Monthly Archives: January 2012

Modern Orthodox Religious Zionists Seek a Public Voice

On Wednesday, February 1, 2012 in Natanya non-hardal religious Zionist leaders will meet to inaugurate Beit Hillel, a new organization dedicated to voicing the opinions of the non-Hardal religious Zionist on key issues facing Israel.

The new group was first announced last week in an article in Srugim.

The group was formed in response to increasing concern that extremist ultra-orthodox rabbis and settler leaders were becoming the public voice of national religious Judaism. A large number of national religious did not agree with their views on women, the IDF, and the state. According to one of the founders, Rabbi Chaim Navon, leader of the Shimshoni congregation in Modi’in, “To our great sorrow, religious Zionism is split, but only one faction’s voice was being heard. We are the voice of the other part, that hasn’t been sufficiently heard.”

Beit Hillel will give voice to religious Zionists who believe in “women’s empowerment, oppose discrimination and racism, support democracy, see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society and are loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions, including the IDF, the police, and the courts.”

Women will play a significant role in Beit Hillel. The founder, Oshra Koren, is a woman and women will be given an equal vote in the organizations decisions. Congregational rabbis will play a dominant role, reflecting a religious Zionism that accounts for the needs of families. Existing religious Zionist organizations representing the national religious tend to be dominated by yeshiva rabbis.

Ten rabbis joined with Oshra Koren to start Beit Hillel.  Among the ten are Ohad Tehar-Lev, Amnon Bazek, Tzachi Hershkowitz, , Ronen Lubitz , Chaim Navon .   The group has been quickly adding members to this core group.  As of the end of January, the new group includes 110 rabbis, 30 women Torah scholars, and rabbinic wives who have developed a reputation as community leaders.

Many of the rabbis are also involved in Tzohar. However, Tzohar has decided to stay politically neutral. The rabbis have joined this new group because they want an opportunity to take an active role in the future of the state.

Malka Bina, founder of Matan; Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petach Tivka Hesder Yeshiva, and Daniel Hershkowitz, minister of Science and Technology will all address the founding conference on February 1. One of the first projects planned for the new organization is a Beit Midrash that will develop responsa to address the halachic issues raised by women’s public voice and face.

For more information on the conference see the Beit Hillel Website:


Categories: Building a Just Israel, Signs of Progress | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Shaike Levi: The Voice of Women

Shaike Levy, an Israeli comedian, singer, and actor, has written a new song to protest efforts to walkouts and banning of women singers.

Earlier, in fall 2011, several men walked out of military ceremony against commanders orders because a woman appeared on stage. The army dismissed five soldiers who refused to apologize. The strong reaction of the army stirred a national debate on the role of women. This was just one of many incidents where men have walked out rather than hear women sing. There have also been many incidents where women have been prevented from taking the stage. Those who walk out say they are doing so for religious reasons, lest they be lustful towards the voice of a woman. Those who are offended, point out that such an attitude denies the humanness of women and reduces their value to a sex object. It implies that the only significant male reaction to women is sexual. No matter how value or important a women’s voice and message are, it pales in significance to her sexuality.

I hear an argument
Is this a country of Jews or Saudi Arabia?
I am really not at all sure….

The voice of women, voice of women
Oy, it is wonderous
Give me the voice over and over

When God is alone
And there are no rabbis near by
In the modern loud speakers?
Then who is there?
The voice of women…

And when the singer appears on stage
And the audience scatters like goats
The God raises God’s eyebrows, God does not understand
What is wrong? ….

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Gender Segregation | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Watching Birds at the Kotel

by Jonah Rank, cross-posted with permission from Jonah Rank on WordPress

Editor’s note: Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל ) is an international group of Jewish women who are working to grant women the right to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel. Each month on Rosh Hodesh they gather early in the morning to pray at the Kotel.

"White Birds", by Ayelet

The Scene

Men praying in the Men’s section specifically with Women of the Wall were few. I only counted one friend of mine and myself.

It was a cold, windy morning with a slight drizzle. This means the weather wasn’t clear enough for the reappearance of the guy who shouted some angry polemics at me last month. Nobody bothered to substitute for him.

I stood fairly close to the mechitzah (partition) that divides the men from the women. I was able to hear the women’s voices just clearly enough to sing along from my side of the Wall.

No one stopped me. I was permitted by all.

Today was the first time I’ve prayed with Women of the Wall without talking to a single police officer or curious onlooker. I felt a greater sense of freedom today than I have ever felt at the Wall.

The Birds

Amidst this quietude and liberty, my friend Sam pointed out to me a whole collective of birds watching over us as we prayed.

Contemplating those birds seated at the top of the Wall before us, my mind immediately turned to all those birds intermittently referenced in the Psalm for Rosh Chodesh (Psalm 104): “Alongside them, the birds of the sky dwell, and amidst the foliage, they give voice;” (verse 12), “thereupon birds nest, and, for the stork, the cypresses are her home” (verse 17).

The Psalm for Rosh Chodesh envelopes the worshiper with flora and fauna from all over the natural world as the human choir joins a choir of birds.

The Dream

Reflecting on the chirping birds above and the officers presiding almost invisibly in the back, I find increasingly profound inspiration in Sam’s musing.

Today, I felt my actions were carefully watched by neither police officers nor other men. I was just there. Praying. With birds.

If anyone other than the Divine needs to watch me in my prayer, and if I need to be aware of their presence, I hope that they won’t always be police officers.

Today was quiet enough to give me hope that maybe one day we won’t need policing at the Wall. Maybe we won’t need to fear there that one Jew will hurt another because of our differences. Maybe the only ones who will come to watch us at the Kotel will be birds.

It might be a Messianic dream, but I don’t think we’re too far away.

After all, wouldn’t that be a real Rosh Chodesh?

Jonah Rank is a musician and a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary currently studying at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. His writing appears on his personal website, Oholiav: A Community for Viewing Arts & Entertainment Through a Jewish Lens (which Jonah co-founded), and elsewhere.

Categories: Moments of Hope | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Occupy Haagen-Dazs?

by Sid Slivko, cross-posted with permission from Got Talmud?

Two weeks ago, the Israel Rabbinate ruled that Haagen Dazs ice cream is no longer kosher. The reason: Haagen Dazs is made with real milk processed by non-Jews.  And while this may be kosher enough for the Orthodox Union (OU) which provides Haagen Dazs’ with its kashrut certification, it’s not sufficient for the Israel Rabbinate.

This is not the first time the Rabbinate has clashed with Diaspora rabbis in recent history .

In 2006, my wife, Michele Chabin, broke the story in the New York Jewish Week that the Israel Rabbinate would no longer automatically recognize Orthodox conversions from the Diaspora.  The Rabbinate demanded that Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora prove that they and their conversions met the criteria and standards set by the Rabbinate.  This unilateral decision, which took the Orthodox rabbis by surprise, meant that even those rabbis ordained by the most prestigious Orthodox institutions and respected in their communities, now needed the Israeli Rabbinate’s approval.

Two years later, after a series of frustrating negotiations, between the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Israeli Rabbinate, an arrangement was finally worked out which stipulated that  only those Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora that receive the official approval of  the Bet Din of America will be recognized by the Israel Rabbinate.  Furthermore, only those Diaspora rabbis on the Israel Rabbinate’s ‘short list’ would be authorized to do conversions. Those who were not could find their conversions disqualified by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel  – even retroactively – unless they could prove that their conversions met the standards set by the Rabbinate!

Why does this matter?  Because the Rabbinate is afraid that these Orthodox converts or their children will eventually come to,  and possibly seek to get married in, Israel — a very likely possibility.  And how can they possibly endorse a marriage when the bride or groom may not be Jewish according to their standards? (Remember, the Rabbinate has sole authority over Jewish weddings and divorces).

So, the Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora gave the Israel Rabbinate the keys to the kingdom.

Not everybody has been happy with this arrangement.   Even in Israel, the number of “dati” couples who turn to Itim and Tzohar – organizations that provide religious services and support outside the Rabbinate – is on the rise.  Today, in 2012, imposition of Israel Rabbinate standards on Diaspora communities, which the Rabbinate called “leShem Shamayim” – for the sake of heaven, has alienated a significant Jewish population and fragmented a global Jewish community that just cannot afford to be divided.

So what will be the Diaspora rabbis’ response to this ice cream freeze-out? Fight?  Give in?  Wait for the Israel Rabbinate to force its decision on Jewish communities around the world?  Occupy Haagen Dazs?

Talmudic tradition shows that these Israel/Diaspora rabbi wars go quite far back, and offers the following sound byte which seems aptly ironic:

אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא: תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם, שנאמר כל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך, אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך. שלום רב לאהבי תורתך ואין למו מכשול; יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך; למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך למען בית ה’ אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך;ה’ עז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום. (ברכות סד:א).

Rabbi Elazar said “Disciples of the Sages increase the peace in the world. As it says ‘All your children shall be taught of the Lord and great shall be the peace of your children [banayikh].  Do not read banayikh but bonayikh  [your builders]” – namely, rabbis.  (Berakhot 64a)

The Rabbi Elazar quoted here is Elazar ben Pedat, a Diaspora scholar who moved to Israel.  At first, his Diaspora behavior did not find favor among his colleagues in Tiberias, but he gained their respect and eventually became the head of the academy there.

Perhaps one day the Israel Rabbinate  will recognize that the their  Diaspora colleagues are no less learned than they are — maybe even in our generation —  and are responding legitimately and halakhically to a need the Israel Rabbinate just cannot appreciate.

Sid Slivko is an Orthodox Rabbi and Jewish educator living in Jerusalem, Israel. He studied and received ordination from Yeshiva University and the REITS rabbinical program

Categories: Diaspora and Israel, Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Abandon the Rhetoric of Tomorrow

by Aner Shalev, cross-posted with permission from HaAretz

"Tomorrow's Starting Now", painting by Sarah Hinckley

"Tomorrow's Starting Now", oil on canvas, by Sarah Hinckley

What do the following statements have in common? The Tal Law (which allows full-time yeshiva students to defer national service ) should be extended by five years. The Tal Law should be extended by one year. Israel will present its position on borders at the end of the three months given by the European Union. Israel will present its position on borders after security arrangements are agreed by both sides. Medical residents will receive their full wage increment in nine years. Yes, all of these statements involve the future.

In our post-ideological times, it’s great to be exposed to a powerful ideological dispute, just like in the good old days. What’s more, this dispute involved major figures, the prime minister and the defense minister, on a subject of the highest principle – whether to extend the Tal Law by five years or one year. At this point, the prime minister dropped his maximalist position and preferred to postpone any discussion on the matter.

The Tal Law is but one of a long series of benefits the government grants to the ultra-Orthodox. As well as this sweeping exemption from military service, enshrined in an infuriating law passed by the government of Ehud Barak, Haredi schools are exempt from the core curriculum. Then there are the cash benefits: allowances to yeshiva students and children, welfare payments, affordable housing, huge discounts in municipal taxes, and more.

The state’s subsidizing of the ultra-Orthodox exacts a huge cost from us, an issue that has been widely discussed. It is a loss that grows with the ever-increasing Haredi population, and pushes Israel closer to the abyss. What is less known, but no less important, is that the Haredi population also pays a heavy price for the reverse discrimination it receives from the authorities.

A comparison of the socioeconomic status of ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel and New York is illuminating in this regard, and fascinating conclusions may be drawn. Haredi groups are not offered special subsidies or easier conditions there, and yet the ultra-Orthodox population is flourishing. While most Haredim in Israel – despite, or perhaps because of, the benefits heaped upon them – suffer poverty and many other hardships.

Indeed, the lack of a core curriculum severely impairs the wage-earning abilities of those wishing to work, and the various allowances encourage dependence, passiveness, unemployment and increased numbers of children, all of which prevent Haredim in Israel from thriving like their brethren in New York. Vocational training in certain fields, which military service sometimes provides, is also denied to most Haredim.

The abnormal relations between the state and the Haredi population is damaging to both sides. And yet it seems that this discrimination, harmful to all, will go on; that the Haredim will never enter the job market despite the recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee (which suggested new incentives and training programs ); and that the Tal Law will be extended repeatedly, with the only ideological conflict being whether to extend it every year or once every five years.

Similarly, Israel will probably never present the Palestinians with its position on borders, because prior agreement on security arrangements will never be attained, or the date for drawing the proposed borderline will be postponed ad nauseam. The future is politicians’ warm, safe shelter.

In his book “The Invention of Tomorrow,” Daniel S. Milo argues that the concept of the future is what makes the human race unique and defines it. Other species have no such concept; they live only in the present. The invention of the future has allowed the human race to develop quickly and take control of the world, but it is also a source of humanity’s suffering and unsolved problems.

Our politicians contribute generously to this suffering. What differentiates them from the rest of the population, and puts them at the top of the evolutionary chain, is that they, almost exclusively, use the future tense. Therefore, they will never solve our problems. Without change now, we have no future.

Aner Shalev is a math professor, novelist, and a social commentator.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Calls to Action | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Mikveh and the State: Who Decides Who’s In and Who’s Out?

by Aliza Kline, cross-posted with permission from The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building

Mikveh is in the news here in Israel. Not regarding the battle of allowing Reform and Conservative clergy to bring conversion candidates to the mikveh – though that’s still ongoing in the courts. This is a new case that could have far reaching consequences – though for me it raises a number of fundamental questions about the “Jewish” part of Israel’s democracy.

The case is described here in an article in Haaretz, Israel’s version of the New York Times. In short, Israeli Orthodox single women are petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court asking to remove restrictions on mikveh usage by single (not married / divorced / widowed – I’ll add in lesbian) women. Attorney Susan Weiss filed on behalf of two young women and The Center for Women’s Justice (which she founded) and the Orthodox feminist group Kolech. Both of these organizations are heroic – determined to support the rights of women in both religious and secular spheres – not an easy task in today’s Israel.

We don’t know much about the individual petitioners except that they are single and that they were turned away by the balaniot (mikveh attendants) explicitly for not being married. They have not clarified their reasons for immersing and, in fact, argue that they need not divulge their personal reasons. One woman, Pliah Oryah, a 19-year-old who immerses monthly, often covers her hair to appear like a married woman when she goes to the mikveh to avoid questions.

There are a number of online discussions – on Facebook especially – disputing that mikveh attendants inquire about marital status. Once when I was going to immerse, a mikveh attendant in the States asked me the name of my husband. Though I had “the right answer” I still remember a brief moment of panic wondering if I would raise suspicion when I shared that we have different last names, or if they’d know he is a Reform rabbi. My thoughts were totally irrational- as is the whole situation.

First – mikvaot are pools of water. That’s it. There are carefully designed collection pools to ensure just the right amount of mayyim hayyim – living or naturally collected water. But once the water is collected and the pools are maintained, as they should be, the immersion of one person has no effect on that of another. Mikvaot have the status of lo mkabel tumah – that is they cannot be made ritually impure.

But that’s not the issue here. The official Israeli Rabbinate, which oversees religious life in Israel, knows all about how mikvaot are built and maintained. We are not talking about halakha (Jewish law), we are talking about control.

The case before the Israeli Supreme Court argues that mikvaot are public resources, paid for by taxes, and therefore should be open to all citizens of Israel, regardless of marital status. It’s a good point and a fascinating case.

However, I am interested in a different question. Should the mikvaot be public resources paid for by taxes in the first place? Should mikveh attendants be government employees (they are currently on the lowest rung of public service)?

What would happen if mikvaot were privatized? There are a number of private Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) mikvaot. In some cases these are much nicer and more accessible to physically handicapped women. In these communities mikveh is a high priority – though to be sure – the use of these mikvaot is strictly limited to women observing the laws of niddah (there are separate mikvaot for men to immerse before Shabbat and holidays). When they are private, they can set their own policies regarding access.

When mikvaot are public – they must be open to everyone. But the Rabbinate is not interested in everyone. It is not interested in creating a welcoming and inviting space that honors the women seeking to immerse. It is interested in setting boundaries; in enforcing its increasingly narrow view of “legitimate” ritual observance.

I am working with a few groups of women and men interested in creating a new model for mikveh in Israel. One that is not under the Rabbinate, one that can create its own policies – and one that seeks to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. Starting by not asking questions of the immersees, except perhaps, “Is there anything I can do to make your experience more meaningful?”

We have our work cut out for us. In the meantime, we will watch this case closely. We will support training of Israeli mikveh attendants to raise their stature among public servants. We will use this blog to help raise awareness that there are options for women, and men, seeking to immerse openly, for their own reasons, without disguise.

Aliza Kline, Founding Executive Director, has led Mayyim Hayyim from its initial stages, overseeing fund raising, publicity, design, construction, staffing, recruiting volunteers, and board development. In May, 2009, Aliza was awarded an AVI CHAI Fellowship (best described as the “Jewish MacArthur Genius Grant”) in recognition of her accomplishments, creativity and commitment to the Jewish people

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Why a Revised Tal Law is Not Enough

Simply coming up with new law to replace the Tal law is not enough. One also must change heart, mind, and process that guides the making and enforcing of law. Otherwise there will be no end to the creative end-runs around whatever law is passed.

David Ben Gurion

In the early days of the state, Ben Gurion made a deal with certain Jewish communities. Ben Gurion exempted yeshiva students from army service in exchange for their community’s agreement not to interfere with the newly formed state.

No formal law was passed to enshrine the deal. Rather the government simply granted automatic army deferrments to yeshiva students until they were eithr too old to serve in the army or were legally exempt through parenthood.

In 1997 the Israeli supreme court ruled that ad hoc administrative deferrments were illegal. The government either had to pass a formal law exempting yeshiva students from the army or else induct them on the same terms as students studying in secular schools. Other ethnic groups with army exemptions, were exempt by law. If he Haredim also wanted to be exempt, a law making them exempt had to be passed.

In the late 1990’s there was considerable opposition to a law that gave a permanent blanket deferrment for army students. The Tal law was designed as a compromise bill. Non yeshiva students would be drafted. Howver, genuine yeshiva students would be allowed to continue their talmudic studies up until age 23. After that point they would join the army for a short period, learn vocational skills, leave the army, and join the work force. Army service and work would help the Haredim be self-supporting and integrate into wider society, thus building a stronger economy and national identity.

At least that was the way it was sold to the general Israeli public. The reality however was quite different. Continue reading

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It Is Time

by Dov Lipman, cross-posted with permission from the Jerusalem Post

It is time for Introspection

It is time for genuine soul searching among the haredi leadership. The progression seen in the last few months is inexcusable. First, mainstream haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis refused to condemn the verbal and sometimes physical assaults on children at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh. Activists met with rabbis of various hassidic sects and tried to put together a coalition of haredi rabbis against the violence.

While some privately expressed anger over what was happening, none was willing to join.

Religious Zionist rabbis denounced the violence in a strongly worded letter, which the local haredi rabbis refused to sign. The moderate haredi Tov Party joined in demonstrations and spoke out against the violence, but the activists failed to generate the unified response from all haredi leaders that was needed to heal the open wounds and confront the extremists.

Then, the haredi leadership invented an “anti-haredi” campaign. Continue reading

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Praying for Contemporary Captives

By Avi Shafran, cross-posted from Cross-Currents with permission.

It was over a decade ago, in the wake of a spate of terrible terrorist attacks on Jews in Eretz Yisrael, that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah called upon Jews to recite chapters of Tehillim (they suggested chapters 83, 130, and 142) in shul after davening, followed by the short prayer “Acheinu”, a supplication to G-d to show mercy to His people. Many shuls, to their great credit, to this day still dutifully seize that special merit at the end of their services. None of us can know what dangers that collective credit may have averted, may be averting still.

It occurred to me, though, that recent events might well inspire us—not only those of us Jews who look to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah for guidance, but all good-hearted Jews, charedi, “modern Orthodox,” non-Orthodox, “traditional,” and secular-minded alike—to consider reciting the holy words with special concentration, and the short prayer with an additional, somewhat different, intent.

For we have witnessed of late… Continue reading

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From Midat Hasid to Midat S’dom

by Sid Slivko, cross-posted with permission from Got Talmud.

Editor’s Note: Deja Vu. Although this essay was written in the middle of Chanuka (Dec 27, 2011) in response to a media expose that showed the trauma created for a little girl who was spit on an cursed as a prostitute by adult men, it is especially pertinent today. Yesterday, January 24, there was an escalation of violence when a mob stood by while a woman was attacked with not just words and spit, but stones and bleach.

In about an hour, thousands of people will converge on Beit Shemesh to protest the behavior of certain self-styled Haredim who have been polarizing the community. They and their fellow fanatics have recently dominated the headlines in the Israeli media these last few weeks by their misogynist actions, such as erecting mehitzot (dividers) on sidewalks to separate men and women pedestrians or holding up buses when women refuse to sit in the back. But the big rallying point that made all the media happened last week when one of the men spit on an eight year-old Orthodox girl going to her religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh.

Now, I live in the Ba’aka neighborhood of Jerusalem where my two nine year old boys attend the religious school across the street. I don’t worry about them being harassed. But I do worry about is that these intolerant ignorami have successfully Talibanized Judaism. Not only are the Haredi religious leaders themselves afraid to voice opposition but even our own chief rabbinate is staying silent.

It reminds me of the story cited by Rabbi Yochanan in Masechet Gittin (54b). Rabbi Yochanan explains that the second temple was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (You can read the story in Wikipedia by clicking here ). And while ultimately Rabbi Yochanan lays the blame on an overly pious Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolus who refused to accept the less radical solutions of the majority of rabbis regarding Ceasar’s tainted sacrifice, the real blame rests on the rabbis and scholars who were at the party where Bar Kamtza was humiliated and remained silent.

Today, in Beit Shemesh, and in other places in Israel, we have examples of both parts of the tale. First, we have a fanatical minority imposing its standards on a majority afraid to act in its defense. And each victory brings increasing demands, each one more outrageous than the last. Meanwhile, we wait for the religious leaders to do something to stop it — which they haven’t. (Notwithstanding the defensive statement of Beit Shemesh Haredim released earlier distancing itself from these violent acts but blaming the media, we have nothing official from that community or any other religious community). In fact, just this week, a neighborhood synagogue which prides itself on its open, modern Orthodox image announced it was hosting a Hanukah puppet show for young children stipulating that only mothers could attend — no fathers welcome. It’s as if our leaders are afraid of what the fanatic minority will do to them!

Meanwhile, a popular video interview with one of the Beit Shemesh fanatics has gone viral. In it, the man explains that it is right and proper to spit on little girls who fo not comply with his community’s standards. The bar is rising with nobody to keep it at an attainable level.

The Mishnah in Avot states that one who says ”What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” is evil. Those who cloak their coercion in the guise of piety and force their standards on others are doing just that. But more importantly, the Mishnah also tells us that one who says “What’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine” is a Sodom type. If we do nothing to stop this we are the Sodom type.

The same can be said of silent Rabbinic leaders.

Let’s not be like that. Let’s be like the one in the Mishnah who says”What’s mine is yours and what’s your is yours.” The Mishnah calls him a “hasid” — pious and generous. Let’s be like that. Let’s give our strength and support whichever way we can, to the ones who are victimized by this kind of antisocial behavior.

Sid Slivko is an Orthodox Rabbi and Jewish educator living in Jerusalem, Israel. He studied and received ordination from Yeshiva University and the REITS rabbinical program

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