Orthodox Judaism

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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NPR offers a short report on the eruv: Lots more can be said about making public space sacred

NPR offers a short report on the eruv: Lots more can be said about making public space sacred

When I worked at a small daily newspaper in South Florida, the two major faith groups that I covered were Jews and Catholics. And these were plenty of Jewish readers who demanded articles with some degree of theological sophistication about their lives and beliefs.

While there was always the inevitable “best hamantaschen in Broward County” pieces, I also wrote about the building of a new eruv in a neighborhood with a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish community. Only in the Miami area — and several corners of New York City — could a religion writer cover the establishment of an eruv and have a large, vocal readership that knows what that is.

One problem with writing about an eruv is that the tradition started with the Talmud and trying to explain Talmudic law in a news story was like stepping into quicksand. You got sucked in by all the history and the details.

What is at stake was not just the eruv itself but explaining the Jewish laws that mandate Sabbath-keeping and set the stage for the building of an eruv in the first place. So I was glad to see that NPR tackled the topic in a recent report. The journalism question here is whether the story is long enough to get the job done.

A clear fishing wire is tied around the island of Manhattan. It's attached to posts around the perimeter of the city, from First Street to 126th. This string is part of an eruv, a Jewish symbolic enclosure. Most people walking on the streets of Manhattan do not notice it at all. But many observant Jews in Manhattan rely on this string to leave the house on the Sabbath.

The concept of the eruv was first established almost 2,000 years ago to allow Jews to more realistically follow the laws of Sabbath rest, particularly one — no carrying on the Sabbath.

Actually, there is no one Bible verse saying “Thou shalt not carry anything on the Sabbath.”

The closest is a verse in Jeremiah 17:21 that talks about not carrying things for sale during the Sabbath, but there’s nothing that really addresses what goes on domestically. Carrying isn’t mentioned in the traditional 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath.

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Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

The New York Times's approach to religion reporting is often a paradox: When covering controversial moral issues, its national reporters will often drink from the well of "Kellerism." That's the GetReligion term created in honor of the paper's former executive editor, Bill Keller, who decreed there are subjects on which there's only one side of the argument worth covering, such abortion and gay rights.

On the other hand, the paper's metro reporters will just as often surprise, as in its sensitive discussion of the KKK-linked founder of an evangelical congregation in New Jersey. There, we learned the Pillar of Fire church of 2017 bore little imprint from the founder who praised the Ku Klux Klan, presented in a way that made the church look good.

Now we come to the Orthodox Jewish faith of Malkah and David Spitalny, who in 2012 resided in a second-floor apartment in the Sea Gate neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, their apartment was flooded, their parrot drowned and the couple had to remain there for years afterward due to economic issues.

The paper is gracious in its treatment of the couple, because it turns out The Times has an ulterior motive, albeit a noble one. The headline is sympathetic: "Faith Moors 2 Victims of Hurricane Sandy in Life’s Storms," as is the story:

The violent wind. The relentless rain. The raging sea.
For Malkah Spitalny, the passage of time has done little to dull her vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast five years ago this weekend. She and her husband rode out the storm less than 500 feet from the ocean.
“It will never pass, this experience of physically going through it,” Mrs. Spitalny, 65, said this month. “The force was unimaginable. The thunders, the fires -- it was beyond comprehension.”

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Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

Temple Mount wrap up: Where religion, nationalism and politics keep colliding

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict over control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif appears over. It ended well short of its worst possible outcome, but without any finality — again.

By “worst possible outcome,” I mean a terribly bloody escalation. By “without any finality,” I mean that sooner or later the situation will again heat up because the core of the conflict -- which side has the final word on physical control of the site -- remains unsettled.

But that’s how both sides want it for now -- save for each camp’s most radical elements who would relish an explosive fight to the finish. That’s because neither side's leadership Is capable of making the tough political compromises necessary to really defuse the situation.

So this slow-boiling tribal war over land continues. (Need to catch up with recent events?  If so, read this piece from The Economist, written part way through the episode.)

Religion reporters: Jews this week observed the solemn commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destructions of the First and Second Jewish temples (plus other Jewish tragedies across history) that stood on the Old City esplanade from which the site takes it Jewish name.

While the commemoration ran from Monday evening to Tuesday evening, it's not too late to tie Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar’s month of Av)  to the current state of affairs. You might want to refer to this handy Religion News Service “‘Splainer."

I'm not qualified to speak definitively about just how the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif dispute breaks down along religious, nationalistic and political lines among ordinary Palestinians and other Muslims that support them -- as opposed to the statements of Palestinian leaders who always stress religious claims in rallying global Muslim support.

Suffice it to say that traditional Islam, far more than do contemporary Christianity or rabbinic Judaism (rabbinic, meaning post-Temple), makes little differentiation between the religious and political realms, and that for many Muslims living under undemocratic governments religion is the only outlet for political expression on any level.

However, I do know enough about the Jewish side to suggest that reporters consider the following.

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When Jews leave the Orthodox fold: The New York Times magazine profiles the exiles

When Jews leave the Orthodox fold: The New York Times magazine profiles the exiles

I’ve seen my fair share of stories about children raised in strict religious environments in all sorts of settings, but one group I’ve not read much about is ultra-Orthodox Jews. I once caught a glimpse of that lifestyle when I was invited to services at a Chasidic synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway,  then dinner at a friend’s in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood heavily populated by followers of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Next door was the Jewish Children’s Museum, the largest of its kind in the country. My visit was a glimpse into a lifestyle I’d only heard about in books and to be mixing with people who came straight out of a Chaim Potok novel was beyond fascinating.

Potok, in fact, wrote several books about the struggle between faith and secularity and it’s this theme that got explored in a New York Times magazine piece this past weekend about Jews who leave the Orthodox life. It starts thus:

On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser — besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.
At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world — attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.

