, does any Israeli city have a Yitzhak Rabin Street?)

The return to Berlin also proves that Judaism is indeed portable, as it was intended by the ancient rabbis to be, and that Judaism can thrive – anywhere.

The ability of Jewish communities to thrive in the Diaspora, be they in the shadow of the Reichstag or of the Freedom Tower, is intrinsically tied to the very fact of Israel’s existence. Israel bolsters confidence and pride no matter where Jews live.  At the same time, a strong, vibrant Diaspora, one that includes Israelis, is precisely what the state of Israel needs most to ensure its survival in a hostile world.

As I wrote here a year ago, the same imperative that drove Israelis back to the Etzion bloc after the Six Day War is what drives Jewish life back to the streets of Poland and Germany.  And just as the blood of 240 massacred Jews crying from the Etzion earth would not allow any Israeli government to declare Efrat Judenrein in any final agreement (though compromises may need to be made elsewhere), neither should the Final Solution have the final say on the fate of Jews in Berlin.
The return to Berlin is not a threat to the Zionist mission; it is an affirmation of the Jewish revival that Zionism has engendered.  It is the ultimate celebration of the Jewish spirit that simply refuses to die.As such, Milkys in hand, we should slurp a l’chayim to that restored Jewish community and celebrate, rather than ruminate.

See this column at the Times of Israel.

 Challah-Ween and the October Dilemma

The observance of Halloween is not Jewish and many arguments pro and con about dressing up and going door to door for candy have been made over the years.  But there is no argument over the importance of Shabbat in our tradition. This year, Halloween comes out on Shabbat. The confluence of October 31 with Friday night presents families (and synagogues) with a unique opportunity to make a positive statement to their kids about Shabbat, while not necessarily placing people into a position of conflict with the fun of Halloween.

So next Friday night at services we're going to celebrate Shabbat with a unique twist. We'll call it "Challah-Ween," a title that won out over “Hallowed Queen.”  Whatever you choose to call it, please come!   Adults and children of all ages are welcome to join us at our regular time of 7:30 PM, and if you happen to have a costume on because you are coming from trick-or-treating, we still want you to come by and spend Kabbalat Shabbat with us.  Cantor Fishman, Beth Styles and I are planning a fun service, and we'll have plenty of candy here…I may even bring out my favorite Jewish ghost story, “The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf.”  Golems and Dybbuks  are especially welcome!

Another way that has been suggested to embrace Shabbat while allowing your child to have the "fun" of Halloween is to keep the Noah theme (this week’s portion) when choosing a costume. So, did Scooby Doo have a place on Noah’s Ark?  Or we can move on to next week’s portion, whose title, “Lech Lecha,” literally means “move on.”  Maybe God was commanding Abraham and Sarah not to head to the Promised Land, but to head out in their own neighborhood, going door to door to sell their new faith - and grab some Baby(lonian) Ruth bars while they were at it.

Here’s another suggestion for this year’s October Dilemma:  Once when my kids were young and we had the same Friday night Halloween issue, we contacted a few friends and set up an in-house Thursday evening trick-or-treat alternative. We stationed adults in each room of the house, and the kids went from door to doorand when they knocked, a smiling adult gave them candy (kosher, of course). That way they could have their challah and eat it too.

As you might be able to tell, I come from the “lighten up” school of thought when it comes to Halloween, although I do feel a greater concern because of this year’s confluence with Shabbat. But the question as to whether or not Halloween is “un-Jewish,” is far too complex to relegate to a few comments here.  Click here for a more comprehensive analysis from a variety of Jewish perspectives.

This is also a fascinating time to tackle the fascinating subject of “Jew-sion,” the fusion of Judaism and surrounding cultures.  What is also clear that the Creation and Noah stories have many universal themes. It shows clearly how the destiny of all humankind is intertwined.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

No comments: