A Look at the Recent Jewish Headlines

This has been anything but a quiet summer for Jewish news. The summer is usually a time when the Jewish world slows down, but not this year. It’s only mid-July and already it seems like there have been a dozen big news stories this summer.

Here’s the list I compiled of news items either about the Jewish community or related to the Jewish community. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section.

Arson Fire at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – A major forest fire in Jerusalem led to the evacuation of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. After burning nearly 40 acres of the Jerusalem forest, firefighters and the Israeli military got the blaze under control. Arson is suspected.

Ban on Circumcision in San Francisco – A ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco has given the Jewish ritual national attention. The measure would outlaw circumcisions on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity, within San Francisco city limits. Anyone convicted of performing circumcisions could be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The shocking part is that no religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure.

Ban on Kosher and Halal Slaughter – The Dutch initiative against shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter) was conceived of by the Party for the Animals, which holds just two seats in the 150-seat Dutch House and one in the 75-seat Senate. The ultra-liberal party argues that stunning an animal is more humane than the razor-sharp knife used in kosher slaughter. If the ban passes, Dutch Jewish leaders will challenge it in court, using the guarantee of freedom of religion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights as their defense.

Anthony Weiner – The summer began with the first sex scandal to be linked to Twitter. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Jewish congressman from New York, had everything going for him. He was moving up the ranks and had become a media darling. His downfall was caused by hubris and his inability to refrain from sending nude photos of himself to women through his Twitter account. As JTA noted, there was a long list of Jewish congressmen who called for Weiner’s resignation: Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was the only Jewish congressman to come to Weiner’s defense. The embarrassed and disgraced congressman lied to the public and then resigned amid pressure from his colleagues.

Liberal Rabbinical Students on Israel – Rabbi Danny Gordis has developed a reputation for saying what’s on his mind. Last summer, Peter Beinart accused the American Jewish community of forsaking its own liberal democratic values in blind support of Israel’s move to the political right, and in the process created a generation of young Jews who feel no attachment to the Jewish state. This summer, Gordis narrowed the focus to American rabbinical students in the Reform and Conservative movements who he claims have alienated Israel in order to maintain their liberal political views. The former dean of Conservative Judaism’s West Coast rabbinical school who has become a neo-Con Israeli cited several examples of young rabbinical students criticizing Israel in ways previous generations of rabbis would never have imagined. Gordis wrote of one rabbinical student studying in Israel who refused to purchase a new tallit (prayer shawl) if it was made in Israel. He told of another rabbinical student who traveled to Ramallah to celebrate his birthday, sitting at a bar  surrounded by posters extolling violence against Israel. The Gordis critique launched a massive back and forth of editorials on both sides of the debate.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn – The former head of the IMF was considered a front-runner for the French presidency. He would have been the first Jew to hold such a position since World War II. Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned after he was jailed on charges of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his room at the Sofitel hotel in New York this past spring. He was released from house arrest earlier this month after prosecutors said the hotel maid who accused the former director of the International Monetary Fund of rape lied to a grand jury. Strauss-Kahn still faces charges of rape. While his lawyers don’t deny there was a sexual encounter, they are calling for all charges against their client to be dropped.

Restructuring at USCJ – Perhaps the Conservative Movement’s central agency thought it could clean house in the middle of the summer when no one was paying attention. Think again. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism continues to face a sharp decline in member synagogues as more congregations either refuse to pay dues or leave the movement altogether after merging with Reform congregations. In mid-June, USCJ announced it will undergo a major restructuring that includes the elimination of 27 percent of its 115 full-and part-time staff positions and a reduction in dues for those congregations that stay in the movement. This is all part of USCJ’s new strategic plan that was released in the winter.

Orthodox Teens and the Half Shabbat – The reports of Haredi Jewish teens sitting in a park on Shabbat texting their friends were shocking to the Orthodox world. What might have been even more shocking was that these Orthodox teens had given a name to their observance of Shabbat — “The Half Shabbat.” Several Jewish newspapers reported on this new culture among observant teens who just can’t seem to make it 25 hours without texting on their cellphones. The New York Jewish Week even reported that the practice has become so widespread that perhaps as many as half of Modern Orthodox teens text on Shabbat. Orthodox leaders, from youth group directors to yeshiva principals, are vowing to try to curb this violation among the teens.

Identity Cards – Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai is determined to bring the term “Jew” back into Israeli identity cards under the “nationality” clause that was eradicated a decade ago. Only an Israeli who was either born Jewish or underwent an approved Orthodox conversion would be able to get this designation on the identity card. That means that those who underwent Reform or Conservative conversions would not be identified as Jewish even if they became disabled fighting for the Jewish state.