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Glass houses, religious garb, a crucial Middle East sidebar and, of course, Donald Trump

Glass houses, religious garb, a crucial Middle East sidebar and, of course, Donald Trump

Forget the bromides about how wrong it is to make snap judgements about people based solely on their physical appearance. Truth is, we -- by which I mean virtually every last one of us -- put enormous stock in appearances.

To narrow that generalization down some, I'm referring in particular to the world of religion and religious garb.

Spot a woman wearing a Muslim hijab on Main Street U.S.A. -- not to mention a niqab, or face veil -- and, invariably, we conjure thoughts about what this woman believes and how she practices her faith. Individual perspective colors our thoughts, for sure, but the larger point I'm making is that our minds are largely reactive, so react we will.

Which brings me to the following story that's been wending it way through Israeli and American Jewish news outlets. It is, as you haven't guessed, a story about appearances and religious garb. And perhaps, also, the need for endless content in our 24-7 journalistic environment.

President Donald Trump -- despite the claims of critics that, at the least, he's willing to countenance anti-Semitic displays among core supporters -- has several self-identified Orthodox Jews in his entourage.

Most famously, his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, self-identify as Orthodox.

As does Jason Greenblatt, a long-time attorney for Trump's business organization who is now a presidential special envoy. Greenblatt made his first extensive visit to the Middle East on behalf of the president last week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Whether or not Greenblatt's effort will bear fruit in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, is undoubtedly the storyline that's most important here.

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Time to work up those walkups to the Supreme Court’s big transgender moment

Time to work up those walkups to the Supreme Court’s big transgender moment

On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the Gloucester County School Board case, its first encounter with the growing transgender rights movement.

Journalists, it's time to work up those walkups.

The basics: The Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice notified all U.S. public schools last May that to qualify for continued federal funding they need to follow each student’s sense of personal  “gender identity,” as opposed to birth biology, regarding access to “sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing and athletic teams (.pdf document here)."

That change redefined  “sex” under Title IX of the anti-discrimination law in question. For 44 years before that, the government thought “sex” meant  biological gender, not an identity that may conflict with it. In the current case, an anatomically female Virginia high schooler who is transitioning wants to use boys’ toilets instead of unisex facilities the school provides. Local school districts are caught between transgender rights appeals and community concerns about privacy and security.

The case’s significance is not ended by the February 22 decision of the incoming Donald Trump administration to rescind the Barack Obama directive for now. Access to locker rooms and showers are also part of this hot-button debate.

With gay marriage legalized throughout the United States by the Supreme Court, the LGBTQ movement is focusing all its moxie on transgender rights. The belief that gender is “assigned” at birth but flexible, rather than fixed by biology, gains cultural clout from important segments of the Democratic Party, big business, the academic world, the entertainment industry, professional and college athletics, and the like.

That poses a major challenge for advocates of religious liberty, already on the defensive with other issues.

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(Cue: loud sigh) AP report about private colleges has a familiar doctrine-shaped hole in it

(Cue: loud sigh) AP report about private colleges has a familiar doctrine-shaped hole in it

One of the questions your GetReligionistas hear the most from friends of this blog, as well as critics, is this: Do you ever get tired of having to write about the same journalism issues over and over and over?

Yes, this can be tiring. It's frustrating to watch reporters, especially at major news organizations, leave the same religion-shaped (or First Amendment-shaped) holes in their news stories and longer features about important issues and events.

But we keeping doing what we do. We remain pro-journalism. We remain committed to the basics of old-school reporting and editing, holding out for values such as accuracy, balance and fairness.

So, as you would imagine, this post is about a familiar topic. First, here is a flashback to a recent Julia Duin post that spotted an important hole in several news reports about SB1146, a bill in California that would shake the church-state ground under all of the state's private schools. At the time Julia wrote this post -- "Christian colleges on chopping block: Why are California newspapers ignoring the story?" -- mainstream news organizations were simply missing the story -- period.

But there was a more specific problem in a report from The Sacramento Bee:

... The Bee does not add that students have a choice whether or not to attend these private schools. In most cases they sign documents in which they affirm the school's stands on doctrinal issues, including those linked to sexual behavior. Here at GetReligion, we’ve brought up again and again the fact that religious schools tend to have something called covenants whereby the students who attend them and those who teach and work at them agree to live according to the doctrines affirmed by that institution.

Let me stress that this is true for private schools on the cultural and religious left, as well as the right.

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Orthodox rabbis bless Christianity? Sounds like 'groundbreaking' news. Except for ...

Orthodox rabbis bless Christianity? Sounds like 'groundbreaking' news. Except for ...

I live in Annapolis, a sailing town on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It's the capital of Maryland, briefly served as the first capital of the United States (bet you didn't know that), and is home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Because I'm sort of a sports chameleon (except for the New York Yankees, my first sports crush) I tend to follow the local teams wherever I happen to land. Hence, I know more about Navy's teams than I ever imagined I would.

However, here's all you need to know about Navy sports.

The football team can go winless and get crushed in each of its first 11 games of the season. But as long as it beats Army, always it's last regular season opponent -- no matter what the score, no matter how poorly played a game -- the season is declared a success.

Seems like disingenuous spin to me, but that's just how it is around these parts. Every blown field goal, every dropped pass, interception, fumble, you name it -- all is forgiven. Just beat Army; 2-0 is sufficient.

I view the recent announcement by some two dozen Orthodox Jewish rabbis about Christianity being part of God's plan for humanity's salvation in a similar vein.

Journalists who are interested in this story need to know that there is considerably more smoke here than fire -- more self-affirming wish-fulfillment than anything else.

The proclamation received precious little mainstream news coverage. I'm not sure why.

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