Monthly Archives: February 2012

What’s Your Purim Costume Going To Be?

Categories: To Be a Jew | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Holy Sites and Violence: A War of Symbols

For the last two weeks the Temple Mount, churches, and several key graves in Israel and the West Bank have been the focus of tension, fears, and minor violence.

The Temple Mount

For the lat few weeks, the Al Aqsa Foundation for Waqf and Heritage, the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and Muslim leaders such as Ekrema Sabri, have been beating the drums, expressing fears that Jews will desecrate or take over the Temple Mount.

Muslim fears aren’t coming out of thin air. Two weeks ago around the time of Moshe Feiglin’s usual monthly attempt to enter the temple mount, unknown parties distributed flyers in the Old City calling on people “to purify the temple mount from the enemies of Israel”. Feiglin denied any involvement in the pamphlets, but the timing of the pamphlets aggravated an already tense situation. Then Monday night this week, a home with right wing extremist documents discussing the Temple Mount were discovered in a home in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

The police have worked with officials on the Temple Mount to prevent riots and personal injury, but their actions have been criticized on both the Arab and the Jewish side. On Sunday, Feb 12, the temple mount was closed to Jews. This sparked outrage by certain religious Jews and prompted the Zionist Organization of Amrica (ZOA) to send a letter to the Israeli government on Monday, Feb 13. Continue reading

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Extremism | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Supreme Court: Tal Law Cannot be Renewed, Fails Proportionality Standard

Today the Israeli High Court of Justice, the Israeli equivalent of the US Supreme Court, ruled that the Tal Law is “unconstitutional” because it does not fairly distribute the burden of mandatory military service.

The Tal Law, originally passed in 2002, must be renewed every five years. It was designed as an answer to a 1997 High Court ruling that the practice of giving ad hoc administrative exemptions to Haredim was illegal. Israel must either pass a law that officially exempts Haredim or else develop a scheme by which all Israelis share the burden of national service, whether Haredi or not.

The law required all Israelis to serve in the army, but allowed full time Talmud students to defer their service until age 23. In practice this meant that many never served at all. Ultra-Orthodox men typically marry at a young age. By the time students had reached age 23 they were married with children. Outside of national emergencies, married men with children are normally exempt. By contrast, people who were not full time Yeshiva students started serving at age 17, long before marriage and children would have exempted them. Thus the law gave a de facto exemption that applied almost exclusively to children raised in ultra-orthodox environments.

The High Court voted 6-3 to declare the Tal Law illegal. The outgoing court President,  Dorit Beinisch, was among the six.  The three dissenting   judges were  Eliezer Rivlin, Edna Arbel, and the  incoming High Court President Asher Grunis.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Independence),  MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima), and MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima)  all welcomed the decision.  All had three had been active in opposing renewal of the law earlier this month.   According to the Forward, Barak concurred with the courts assessment that the law had failed in its goal of ensuring that the burden of service was equally shared:

The Tal Law, after ten years, did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the required changes in all aspects concerning equally sharing the burden and expanding the number of citizens who undertake the civilian obligations.

Today’s ruling is a response to a 2007 petition filed against the Tal Law by the Movement for Quality Government, attorney Yehuda Ressler, former Shinui MK and minister Avraham Poraz, former Meretz MK Ran Cohen, and and attorney Itay Ben-Horin from the Forum for Equality in the Burden of Military Service.

Last month the High Court heard arguments in the case and warned that the government needed to show proof that the burden of military service was equally distributed. If it could not, the Tal Law would fail to meet the “proportionality test” and be declared illegal. Israel’s laws must conform to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. The proportionality test requires that the benefits of the law must outweigh any harm that the law causes to the principal of equality demanded by the Basic Law.

This is most likely not the end of legislative attempts to exempt Haredim from national service. The Times of Israel reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Knesset to draft a revised law that will give Haredi men exemptions from the IDF.

Shas has also expressed hopes that a new law can be found. AP and the Jewish Chronicle both reported Yakov Betzalel, Shas party spokesman saying that he does not see the court decision triggering any sort of coalition crisis. According to AP, “he was confident seminary students would continue to pursue religious studies rather than serve, and expressed hope a new military exemption deal would be struck that would meet the court’s standards.”

The Tal Law has sparked considerable debate since it was first passed in 2002. For a fuller discussion of its history and the objections to it, see “Why a Revised Tal Law is Not Enough”.

Last updated: 3:10pm, 2012-02-22

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

Haifa, Eilat have Buses on Shabbat: Is Tel Aviv Next?

Tel Aviv is taking the first steps in a battle to provide public transportation in Tel Aviv on Jewish holidays and Shabbat.  For the last two  Shabbatot Israel Hofshit has been staging protests at bus stops around town. Protesters stand waiting for buses that never come, bearing signs demanding that Tel Aviv provide its citizen with the option of public transportation.  When Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai saw the first of the protests, he began sharing them on his Facebook page making supportive comments.   Last week, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai came out publicly to the media in support of the idea.   Then on Monday night the Council voted 13-7 in favor of a proposal to set up a Shabbat bus service. Continue reading

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Chocolate at Twice the Price: Strauss-Elite Boycott Planned for Purim

In economics it is called “geographic price discrimination”. Buy a Pesek Zman candybar in the USA and you’ll pay NIS 2.70 ($0.69). Buy a Pesek Zman candybar in the UK and you will pay NIS 3.85 (65p). Buy the same candybar in Israel and you will pay anywhere from NIS 5.50 to NIS 6.29, dependingon the store.

Even retailers can’t get the price paid by the American consumer: Strauss-Elite sells the candybar to Israeli stores themselves at NIS 3.50. It refuses to say what the wholesale price is abroad. However, it appears to be much less. HaAretz interviewed the owner of a New Jersey store, Amira. He says that he is buying the Pesek Zman candy bars from a distributor and is still making a profit at his regular price of NIS 2.70($0.69).

The price discrimination came to light over the weekend when Yoav Rokach-Penn posted a photo of the Pesek Zman candybar on his facebook page. On the left side of the photo was Mega’s online shopping page for the candy bar; on the right was the store shelf at a Shoprite in New Jersey with the price clearly marked.

Taking Action

In response to the photo a group of mothers who had protested Strauss prices early last summer sent a letter of complaint to Strauss. The letter demanded that Strauss lower its prices immediately. Failing that the mothers planned to organize a boycott starting on March 1. Continue reading

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

Kletzmer Wedding Dance: Briogaz Tanz (Dispute Dance)

Interviewer: What is this about?

The Band: The Two guys they go to make a fight.

Interviewer: Why fight? Is it over love or romance or what?

The Band: Ooo. It’s many reasons. Because they are Jewish friends. You know, Jewish friends cannot be unless you fight with them from time to time. And then he kills him. And to bring him back to life are the songs. And then they are friends forever….you can see …. until next time.

Despite all the tensions we find between Jews of different streams and sects, may the music of our souls always bring us back each other in peace.

Categories: Moments of Hope | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The Limits and Necessity of Knowing: Two Stories of the Gur Hassidim

Haredim walking by parked cars on Shabbat

by Ehud (Creative Commons License - Attribution Required)

At the beginning of February, HaAretz posted a lenghty piece discussing the results of Nava Wasserman’s study of sexual practices and gender relations in the Gur Hassidi. The article cast the extreme separation between men and women in the Gur community as a search for sanctity. As strange as the community practices might be to outsiders, they had beauty and purpose to insiders, even when they caused pain.

The next week HaAretz ran a second article on the Gur community. Very few human endevors come without a cost, yet the article, and perhaps the study itself, made little mention of the cost. The article focused on those who found the Gur lifestyle hard and painful. Some of them stayed in the community and some left. Both men and women talked about the hole in their lives left by lack of affection and negitive attitudes towards sexuality.

These two articles, each presenting a different side of the story, raise serious questions about what it means to know a community. How much do we really know about the Gur or any closed community? More importantly, how much do we need to know to function in Israel as a single inclusive society? And how can we create that knowing given the closed nature of certain Haredi communities? Continue reading

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Sexual Harassment: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff?

There are rarely times I am dumbfounded by an editorial, but this one leaves me wondering. Today Herb Kenon wrote an editorial: “Analysis: Eshel case will fade, but questions remain”. He seems to presume that Eshel has gone only because he is a liability; R. must be silent because she wasn’t really harassed since she refused to file a complaint or testify; and the three people who filed complaints against him will be fired because they betrayed a long time friend of Netanyahu. Then he asks:

… is this really the time the prime minister wants to conduct a major overhaul in his office? This type of intrigue and politics obviously casts a shadow and leaves scars, and it is coming at a most inopportune moment for the country. At a time like this, the prime minister needs an inner circle he can trust, one that works harmoniously. The last thing he needs is to sweat the small stuff. So even though Eshel is going, and even though the story will now fade away, the more important question remains: Who will replace him and can that individual put Netanyahu’s office in order so the prime minister can focus on running the country, not minding the staff?

Without a doubt, it is time to move forward and focus on rebuilding Netanyahu’s team, but what of any of this is small? What is curious about a victim keeping silent? As any one who works with those traumatized by stalking, rape, chronic sexual harassment, and other abuses of power and relationship knows, silence is the norm. Police often struggle to get the cooperation of victims even when they have a strong case. Whether victim or bystander, speaking out is hard.

Organizations commonly turn the other way when faced with the sexual misbehavior of members. Then vainly hope that no harm will come to the organizations mission. Or they fear spreading false rumors and besmirching the reptuation of a seemingly good man. Or they cast aspersion on the victim: she must have deserved it. Even if it is true, she’s not a team player. No one would air dirty laundry if they cared about the team. Or they blame her for not having a tough enough skin, as if harassment is a distasteful norm that no one has a right to complain about.

How many children have been abused because someone felt the effective administration of a school, sports team, or classroom ranked above a child’s complaint of violation? How many women (and men) have suffered because a boss took liberties with their position?

At the end of the day, the silence is fueled by the belief that the suffering of an individual is in fact “small stuff” relative to the mission of the organization. But is it? Continue reading

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Deborah Feldman: Finding Jewishness outside of Satmar

Deborah Feldman grew up with the Satmar Hassidim. When she and her husband had trouble consummating the marriage, they moved out of Brooklyn to a more liberal Jewish community. There she learned to drive and secretly began attending classes at Sarah Lawrence University. Eventually, she chooses to leave her husband and the Orthodox community in which she grew up.

Although her family responded to her leaving with anger and even hate mail encouraging suicide, for Deborah the leaving was a rebirth, a necessary step in recognizing her authentic self. In a recent interview with JSpace she says:

There’s a huge difference between faith and identity. What I rejected was more of a culture. The culture taught that faith is about fear of God, which I never really swallowed, because I don’t really believe that if there were a God he’d want to be feared. When I rejected the culture, I guess I rejected the faith that they taught.

I felt very much that I was reclaiming the Jewish identity that I had never had when I left, because I got to be a part about the mainstream Jewish community, and I got to learn about Israel, and I got to meet a very diverse group of Jews. If anything, I feel more Jewish now, because when I was growing up I felt alienated, and I felt like an oddity and an Other in that Jewish community.

She has recently written a book about her childhood and the decision to leave.

The book was released on February 14, 2012. She told Jspace that despite secular media’s promotion of the book as a tell-all, her main goal was to tell the story of her relationship with her grandmother and the struggle she felt between loyalty to those she loved and her own need for self-determination. In a video produced by her publishers, she says:

I hope to show people that even though it’s really scary to go right up to the edge and jump off, if you can do it it opens up this whole new world. So if you have the courage to give up everything, you can achieve everything. And you’ll never be in danger of losing yourself in the process. That’s what I’ve learned and that’s what I want to show other people: that bravery pays off.

But she also acknowledges leaving is not for everyone. One has to weight the circumstances because neither world is perfect. Each has its own complex challenges.

The book was written during the first six months after she left. As such it gives us a glimpse into a journey in process.    Chana from The Curious Jew observed:

Something I found odd but interesting was that despite her claim to want individuality, at the end of the day, what Deborah really wanted was to conform to something else. She wasn’t very good at conforming to the world she was born into, but she expresses deep relief and happiness at being able to conform to secular America…. While Deborah realizes by the end of her work that she can keep aspects of her past with her, and even be proud of them, I think this deep-rooted wish to conform and not to stand out is one of the lingering negative aspects of her upbringing. It seems to me that Deborah still has more steps to take and strides to make in reclaiming her individuality – so that she can be different from her society but not totally in step with American secular society, either.

Female role models have played a key role in this journey. Below is an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC. Barbara Walter’s own story played a pivotal role in Feldman’s life..

Going forward, she would like to help other women in transition. She would like to volunteer with Footsteps, a group that helps those who leave Haredi communities adapt to mainstream American life. She also dreams of setting up a shelter to help other women, perhaps using some of the proceeds from her book. She also hopes to continue writing. It appears she has a promising future. The Jewish Journal, which previewed the book before its release Jewish Journal praised the quality of the writing saying:

Through a narrative voice that is almost hypnotic, she puts you immediately in the center of her chaotic world. Flashes of adult wisdom seem almost to compete with her childlike sense of bafflement, and we watch this young author struggle fearlessly to find herself on the page.She is unlike so many other authors who have left Orthodoxy and written about it; her heart is not hardened by hatred, and her spirit is wounded but intact.

You can find out more about Deborah Feldman and her book at her website:

Categories: To Be a Jew | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Cost of Modesty: Think of all the Things $250K Can Buy

On August 12, 2012 Agudat Israel will renting out the MetLife Stadium in New York City to celebrate the end of a seven year cycle of Daf Yomi. It isn’t enough for men and women to sit separately. To welcome the right-most members of the ultra-orthodox world they are spending $250,000 on a Mechitza.

A donation of $250,000 could

  • provide 50,000 meals in soup kitchens around the USA or Israel ( $5 per meal )
  • fund BirthRight trips to Israel for 1000 college students ( $2,500 per trip)
  • pay for the wedding dress of 222 brides ( $1124 per dress )
  • send 80-160 children to Jewish summer camp for 4 weeks ( $4000 per child )
  • pay for 16 day school tuition scholarships (average $15,000/year)

The need for a mechitza, even in a synagogue has a long history of dispute even among the more observant. Historically synagogues were modelled on a biblical verse describing the Beit haMikdash in the messianic age (Zechariah 12:12-14 ). This verse indicated a seperate gallery for women. However, there wasn’t a firm halachic argument to explain why this verse also applied to synagogues.

Even among those who agreed that a mechitza was needed, there were still disputes about the nature of the mechitza and its purpose. Rambam’s own discussions of separation of men and women gave two possible reasons: men and women mixing and men seeing women.

The lack of a firm argument caused polarizing responses. On one end, liberal Jews gave up on mechitzas and women’s galleries all together or else regarded them as merely custom. At the other extreme, in 1866 Shlomo Ganzfried the Rabbi of Ungvar, the author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch along with 70 other rabbis signed a declaration declaring that the Mechitza was necessary to prevent men and women from seeing each other.

However, many Orthodox affiliated synagogues in the USA had mixed seating up through the first half of the twentieth century. Others simply sat men and women separately on either side of an aisle or knee-high divider.

This changed when Moshe Feinstein did a careful analysis of different technical categories of holiness (kedusah) and concluded that a building built and used solely for the purposes of prayer and study fell into the same category of holiness as the Beit haMikdash. Thus both a dedicated synagogue building and the Beit haMikdash required a Mechitza. As a result of his teshuva, mechitza gained a firm footing in the Orthodox community, even in communities that previously had mixed seating.

Because of the way the argument is built around the k’dusha, Feinstien’s argument for mechitza only applies to dedicated permanent locations for prayer. Any temporary venue for prayer requires neither mechitza nor even separate seating. Thus a sports stadium does not need a mechitza. The money spent on this mechitza places a chumra over explicit biblical comands to feed the hungry, facilitate marriage and procreation, and nurture Jewish identity and learning.

Categories: Extremism | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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