Alleged Fraud with Tech Fund in Haredi Schools

The importance of increasing access to technology in our schools became a top priority during the Clinton Administration. In that vein, President Clinton and VP Al Gore sought to incorporate technology into the classroom and ensure equal opportunity for students to benefit from technology by creating E-rate. In the years since its creation, these federal grants have helped public and private schools across the country connect to the Internet, increase the number of computers in classrooms, and provide technology training for teachers.

Julie Wiener, a former Detroit Jewish News columnist who is now associate editor of The Jewish Week in New York, recently uncovered potential fraud relating to the E-rate program in ultra-Orthodox schools in New York. In a three-part exposé Wiener, together with special correspondent Hella Winston, explained how several ultra-Orthodox day schools and yeshivas in the New York area have been receiving millions of dollars of technology through the E-rate program, but never actually putting that technology to use in their schools because of their community’s disdain for the internet.

Julie Wiener, associate editor of The Jewish Week, discovered the potential fraud with the E-Rate program.

Wiener’s four-month investigation revealed that of the almost 300 Jewish schools benefiting from E-rate, ten schools (all but one Chasidic) collectively were approved for nearly $9 million in E-rate-funded services in 2011, which amounted to almost one-third of the Jewish total. One yeshiva submitted requests in 2012 for 65 direct connections to the Internet including 40 computers, but no computer or Internet connection were ever installed. Wiener’s investigation also found a disparity in the amount of technology funding the New York area’s ultra-Orthodox schools were receiving. She writes, “While Jewish schools enrolled approximately 4 percent of the state’s K-12 students, they were awarded 22 percent of the state’s total E-rate allocations to schools and libraries.”

After reading the three-part series I had a chance to talk with Wiener about her investigative reporting and what she hopes will happen now that these schools’ alleged misuse of a federal technology fund has become publicized. “I’d like to see more investigation and oversight on the part of the FCC and the USAC [Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees E-Rate], including more audits and actual visits to make sure the equipment that’s actually paid for is being used. I also want more people to know about E-rate. There are more schools that could benefit that haven’t even heard of the program.”

Wiener, who has been writing about Jewish education and technology over the past few years, says she first honed her investigative skills at the Detroit Jewish News in the mid-1990s. She answered some questions about the E-Rate story:

HOW DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT E-RATE?
My colleague Hella Winston, who has done a lot of coverage of the ultra-Orthodox community, got a tip from someone several months ago and then found the E-rate Central site, where all the data is contained. The idea immediately appealed to us, because the Asifa – the May 2012 [Haredi] rally against the Internet – was still fresh in our memories, and also, I had been covering the whole issue of technology in Jewish education and yet had never before heard of E-rate. Initially, it felt overwhelming to go through the enormous amount of data, but fortunately I was taking a class at CUNY Journalism School this fall, which both inspired me to do data-driven articles and empowered me.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS?
We decided early on to narrow our focus to New York State. That’s because this was already an enormous project, and because we are based in New York. We also knew that New York has the largest number of fervently Orthodox schools, and when we started we were unsure if the E-rate application process and rules vary from state to state. It turns out they don’t, but it still made our lives easier to focus on New York. I am hoping other journalists will follow our lead and look at E-rate use in other states with relatively large Jewish populations.

We spent a lot of time researching E-rate online, going through various audits and rulings, and congressional testimony about it. We also researched the schools and service providers online. To learn more about what goes on inside the schools, we spoke with the Jewish Education Project and various alumni of these schools. Hella has a whole network of people who have left or currently live in the community. We were reluctant to approach the schools, or even the E-rate consultants/USAC people until very late in the process, as we were worried someone might tip off the schools, making it difficult for us to obtain information, or even, if there was fraud happening, making a cover-up easier. Also, the program is so complicated and confusing that we wanted to make sure we understood it well before we interviewed anyone.

WHAT RESPONSE HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
Overall the response has been very positive. Many of our readers are horrified that this is happening and concerned about this community – which doesn’t even use the Internet – getting tens of millions of dollars that other schools might make better use of. Assuming that at least some of this money is being misused – and it is hard for me to imagine it is not – this is hardly a victimless crime: USAC denied over $2 billion in requests last year, and for the past few years only the highest-poverty schools have been eligible for Priority 2 services – connections that make it possible to bring the internet into individual classrooms. Also, the money comes from a tax that we all pay into – the Universal Service Fund.

We’ve certainly gotten a number of angry comments from the ultra-Orthodox community – mostly along the lines of, “Why are you always picking on the ultra-Orthodox?” and “Why put this in the papers rather than just notifying the authorities?” There have been very few substantive critiques from the ultra-Orthodox as no one has explained why these schools need such costly tech services or how they are using things.

Yes, E-rate can be used for some non-Internet expenses, but the fact is that these schools are billing a lot of money for the Internet too and some have spent millions of dollars over the years. I find it interesting that none of these schools or service providers will talk to us, that there is no effort to show that they have the equipment they’ve billed E-rate for and how they are using it to benefit their students. Also, we live in a democracy, and the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being spent, particularly nowadays when government coffers are stretched so thin.

DO YOU THINK THERE IS FRAUD?
I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be accused of slander or libel. However, I think that at the very least something inappropriate is happening. It makes no sense why schools that don’t give students access to the Internet – or even, in many cases computers – are disproportionately benefiting from this program, particularly when there are other schools whose needs are not being met. I am also puzzled as to why the USAC and the FCC have allowed this to go on for so long.

I should note that I doubt that, if there is fraud, the money is enriching individuals or going to fund luxuries – my guess is that it is sustaining the fervently Orthodox community which is financially struggling because individuals have very large families and don’t see public school as an option, most receive minimal secular education or career training, and many men study full-time, rather than work. While I sympathize with their need for money, it is not fair to ask the government to subsidize this lifestyle. If they invested in secular education or even considered enrolling in public schools, and if they encouraged people to pursue the training necessary for modern careers, they would be in a very different situation.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL COME OF THIS ARTICLE?
I hope FCC and USAC investigate this matter and seriously audit these institutions – both the service providers and the schools. I also think it’s important for the public to be aware of the E-rate program – something that is little-known outside the circles of IT people at schools – and the Universal Service Fund, particularly at a time when all tax dollars are being increasingly scrutinized.

The Jewish Week’s three-part story on E-Rate and the Ultra-Orthodox schools in New York begins here.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

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

Israel’s The Voice: When Religion Goes Too Far

I always try to be careful to not criticize other’s religious convictions, the way in which they interpret and practice religious law, or the decisions they make about what they cannot do based on their religious practice. I did, however, find it upsetting that a 17-year-old young woman in Israel was suspended from her school for singing on a reality TV show.

At issue was the prohibition on women singing in public that some Jews follow. Kol isha, or “a woman’s voice,” is derived from the Talmud and is one of the laws that fits into the category of ervah (literally “nakedness”). But the issue of a man listening to a woman’s singing voice isn’t so clear cut. While some Jewish legal authorities claim that kol isha applies at all times, others say the prohibition doesn’t apply to a recorded voice. That would be the case on the Israeli version of “The Voice,” a reality TV competition show.

Ophir Ben-Shetreet Israel The Voice
Ophir Ben-Shetreet was being coached by Israeli singer Aviv Geffen

This young Israeli student, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, didn’t seem to have an issue with singing on this TV show and any of the men who felt it posed a threat to their religious convictions had every opportunity to not watch the episode. However, rather than tuning out the rabbis of her religious girls’ high school in Ashdod, Israel, suspended the 12th grader from school for two weeks. Just for singing in public.

An interesting side note in this controversy is that the Israeli Ministry of Education could not allow Ben-Shetreet to officially be punished because there is a rule that says students cannot be punished for performing on a television show. In light of that rule, Ben-Shetreet’s parents had to be the ones initiating the punishment, despite their position that she didn’t do anything wrong.

Again, I do not condone criticizing other’s religious views unless they pose a human rights violation. Certain laws that make women second-class citizens I believe fall into that category. This young woman singing on a television show is her right. The men who feel it is undignified, immodest, or immoral to listen to her beautiful voice have a right to feel that way. And they also have a right to avoid watching or listening to the show. Punishing the young woman for her participation, however, seems wrong and unfair.

The laws of ervah (which include various interpretations of the need for a woman to cover her hair) are not clear cut. There are some religious Jewish communities that would never allow a woman to lead religious services, but wouldn’t object to a woman singing the national anthem or a secular song. In this case, Ben-Shetreet’s participation in the Israeli version of “The Voice” had no effect on her religious day school.

I understand the need for modesty laws in religion and I appreciate any interpretation of any religion that strives for modesty. However, these modesty laws must be kept in check. In Judaism we run the risk of taking these laws too far and then in an effort to be modest, the misinterpretation of the laws cause immoral acts. Banning a female high school student from singing on a reality TV show is certainly an example of this. Ben-Shetreet is a talented young girl with a beautiful voice. Suspending her from school for two weeks in the name of her religion for doing nothing wrong will have negative effects for her and countless other young woman who want to embrace Judaism; not be shunned because of it.

I really liked something that Ben-Shetreet said during an interview on the show. “The Torah wants music to make people happy, and I think it’s possible to do both, which is why I came to the show.”

I couldn’t imagine silencing my daughter from singing in public. I would of course celebrate her solo singing opportunities on stage rather than denigrate her for them. There are many religious laws — not only in Judaism but in other religions as well — that should be respected even if many of us find them problematic. It is when religious laws, like in this case, are used illogically to keep people from attaining their full potential and achieving their goals. No one was going to get hurt by Ophir Ben-Shetreet performing on this reality TV show. But I’m afraid the Jewish religion took a hit because of the decision to punish her.

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

Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

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

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section:

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

Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post

(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

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.

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

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally Against Internet

If Al Gore actually had invented the Internet, as he once claimed, he would be the least popular guy in any ultra-Orthodox neighborhood today. It is clear that the fervently Orthodox Jewish leaders despise the Internet and technology because they’re willing to spend over $1.5 million in a rally against the Internet next month in Queens, New York.

Ever since the Web became popular in the mid-1990s, the ultra-Orthodox community has railed against it. Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim consider the Internet as threatening to their strict way of life. They believe it promotes the ills of society and has the force to steer its devout members off the path of strict religious observance.

In the past, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have attempted to issue a complete ban on Internet use for their members. In some cases their rulings were motivated by the easy availability of pornography on the Web. In other cases rabbis have forbidden Internet use because they consider it a secular act with secular content that will contaminate their communities. Most Haredi rabbis don’t consider the educational advantages of the Internet and tell their students that using technology is a bitul z’man — a waste of time that could be used for religious study.

Many Haredi yeshiva leaders have condemned Internet use in sermons and some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods display posters in the streets promoting the Internet ban. Over the years, there have been attempts in the ultra-Orthodox world to create an alternative Internet so that Haredi adherents could use email and use the Web for religious matters like booking a flight to Israel or purchasing a book. Special “kosher” search engines and web portals, like Koogle, have come and gone over the years in efforts to offer safe Web surfing to pious Jews in Haredi communities.

The Jewish Daily News today reported that tens of thousands of participants will take part in a huge rally on May 20 (Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan) “in order to combat the evils of the Internet and damage of advanced devices.” Presumably by “devices” they mean mobile technology like smartphones and tablets. A rally organizer told the Jewish Daily News that the rally will be the largest in the history of Orthodox Jewry in the United States. While it was originally reported that the rally will be held in Shea Stadium, the organizers quickly corrected that as the New York Mets’ former ballpark doesn’t exist anymore. The former site of Shea Stadium is now the parking lot for the new Citi Field.

While there’s just no telling just how many ultra-Orthodox Jews will actually show up at the May 20th rally against the Internet and technology, it is a safe bet that the event won’t be live tweeted or depicted with Instagram photos — at least not by the very people rallying against such technologies. Personally I can’t imagine how the organizers will ever begin to promote an event of this magnitude without the help of Facebook or other social networks… or how those wishing to attend the rally will find it without the help of Mapquest or Google Maps!

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

Warren Buffett Invests in Chametz

Usually when Warren Buffett makes a deal it is the big news of the day on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. But the Oracle of Omaha’s recent deal probably won’t get much attention and it certainly won’t have to be reported to the Security and Exchange Committee.

The Omaha World-Herald reported today that Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue in West Omaha chose Warren Buffett to be the non-Jewish buyer of the congregant’s chametz (leavened food products that are forbidden on Passover). Buffett, at 81-years-old, is the third-richest man in the world with a $44 billion net worth according to the recent Forbes list of billionaires.

Warren Buffett accepts the four 50-cent pieces from Rabbi Jon Gross during the chametz sale.

While Jews are required to rid their homes, offices and automobiles of all chametz products, there is a “legal fiction” that allows Jews to “sell” leavened goods that can’t be thrown away to a non-Jew who then sells the goods back following the holiday. A rabbi usually serves as the agent who transacts the deal on behalf of the congregation or community.

Before transacting the chametz deal with Buffett, Rabbi Gross explained the custom to the famous investor and head of Berkshire Hathaway Holdings. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gross said, “Price is low before Passover. Price is high afterward. It’s a great short-term investment. So who would really appreciate this better than Warren Buffett?”

“The beauty of being an agnostic is that you are in no position to make any judgment about anything,” Buffett said in an interview. “You can join in on anything.”

Buffett said he decided to participate because the annual pre-Passover chametz sale is “a ceremony of enormous importance to Jews.” The only problem with Rabbi Gross’ planned arrangement with Buffett was that Passover begins this year at sunset on April 6 and due to his busy schedule, Buffett wanted to meet in late February (six weeks before Passover). Gross decided to keep the meeting with Buffett, because he wanted to raise awareness about the need for donations to the Food Bank for the Heartland.

To complete the ceremonial chametz sale Rabbi Gross gave Warren Buffett four 50-cent pieces along with a bottle of single-malt Scotch, a loaf of home-baked challah bread, and Buffett’s favorite snack, a bag of Cheetos (which incidentally aren’t kosher, but Gross wrote on his blog: “Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.”). Gross also handed Buffett two sets of keys — one to Beth Israel Synagogue and one to Gross’ west Omaha home, where the box and drums of food are kept. (Buffett agreed to donate the food to the food bank.)

The Oracle of Omaha and the west Omaha rabbi shook hands to complete the deal and Buffett even returned the 50-cent coins to the rabbi. He joked that now that he knows the asking price — four coins — he’ll bargain down to two coins next year. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? This is a great investment,” Buffett said. “I could have been doing this for years.”

Rabbi Myer Kripke with Rabbi Jonathan Gross in Omaha, Nebraska

Gross, an Orthodox rabbi, also included Rabbi Myer Kripke in the purchase agreement with Buffett and brought the 98-year-old rabbi along with him to Buffett’s office. Rabbi Kripke is a retired Conservative rabbi who has been friends with Buffett for over 50 years, since the time they were were neighbors in Dundee. Rabbi Kripke’s late wife, Dorothy, wrote a children’s book series entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and Warren Buffett’s wife loved to read those books to her children. When she learned the author lived close by in Dundee she wanted to meet her. That is how the Kripkes and Buffets became dear friends. In the 1960s Buffett had the Kripke’s invest a small inheritance they had received from a relative in Berkshire Hathaway and from that investment they became millionaires many times over. That fortune allowed Myer and Dorothy Kripke to donate $10 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary to rebuild the tower under which the couple had been married decades earlier. That tower, which originally housed the Seminary’s library was severely damaged in a fire in 1966. Today it is known as the Kripke Tower.

On a personal note, Rabbi Kripke was very helpful in connecting me with Warren Buffett in 2009 when my uncle was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I called Rabbi Kripke and told him how wonderful it would be if my uncle could play a round of golf at Augusta National where Mr. Buffett is a member. Within ten minutes I received a call from Mr. Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek, who told me that she just asked Mr. Buffett (who was on a trans-Atlantic flight at the time) and he explained that Augusta National members were no longer allowed to grant such requests. Well, at least I tried and I’ll always be grateful to Rabbi Kripke for his assistance.

Back to Rabbi Gross and his chametz sale to Warren Buffett. I think this was an absolutely brilliant idea that Rabbi Gross had because it will make the sale of chametz more widely known. Perhaps because of Warren Buffett’s connection with this story, more Jews will make the effort to rid their homes of chametz before the Passover holiday and ensure that they include their name in their synagogue’s chametz sale.

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

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

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