The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Larry Ritter: Modern Day Zionist and Israel Supporter

I spent the last week in Israel as part of a solidarity mission sponsored by the Masorti Foundation and the Rabbinical Assembly. The goal of the mission was for Conservative rabbis in North America to learn more about the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and to show solidarity with the dozens of Masorti congregations throughout the country. The mission was subsidized by Israel Tour Connection (ITC), a New Jersey-based tour provider company headed by Larry Ritter. Spending time in Israel with Larry, I learned about his passion to bring thousands to Israel each year in order to support the Jewish country. The following is an article I wrote about Larry’s passion and principle objective in life. This was originally published on The Times of Israel and on the Huffington Post.

There are Zionists and there are lovers of Israel. Some are both.

On a United Jewish Appeal mission to Israel in 1982 Larry Ritter claims he became a full Jew. There was no conversion involved as he was born Jewish and raised in an Orthodox home. However, the Livingston, New Jersey native visited Israel for the first time that year and says he never fully felt Jewish until that experience. Thirty years later Ritter has had his passport stamped close to 100 times with the seal of the Jewish state.

Ritter, 69, firmly states that one cannot be a complete Jew without being a Zionist and loving the land of Israel. For that reason, he launched Israel Tour Connection (ITC) in 1989. Sitting at his kitchen table with his rabbi at the time, Samuel Cohen of Beth Shalom in Livingston, Ritter expressed his desire to help people get to Israel and have a taste of the memorable experience he first had earlier that decade. He wasn’t looking to start a travel agency, rather he wanted to become a reliable tour provider in an effort to help others feel the excitement and love for Israel.

Today, ITC sends over one hundred groups to Israel a year which translates to tens of thousands of pilgrims, both Jewish and Christian. They might be part of a synagogue, church or organizational mission or they might be part of a family traveling to Israel to celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah in Jerusalem or atop Massada.

Ultimately, Jewish continuity is the banner Ritter waves in his effort to support Israel through tourism, one of the country’s largest industries. “My fear is that each new generation of Jews gets farther away from the Holocaust and they don’t have that communal memory to bring them closer to Israel. And drawing people closer to Israel is my core mission in life. I do this because I believe in it,” Ritter told me recently. In that vein his company identifies homogeneous groups to take to Israel. The majority of groups are from Conservative, Reform and Orthodox congregations throughout North America as well as family trips. However, the past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of Catholic, Christian and Evangelical groups Ritter has sent to the Holy Land. In a few weeks Ritter will accompany a group of African American tourists through the AME Church to Israel. Through the years not all of those groups have been homogeneous either. He has also brought interfaith delegations to Israel, building bridges between Christian Zionists and Jewish leaders.

The first time I traveled to Israel with Larry Ritter was in January 2003 when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As the U.S. was about to send troops to Iraq and Israel had once again been facing acts of terrorism, Ritter approached the Seminary and offered to subsidize a solidarity mission for students and faculty. After securing funding from the Ministry of Tourism and adding funds out of his own pocket, students were asked to pay only $300 for the four-day trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At a time when Israel’s hotels were half empty Ritter helped over 100 students travel to Israel to show their support to their brothers and sisters in the Jewish state.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself back in Israel with Ritter. This time Ritter determined it was necessary for North American Conservative rabbis to travel to Israel and show solidarity with their sister congregations throughout the country following the recent conflict with Gaza. Once again, Ritter helped subsidize the mission with his own funds. “Not only did I see a need to come to Israel following a challenging time for Israelis, but I knew how critical it was that Masorti (Conservative) congregations around Israel see that their movement’s rabbis from North America are willing to take time out of their busy schedules and come to Israel and give them strength,” Ritter explained.

On this most recent excursion, Ritter brought a duffle bag in addition to his own suitcase to Israel. Inside the duffle bag were two Torah scrolls to be donated to Masorti congregations in Israel. Not only does Ritter have a knack for finding the best hotel values, but he’s also developed a gift for locating Torah scrolls in American synagogues to be gifted to the small Israeli congregations that need them. As one rabbi who traveled with us in Israel this week put it, “What makes Larry so special is not only that he motivates people to come to Israel, but that he goes the extra mile.” Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Minnetonka, Minnesota continued, “He always wants to help. He’ll do whatever it takes to bring one more person to Israel or one more Torah to Israel for a fledgling congregation.”

With his staff of eleven, including his wife Marlene, in his Livingston, New Jersey office Ritter coordinates each trip with his satellite office in Israel and submits each itinerary to a “Situation Room” of the IDF to ensure the group’s safety. Each tour is custom designed based on the needs and desires of the traveler. Larry considers how many times the travelers have visited Israel in the past, what sites they might enjoy, and which areas of the country would have the deepest impact on them. Barbara Sutnick, ITC’s educational director in Israel explained, “Because of Larry’s vision, our goal is to bring to life all the wonder that is Israel through our tours – its places and its people, its past and its present.”

Each time he comes to Israel, Ritter feels like he’s home. “Israel is where I go to recharge my batteries,” he says. Although, his metaphorical batteries aren’t the only ones that get recharged while in Israel. Ritter’s two cellphones are constantly ringing as he makes arrangements with the airlines, various hotels, tour bus operators and other providers, as well as with religious leaders back in the U.S. eager to plan their next trip.

Through his Zionism and his love of helping people discover that same beauty and inspiration that he found in Israel thirty years ago, Larry Ritter is doing his part to keep Israel’s tourism industry vibrant and strong. Nothing seems to deter him from connecting young and old with the land of Israel. As he stated proudly, “So long as we have an Israel I’ll be sending people there.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

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(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

JTS Posts Warning in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, an Israeli neighborhood about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, has been in the news quite a bit over the past year.

After the opening of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh in September 2011, groups of radical Haredim gathered in front of the school, calling the girls names and spitting at them when they headed to and from school in clothing the extremists considered to be immodest by their strict standards. Some Haredi men were arrested on the suspicion of throwing eggs and tomatoes at students.

There was an international outcry at the end of 2011 after Haredim spat on an 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants and called her “a prostitute” for attending the school. After these and other harassment incidents in Beit Shemesh made international headlines, the US State Department updated its Jerusalem travel advisory in January 2012, advising visitors to “dress appropriately” when visiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, or to avoid them entirely.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Beit Shemesh there are pashkvils (advisory posters) admonishing about immodest dress for women and warning women to walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk from men. I never would have expected to see a pashkvil from my own rabbinic institution, but I learned today from the FailedMessiah blog that indeed the Jewish Theological Seminary is posting pashkvils in Beit Shemesh.

JTS Poster in Beit Shemesh
Source: Michael Rose, Judaica Book Centre via Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

According to my colleague Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky,the JTS pashkvil calls upon people not to use the Morasha le-Hanḥil edition of the Shulḥan Arukh as it violates the copyright of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pashkvil is produced on official JTS letterhead and signed by the Seminary’s Librarian Dr. David Kraemer.

Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary



The pashkvil refers to the Seminary’s licensed edition of the publication as stolen property because of the copyright violation. As Rabbi Pitkowsky explains on his blog, “apparently, JTS gave permission to Mechon Rosh Pina to publish a manuscript from their collection, Rabbi Shemaryah Brandris’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, Rosh Pina. Morasha le-Hanḥil has apparently published in their edition of the Shulḥan Arukh Brandris’s commentary without JTS’s permission.”