Gay Marriage in NY – It might not seem like a Jewish issue, but in NY just about everything becomes a Jewish issue. When the Marriage Equality Act in New York State passed in late June, the Jewish groups were divided in the obvious ways. The liberal Jewish organizations celebrated the news while the right leaning groups condemned it. The Anti-Defamation League called it “a significant step forward in the pursuit of individual liberty and freedom from discrimination for New Yorkers” while the Orthodox Union offered that marriage equality for gays and lesbians was “a mistake.” To bring even more debate in the Jewish community, the first gay wedding in New York will be an interfaith one. Rabbi Lev Baesh will officiate at the wedding of two lesbians this Saturday night in Westbury, NY at 11:00 p.m. (well after the end of Shabbat).

H&H Bagel Closes – For some, the closing of H&H Bagel in Manhattan will be just another example of the trying financial times that restaurants and food stores are facing these days. But for those who have ever lived in Manhattan (as I have), H&H Bagel was a staple of the Upper West Side and it was very sad to hear of its demise. The iconic bagel store appeared in “Seinfeld,” “Sex in the City,” and “Entourage.” Personally, I like a Detroit bagel better than New York’s version, but I still recognize that the shuttering of H&H is the end of an era for New York Jews.

Things have been exciting in the Jewish community so far this summer. But, hopefully, the second half of the summer will be quieter than the first half.

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

Rabbi Approves of Girl Inflicting Wounds for Modesty Reasons

A letter is sent from a college campus midrasha to an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The letter writer explains that a young Jewish woman on campus who is a counselor at a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה) is becoming more devout, but her non-observant parents disapprove. She wants to wear long skirts for modesty reasons, but her parents have forbidden her from doing so. Ynetnews.com reports that the letter continued, “The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds.”

According to ynet news, the letter was sent to Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, the son-in-law of prominent Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, for his opinion. Shockingly, Rabbi Zilberstein approved of the young woman inflicting wounds on her own legs so she could dress modestly, wearing the long skirts her parents have forbidden.

If this story is authentic, it is quite troubling on many levels. The young woman is in college and should be able to determine what she wears on her own, without her parents’ consent. [The ynet News translation was erroneous. It said that she was a college student, but the Hebrew explains that she was a counselor in a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה), meaning that she is likely a teenager.] It should never have gotten to the point where she feels compelled to do self-harm in order to wear modest clothes.

While the commandment to honor ones parents is competing with the young woman’s belief in modest dress, there is precedent in Judaism for disobeying ones parents if it leads to adherence of the law in other cases. But above all else, it is in violation of Jewish law to inflict harm on oneself. Inflicting wounds on oneself is a transgression of Jewish law. It would be religious malpractice if Rabbi Zilberstein actually condoned this practice.

According to the article in ynet news, the rabbi responded to the questioner writing, “She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin.”

There is already documented evidence that young women are self inflicting wounds at a high rate. Reports of intentional cutting and self mutilation among teens, especially young women, is shocking. In a November 2008 article in the Huffington Post, Leslie Goldman wrote about the growing epidemic of troubled Jewish teenage girls who are suffering from eating disorders and body image problems that lead to cutting themselves. I would presume Rabbi Zilberstein was not familiar with this crisis when he penned his response.

Ynet reports, “In his reply, the rabbi commended the student’s initiative, saying ‘the blood from the self-inflicted wound will atone for the people of Israel,’ adding that the coordinator should allow the student to commit the act.” The rabbi’s opinion is odd. In fact, it even calls to mind the sacrificial system of a bygone era in Judaism. When I first read Rabbi Zilberstein’s response I couldn’t help but notice that he seems to draw on Christian symbolism.

If there’s truth to this story and Rabbi Zilberstein in fact opined that this young woman in college should continue to inflict wounds on her body so that she’ll have an excuse to dress modestly in the face of her parents’ disapproval, then he owes an explanation for his warped logic. I understand and respect those who feel strongly about modest dress, but there are boundaries. No person in their right mind would grant approval for such a horrible act.

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

Another Altered Photo in Jewish Newspaper

While everyone is talking about the altered photo with Hillary Clinton in the Haredi newspaper Der Zeitung, there have been other examples of these ultra-Orthodox newspapers editing photographs to suit their purpose.

TIME Magazine reported on a poorly doctored photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet from 2009 in the Israeli newspaper Yated Neeman. In the photo, two female Cabinet members, Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver, are replaced with men’s faces.

The faces belong to ministers Ariel Atias and Moshe Kachlon, who in the original photograph can be seen toward the periphery of the group (standing, second from left and second from right). As TIME explains, “In Yated Neeman‘s version of the image, they have been cropped out. Much of the newspaper’s readership consists of ultra-Orthodox readers who do not think it proper for women to serve in the government.”

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

NJ Jewish Standard & Carl Paladino

While last week’s decision by the New Jersey Jewish Standard to apologize for the inclusion of a gay wedding announcement and then retract the apology made big news, I didn’t have a chance to weigh in on it. But now, that New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino has essentially done the same thing regarding the anti-gay comments he made to a group of Hasidic Jews, I thought I’d comment on both matters.

Newspapers, and especially Jewish newspapers, will never be able to please everyone. Stating that the newspaper is for the entire community is actually a shortsighted mission statement because every Jewish community will have its factions that neither read nor care about what is published in certain Jewish newspapers. Whether it is the decision to run advertisements for non-kosher restaurants or print interfaith wedding announcements, the Orthodox community will boycott the paper. And a Jewish newspaper that has a bias toward the Orthodox won’t be of much concern to a progressive audience.

Ultimately, what happened at the NJ Jewish Standard was neglect. The paper’s editorial board and staff neglected to have a thoughtful process about whether to publish gay wedding (and engagement) announcements in the first place. And when there was backlash from the Orthodox, they should have debriefed on the matter, gathered information, and sought counsel from local rabbis and Jewish leaders before issuing an apology. The quick decision to apologize for publishing the engagement of Avi Smolen and Justin Rosen (who, by the way, seem like a very nice couple and will be married by my colleague Rabbi Josh Gruenberg) and then making the statement that the paper will never again run such an announcement turned into a public relations nightmare. It took days until James Janoff, the publisher, issued a retraction of the editor’s statement which said, “The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.”

The engagement announcement of former Camp Ramah in Nyack staffers
Avi Smolen & Justin Rosen, who will be married this month.

In a statement posted to the paper’s website, Janoff said the New Jersey Jewish Standard probably should not have reversed its policy so quickly, “responding only to one segment of the community.” He said he is now holding meetings with local rabbis and community leaders, and will be printing many of the letters “that have been pouring in” on the issue. Without saying that the paper will print same-sex marriage announcements in the future, my sense is that in time they will.

Now on to Carl Paladino, who I’m convinced is a wish that was granted to Jon Stewart for his last birthday. Today’s New York Times reports that the alliance between Republican Carl Paladino and Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, has fallen apart, with the rabbi denouncing Paladino on Wednesday for his apology over remarks he had made about homosexuality on Sunday. It turns out that Rabbi Levin wrote Paladino’s anti-gay speech, so he was obviously angered when Paladino did a 180 and apologized for his “poorly chosen words” and said he would “fight for all gay New Yorkers’ rights” if elected governor.

I’m not really sure how Paladino could be so naive to think that, in the 24-hour news cycle era, his offensive anti-gay remarks wouldn’t be broadcast all over the country within hours. During a meeting with a small Orthodox congregation that was arranged by Rabbi Levin, Paladino said that children should not be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality was acceptable, and then he criticized his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, for marching with his daughters in New York City’s gay pride parade. While his comments obviously went over well with the Hasidic group, they didn’t play very well for the rest of the world.

There are some pretty funny lines in the NY Times story including Rabbi Levin explaining where he was and what he was doing when he learned of Paladino’s apology (emphasis is mine):

Rabbi Levin said he was especially upset that Mr. Paladino gave him no notice that he planned to back away from the comments. “I was in the middle of eating a kosher pastrami sandwich,” Rabbi Levin said. “While I was eating it, they come running and they say, ‘Paladino became gay!’ I said, ‘What?’ And then they showed me the statement. I almost choked on the kosher salami.”

So, was it a kosher pastrami or kosher salami sandwich, Rabbi Levin? And I love how he had to mention that it was “kosher.” Did he think that folks would question whether he was eating a non-kosher sandwich?

The Times then had to clarify that Paladino hadn’t actually become gay (of course):

Mr. Paladino, of course, had not become gay, but had announced that he wanted to clarify that he embraced gay rights and opposed discrimination. In explaining his views, Mr. Paladino and his aides noted that he had a gay nephew who worked for the campaign.

So, what did Rabbi Levin have to say about Paladino’s gay nephew?

“He discovered now he has a gay nephew?” the rabbi said. “Mazel tov! We’ll make a coming-out party!”

So, my question is: If the Hasidic Rabbi Yehuda Levin makes a coming-out party for Carl Paladino’s gay nephew, will the New Jersey Jewish Standard announce it in their paper? You just couldn’t make this stuff up!

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

The Internet’s Effect on Jewish Newspapers

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) likes to think of itself as the Jewish AP. The JTA is a non-profit news service that disseminates the happenings in the Jewish world as soon as they happen. Ideally, they try to scoop all the other news agencies and print media.

The long-time publisher of the JTA, Mark Joffe, stepped down suddenly on July 25 and Ami Eden, who was serving as editor, took the reins. The Jerusalem Post reports that there was more to the JTA’s press release than was reported. “Over the past two decades, US Jewish media and print journalism in general have been in steady decline due to dwindling readership and loss of ad revenue to the Web. When the recession hit two years ago it dealt a devastating blow to an already weakened industry.”

The Jerusalem Post interviewed new JTA publisher Ami Eden, who said that ideas for collaboration among the Jewish print media were percolating and would materialize between 12 and 18 months. “I think it’s clear that most American Jewish newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online. Why should we not try to create a unified Web presence having one big Web site with a team thats constantly keeping it fresh? We clearly could be pulling our technological resources and sharing the Web traffic. If we’re all investing in the same Web traffic, it becomes a great idea,” Eden argued and then, according to the Jerusalem Post, declined to go into further detail.

Bob Goldfarb, president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, writes on the eJewish Philanthropy blog, “The ‘one big Website’ that Eden envisions could similarly be a shared platform operated by a member-owned JTA that preserves the identities of participating local papers while enabling central coordination of content. JTA editors could select stories from member papers that are of national interest and include those in a National News feed on the platform. That would free local editors to focus on local news and lower JTA’s domestic news-gathering costs at the same time. Centralizing site maintenance and advertising sales, while enabling local ad sales and local content control, would reduce costs locally. It also would vastly simplify JTA’s national marketing to readers as well as to advertisers. And owning a stake in the shared platform can be a powerful incentive for newspapers to participate in it.”

As both an avid reader of Jewish newspapers and an uber-connected Web user, I’ve been thinking about many of these issues myself.

I’m a Detroit native and have been reading the since… well, probably since not long after I learned read. For decades it was how I fell asleep on Friday nights. Following Shabbat dinner at my parents’ home, my mother would read the DJN, and then I would take it to bed and fall asleep reading it cover-to-cover beginning with the back pages first (obituaries) as is the local tradition. The prevailing joke was that if you didn’t find your own name in the back pages, you could continue reading the rest of the paper!

The paper contained the local, national and world (mostly Israel) news. It was how we found out about what was going on in the “Jewish world” around us. A few years ago, the paper switched to a Thursday delivery which actually upset many people. Even though we could get the DJN a day earlier, it seemed to upset the rhythm of the week – and the tradition. Now the DJN (laid out like the actual paper in its entirety) is available free to subscribers early Wednesday mornings on the Web. Even though I’m reading it almost a full three days earlier, the news is already stale. By the time the JTA feeds get to the DJN to place in their paper I’ve already gotten that news by e-mail (JTA News Alerts) or read it on the Web at JTA.org or the Forward or NY Jewish Week or even the NY Times. Not to mention the immediate Google Alerts I receive with keywords like “Jewish” and “Israel.”

When I come across these news stories in the DJN’s print paper there have already been updates, changes and resolutions. The local coverage in the Jewish papers is much the same. Because of e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, the flow of information is so quick that the news is old by the time it gets in the paper. Funeral homes send out daily e-mails with death notices, and synagogues, schools, and organizations send out e-mail alerts as soon as a death is reported. By the time the deaths are listed in the paper everyone already knows about it and the funeral has already occurred. Life-cycle events like births, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and anniversaries are announced for free on Facebook which makes the announcements in the paper less exciting to read.

But all of this shouldn’t be spoken about in negative terms. Maybe it is the demise of print media, especially for regional Jewish newspapers, but this should just force everyone involved to think outside-the-box.

I think Ami Eden is on to something. The freshness he brings to JTA should be contagious around the country (and I hope it is). One of the first things Ami does should be convening a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) of all Jewish newspaper editors and publishers to collaborate on his idea of “one big website.” The advertising dollars will be there, I’m sure. This is just another example of how the Internet has removed the borders in the Jewish community. I know I’m not the only Jew who’s already gotten his news by reading the JTA feed and visiting the websites of the Forward, The NY Jewish Week, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post before my local Jewish newspaper even hits my mailbox.

I have great respect for everyone in the Jewish newspaper business, but let’s focus on the future… because it’s here.

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