I would like to see posters displayed throughout Beit Shemesh from JTS, or other Conservative or Reform institutions, admonishing the Haredim for their lack of modesty and their bad behavior when they harass young women. However, I must admit that it’s funny to see a JTS pashkvil on the streets of Beit Shemesh. While I have my doubts, I certainly hope the Seminary is able to protect its copyrights in their book publishing endeavors. And I hope these posters remain on display long enough for the citizens of Beit Shemesh to actually read them.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

David Arquette’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Scream

Jewish celebs having bar mitzvah celebrations seems to be a trend in Hollywood these days. Most recently, Drake celebrated a second bar mitzvah during the filming of a music video in Miami. Actor Kirk Douglas famously celebrated his second bar mitzvah in December 1999 at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on the occasion of his 83rd birthday (it’s a tradition to have a second bar mitzvah at 83).

Of course there have also been famous fictional bar mitzvah celebrations like “Krusty the Klown’s Wet ‘n’ Wild Bar Mitzvah” on “The Simpsons” and Ari Gold’s daughter’s bat mitzvah on “Entourage”.

Today it was announced that actor David Arquette had a bar mitzvah at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. The last newsworthy bar mitzvah at the Kotel was in May 2010 when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (then Obama’s Chief of Staff) brought his family to the Old City of Jerusalem to have his son’s bar mitzvah.

David Arquette is currently in Jerusalem shooting an episode of his “Mile High” show, which airs on the Travel Channel. While in Jerusalem, Arquette attended a bar mitzvah ceremony and was asked if he would like to have one as well. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, officiated at the ceremony in which Arquette wore a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and tefillin (prayer phylacteries). Two years ago, Arquette told the Jewish Journal, “I wanted a bar mitzvah but didn’t have one as a kid… maybe for my 40th birthday.”

According to the Jewish Or Not blog, David Arquette is Jewish. His mother was born Jewish and is the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor. Arquette’s father converted to Islam. Arquette has been married to actress Courtney Cox, who starred in “Friends” television sitcom and co-starred with Arquette in the “Scream” films.

On his personal Twitter account, Arquette posted: “I had my bar mitzvah today at the wall. Finally I’m a man.”

If anyone would like to plant a tree in honor of David Arquette’s bar mitzvah, simply click this link.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Yad LaKashish Turns 50

One of my favorite places to go in Jerusalem is Yad LaKashish (Lifeline for the Old). It is a wonderful organization that truly honors the elderly of Israel while also providing a special experience for tour groups.

Rosh Hashanah this year marks Yad LaKashish’s 50th anniversary. It is truly remarkable how this tzedakah (charity) project has grown. I was first introduced to Yad LaKashish in the summer of 1994 when “The Tzedakah Man” Danny Siegel took a handful of us teens from my USY Israel Pilgrimage group there. We could choose from a list of charitable organizations and I chose Yad LaKashish on a friend’s recommendation. At the time, all I knew about the place was that they sold funny looking tallit (prayer shawl) bags that looked like animal puppets.

Walking through the different craft rooms I was amazed at what these busy elderly artisans were creating. Senior citizens from all walks of Israeli life were putting their talents to work at a time when many of their contemporaries were enjoying their retirement and moving into homes for the aged. I remember seeing the pride on the faces of the Ethiopian and Russian immigrants who brought their artistic ideas from their home country and were able to see their crafts being sold in the Yad LaKashish gift shop.

Yad LaKashish has been able to help needy senior citizens with its unique method of restoring a sense of pride and purpose. These poor and sometimes disabled elderly are able to remain active members of society. Today, the monthly stipend Yad LaKashish provides for these elderly artisans has more than tripled thanks to generous donations from around the world (they don’t receive government funding). In addition to the stipend and holiday bonuses, Yad LaKashish is able to offer meals, transportation and subsidized eye and dental care to the workers. They also take all the elderly artisans on a free day trip outside of Jerusalem.

I try to put Yad LaKashish on the itinerary of every group I take to Israel. I enjoy seeing the smiles on the faces of the visitors as we tour the facility. Those smiles continue as the group goes on a spending spree in the gift shop buying all the beautiful jewelry, crafts and Judaica that these proud and talented men and women created. To donate to Yad LaKashish or shop in their online store visit http://lifeline.org.il.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller