Gender and Passover: Breaking Free from a Personal Mitzrayim

Hannah Simpson

Hannah Simpson

Passover is a holiday defined by coming out toward freedom. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, meaning, “from the narrows,” represents not so much a geographic location as a state of mind, from which each of us seeks liberation in our own way. In my case, I started life as a first-born son, but could now say I was born, at first, a son. As I reflect upon my own unique journey into Jewish womanhood, it helps me not only relate to the narrative of our past, but recommit myself to the responsibility of being a Jew in the present.

The concept of transgender individuals need not be alien to any sect of Judaism. Talmudic references to suprabinary sexes aside, the necessity of a person to permanently assert a new gender based upon sincere self-awareness, let alone the medicine to influence physical characteristics to match, was simply not on the minds of our sages; whereas, homosexuality, albeit grossly misunderstood, was. In Torah, crustaceans are “shellfish” and cetaceans are “big fish.” As Jews, we read many books beyond Torah, each building on humanity’s knowledge of Hashem’s creations, as they line the walls of our synagogues and homes. Seeing only male and female is seeing only “fish,” a beginning to the conversation at best. Sadly, gender identities, and sexuality in general, remain taboo in many circles of our community. This is not a problem unique to Judaism, yet is one we can uniquely remedy by relating new ideas through the history we tell best.

Gender matters within the Passover story as early as line sixteen in Exodus. The Hebrew midwives are ordered to smother the newborn boys, yet spare the girls. Obviously, they disobey. Oppression can take many forms, sometimes only a perception is sufficient. With the help of a different newborn, the dial-up Internet, I discovered scarce reports of other trans children like myself. The fear in revealing myself was not my parents’ rejection, but rather their support. They would have moved heaven and earth, perhaps to a different state, for me to quietly continue on as a girl, were that my need. Circumstances have changed, but years ago, even the prospect of unintended consequences was itself a captivity. Hidden within me was a girl trapped in her own Mitzrayim by the first-born big brother’s obligation to look out for his siblings, rather than change at risk of uprooting them. It took me decades to escape that mindset, but Passover is a reminder that transformation requires both preparing yourself and preparing the world. The woman I am could never have existed before; by outward appearances alone, I’d have been among the smothered.

A hint at how to prepare the world for redemption comes in another line from Exodus, so early in the tale that I fear it gets passed over. Line eight speaks of a new ascending Pharaoh, to whom Joseph and the prosperity the Hebrews brought was unknown, no sooner were we enslaved. Today, multiple states have introduced legislation proposing that I must use men’s public restrooms. I may comply at risk of violence or defy at risk of arrest. Further bills, notably one just passed in Indiana, may give anyone who desires an exemption from serving me in the first place. Yet again, the world finds itself dignifying discourse around where a minority can pee or where they can be.

As Jews, our own history should remind us: Next come the ghettos. Joseph was viceroy to a mighty empire, yet within a line was erased without even a why or how. Perhaps the Hebrews in Mitzrayim became complacent in their affluence? For all that American Jews take for granted, not 75 years ago this same nation could not make space for a single ship of refugees waiting at its shores. How soon could the tides change or the sea split once again? For whom must we stand up now, lest no one be left to stand for us?

Our narrative as a people of eons adds Milk to Miriam and Moses, growing braver with each new hero or heroine who rises to the challenges of preparing the world in that day, so long as we keep telling their stories and broadening conversations.

My journey toward liberation and self-actualization against societal expectations and my own fears helps me look upon the journeys of others, realizing that I once was restricted as well, and in different ways still am. To be a Jew reminds me, in this age and every age, that asserting our own and ensuring others’ freedom of expression is, perhaps, our greatest expression of freedom.

Hannah Elyse Simpson is a medical student in New York City at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, a marathoner, supporter of Israel, and total unabashed nerd. She is active in numerous Jewish congregations and is the volunteer coordinator for Trans Lifeline, a peer crisis hotline. She has recently been featured on and has been interviewed by Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. Find her on Twitter @hannsimp.

Trying To Revive

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, learns with members of the Polish Jewish community.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, instantly murdering about 20,000 Jews and bombing approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned factories, workshops and stores in more than 120 local communities. Several hundred synagogues were also destroyed.

Within a month, all Polish Jews were either confined to ghettos or in hiding.

Then the Nazis began liquidating the ghettos. Within 18 months, almost all of them had been emptied. Following a period of calculated mass murder, Poland’s once-thriving Jewish population of 3.3 million was diminished to 100,000.

Poland, under Soviet rule and a curtain of communism, forced what remained of its Jewish population to emigrate or to go into hiding. Many converted or denied their faith. In 2013, only approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Jews register themselves as Jewish. But it is believed that in Poland there are an estimated 25,000 Jews among a population of 38.5 million people.

And slowly, more and more Jewish faces are starting to appear. Some call it a renaissance. Others call it a resurgence. But a once dark and diminished community, it seems, is slowly — and maybe not as slowly as one would think — starting to emerge.

The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in the Polish Republic coordinates the activities of the different Jewish organizations in Poland. The Lauder Foundation has established a number of clubs and events for the Jewish youth, as well as a primary school in Warsaw. And through the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, not only are the survivors and other elderly being cared for, but young Jews also are reconnecting to Judaism and working to secure a new and vibrant future for what was once Europe’s largest Jewish community.

It is inspiring.

“It’s changing,” said Polish-Jewish fashion designer Antonina Samecka in an article published by JDC. “It’s not like you think in Poland anymore.”

It Takes Time
Seven mainstream Orthodox rabbis. Three Chabad rabbis. Three Reform/ progressive rabbis. That is how many clergy are actively working in Poland each day.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich serves as the chief rabbi of Poland. He visited Poland for the first time in the 1970s but moved there beginning in 1990. He was appointed to his post in 2004.

Rabbi Schudrich said the Polish-Jewish resurgence has progressed in three or four stages. In the early 1990s, the question was, “Are there still Jews in Poland?” Then, as they were slowly found, the question became, “Do they want to be Jewish?” Finally, “How can we remake this Jewish community? How can we help Polish Jews?”

“I am not here to tell people what they must do,” said Rabbi Schudrich of when someone comes to him and says he or she might be Jewish. “I am here to teach them what Jewish tradition says, and they have to decide what they want to do with that.”

Many learn Hebrew and attend a synagogue or a lecture. Some have documentation that they are Jewish and others undergo a conversion process. It is all very personal, and it all takes time.

Rabbi Schudrich talks about one woman who 18 years ago approached him and told her that her mother’s grandmother died of typhus in 1842; Jews were more likely to die of the disease back then. She said her mother cooked Jewish foods, such as tzimmes and kept a special pot in which to cook milk (as opposed to meat).

“Am I Jewish?” she asked me, recalled the rabbi. “That is a very hard question. We talked about it. … We talked, and then she left. That same woman came back three months ago and said, ‘Now I am ready to be Jewish.’”

He continued, “It is a progress and a process. We are in the middle of a process. … The key is openness, accepting people where they are and as who they are and letting them make their journey to their Jewish identity in a way that makes sense for them.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis expressed similar sentiments. The rabbi of a small town called Katowice, he said only about 200 Jews live in a population of three million people there. He said his job is about “achdut” [Jewish unity], and he looks at what he does as “an opportunity to galvanize the people, to keep them moving forward.”

Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak oversees the Jewish Renewal or progressive Judaism movement in Poland. He said that as many as 30 people convert to Judaism through his movement per year. The group just completed its first progressive prayer book, which is Hebrew translated and transliterated into Polish.

There was a massively successful Limmud program this past year as well.

“A lot of people are coming forward now,” said Rabbi Beliak. “No one has papers. No one can prove their Jewish identity. They might have a siddur they found in the attic. … We are not in control of everything the way we would like to think we are. There is a migration of Jewish souls back [to Judaism], and I cannot explain why people are coming back in rational terms.”

Rabbi Schudrich equated the resurgence of Judaism to the Marranos or “Secret Jews” of the Iberian Peninsula, who maintained a private religious identity behind a façade of Catholicism. However, said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, “We are not waiting 500 years to see who has Jewish roots.”

To be fair, anti-Semitism does still exist in Poland, though according to those on the ground it is not on the upswing as we are seeing in many European and Eastern European countries. Joanna Auron-Górska, who works with the progressive Beit Polska, said the younger generation harbors less prejudice and less fear than their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. She countered that while many surveys paint young Poles as racist and anti-Semitics, her personal experience is different.

“People in their 20s and 30s are the most tolerant people. … They are curious, but they are willing to help,” she said.

On the day that she spoke with the JT, she had come from the police department. There she had been reporting a website that listed Jewish people participating in her programs as targets for anti-Semitic attacks. There has been nothing physical directly pointed at Jews, she said, but in the smaller towns — outside of Krakow and Warsaw — she said there is more curiosity.

Rabbi Ellis said similarly that there are certain routes he thinks twice before taking and that whereas African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, in Poland he has seen very few. And Jews are almost as scarce — so people notice.

The call to action, said Lucia Goodhart, one Polish activist in an interview provided to the JT by Auron-Górska, is for the Diaspora Jewish community to be supportive.

She said, “If we have Jewish people who are making a life now in Poland, it behooves us, as our brothers’ keepers, to be involved positively.

Ornstein said this involvement is important for Diaspora Jews, too. He told the JT that the story of Polish Jewry is an important story of revival.

“It is not just for the Polish community, but for all of us, as a people. We are able to thrive despite the Holocaust,” he said. “We can connect to the loss, but also must connect to the growing and the thriving of Jewish community. We need to know about this as North American Jews.”

WJRO Renews Call For Private Property Restitution In Poland >>

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —

Magic in Morocco

Shared values. Mutual trust. Common interests. Strong friendship.

These were some of the phrases President Barack Obama used late last month following a meeting with King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

The two countries share a historic relationship; one that began in the 18th century and continues to thrive.

Moroccan Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo says the Jews of Morocco are small in number, but strong.

Moroccan Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo says the Jews of Morocco are small in number, but strong.

What is more fascinating than the strong relations between this predominantly Muslim country and the U.S. is the peaceful relations Morocco enjoys with the State of Israel. And, while the Jewish population in Morocco is small (only about 4,000 people), it is strong and thriving, at least according to Ambassador-at-Large Serge Berdugo, president of the Jewish Community of Morocco and former Minister of Tourism, who accompanied the king on his visit to the States.

In a meeting with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Berdugo reaffirmed the country’s strong ties with the United States — “we cooperate, politically, against terrorists, we collaborate in all areas where peace is in danger” — but also waxed optimistic and confident about the state of the Jewish people in Morocco. He said the Jews of Morocco have been living there for more than 2,000 years. At one time, the population was much larger, but a series of incidents and emigration reduced that number by thousands.

What didn’t happen, however, was that Morocco (like many other Muslim states) kicked out its Jews with the founding of the State of Israel.

“The Muslims here let the Jews live their way,” said Berdugo.

However, many Jews did leave in 1948. This, said Berdugo, was because they wanted to fulfil the Zionist dream.

“That is the phase we can call Messianic,” he said.

Moroccan Secretary General  Dr. Ahmed Abbadi notes that  Morocco was never enraptured  by the dogmatism of Damascus.

Moroccan Secretary General
Dr. Ahmed Abbadi notes that
Morocco was never enraptured
by the dogmatism of Damascus.

Another wave left Morocco in 1953 when King Mohammed V was exiled; the Jews feared there would be persecution. In 1956, when Muslim rule returned and the remaining Jews were used to French culture, a number again left. But the greatest number fled the country in 1961, after the first conference of the Arab League in Casablanca. At that meeting, explained Berdugo, Morocco opted to adopt the resolutions of the league and this meant (at the time) no communication with the State of Israel.

“It meant Jews in Morocco could not talk to their family in Israel,” he explained.

Half of the Jews went to Israel then. The other half to Canada. He said Montreal got thousands of Moroccan Jews.

But even as the population shrank, the people remained stable.

“In Morocco, the king sees it as an obligation to protect the Jews,” Berdugo said.

This obligation comes from the way the country interprets Islam. In that same meeting, Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, secretary general of a council of religious scholars established by the king, who works closely with Ambassador Berdugo on issues of religious tolerance, diversity and interfaith cooperation, explained that Morocco never adopted “the values of Damascus,” but rather maintained a belief in Sufi Islam, an Islamic philosophy that values peace, “rejoicing and happiness.”

Abbadi said he believes one of the reasons for this is because Morocco was separated from the rest of the world by “three great series of mountains and this protected us from interactions with other countries.” Because the values of self-rule, democracy and tolerance have, over the years, become so ingrained in Moroccan culture, he said, as extremists try to infiltrate — and they have — they receive little following.

Abbadi said Morocco is not prey to dogma, but common sense.

This is likely the reason Morocco is a trailblazer in Muslim-Israeli relations, one of the only connectors between Israel and the Arab world. The two countries cooperate in areas of mutual benefit, including technology and defense.

Also, Morocco serves as a voice of reason in regard to the peace process. Berdugo said Morocco (and Moroccan Jews) would like to see a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, but that the country will not assist at the table until it feels both parties are ready to move forward.

“We are not trying to waste our time in discussion,” he said. “If you want to talk together and do something, we are there. If you don’t want to, we are not there.”

Berdugo said Morocco has always been “a player of good will, trying to do our best to promote peace and two states with security and dignity — security for one, dignity for the other.”

In recent months, the King of Morocco has taken additional steps to safeguard the country’s Jewish history. For example, a cemetery restoration project has restored and beautified 167 cemeteries, 48 retaining walls, 200,000 square meters of pavement and some 12,000 tombs across the country.

Similarly, the King has been instrumental in preserving synagogues and schools. Berdugo noted that there are 15 synagogues in Morocco.

“If you go out at 7 a.m., you can see the Jews going to synagogue. No one takes a look at them; they are part of the context,” he said.

Additionally, there are five Jewish schools, some of which have as much as a 25 percent Muslim student population. There, the Jews learn Arabic and Hebrew, and the Muslim students do, too.

“It is not a matter of quantity, it is a matter of quality,” said Berdugo of the Jewish population.

The message both Berdugo and Abbadi said they wanted to make clear is that while in the States people tend to view Morocco as just a part of the Middle East, it does not view itself in the same light as nations like Syria, Lebanon, etc. Rather, said Abbadi, “We are more Occidental than Middle East … and we want to be recognized like that.”

What is Sufi Islam?
Sufism is Islamic mysticism. Non-Muslims often mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam. It is more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam. Sufi orders can be found in Sunni, Shia and other Islamic groups. Sufism is a series of concepts and practices that range from poverty, seclusion, deception, depriving the soul, singing and dancing.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —

Repair The World

On a frigid November morning, six people work together to plant an apple tree, four of them carefully rolling it and two others working with shovels to break its fall into the ground so that the root ball stays intact.

A year ago, the triangular lot bound by Brentwood Avenue and Merryman Lane in the Waverly area of Baltimore was trash-strewn, with bottles more than 100 years old buried under the concrete remains of a school that closed in the 1950s. By the day’s end, three apple trees were planted, in addition to grass, flowers and bushes that had been planted the previous week.

“When everything starts to grow in the spring, it’s going to look amazing,” said Emily Benoit, wearing work boots, gloves, a hoodie pulled over her head and a scarf covering her mouth and neck.

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the  Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces. (David Stuck)

Repair the World fellow Avi Sunshine (kneeling) helps others from Baltimore Civic Works plant an apple tree at an urban lot in the Waverly area of Baltimore. Two fellows are working with Civic Works to transform vacant urban lots into community green spaces.
(David Stuck)

Although it was one of the coldest mornings of the year, the group of nine was all smiles. This lot, one of six current projects, was being beautified by Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works. While these projects are usually staffed by AmeriCorps volunteers, there were two new faces in the crowd, Benoit and Avi Sunshine, fellows from Repair the World.

The new organization, which aims to do exactly what its name implies, has nine young men and women, most of whom are recent college graduates, living in Baltimore working on various volunteer and service learning projects. The mission of the organization, in addition to providing “super volunteers” for various projects in the city, is to engage Jewish young adults in volunteerism through deep and meaningful experiences, and to make volunteering an indispensable part of their lives.

“The mission is to make service a defining element of Jewish life,” said David Eisner, president and CEO of Repair the World.

The organization spent close to five years researching best practices and immersive service learning, developing resources and partnering with other groups. This year, its inaugural year, Repair the World launched in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

“They’re all eastern because we didn’t want geography to be part of our challenge in this first generation [of fellows], they’re all post-industrial, they all have histories of Jews living in the urban centers,” Eisner said.

While the fellows will be working on various Baltimore projects and recruiting other millenials to volunteer, Repair the World also aims to look at bigger picture issues, including how the city’s history shaped economic and educational inequality, the disconnect between city neighborhoods and how institutional and structural racism has played out.

“If we can spark people to think about some of the underlying reasons [behind various issues], maybe it gets them passionate about thinking about how development is happening in Baltimore City,” said Jodie Zisow, director of Baltimore’s Repair the World group.

Zisow, who grew up in Pikesville and went to Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, has always been involved in social justice work. She’s worked on AIDS advocacy, taught Spanish to Baltimore City students and recently worked for Planned Parenthood. She felt Repair the World was a perfect fit for her and that she has as much to learn as the fellows do.

“I hold onto some of the idealism that age [early 20s] is known for,” she said. “I think that is something our world needs more of.”

The fellowships are 10 months long and have participants logging at least 50 hours per week on various service projects, 20 hours of which is spent on a main project and 10 at another project. Some fellows have taken on side projects, working with other nonprofits that cater to their interests.

Repair the World takes care of the fellows’ housing and gives them $600 each month in stipends. Currently, the fellows share three apartments at The Atrium near Lexington Market as a community house in Highlandtown is renovated. They hope to move into the community house, which is two row homes with a wall in between them cut out, in the spring.

Community Partners
Repair the World has partnered with five local organizations. Fellows are working with Civic Works on its vacant lots program, which takes vacant urban lots and transforms them into green spaces, and later, on its Baltimore Energy Challenge, which helps Baltimore residents save money on their energy bill through energy saving tips and environmentally friendly appliances such as energy-efficient light bulbs and faucets and low-flow toilets.

Ed Miller, supervisor of the Civic Works’ community lot team, said having the fellows adds another layer to the group, which includes two young men who he said have “significant prison records.”

“My intent is for those [different] people to work together in a team,” he said. “It will probably have a lifelong impact on them.”

Two fellows will be working with CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) on community organizing and projects to help seniors, the specifics of which are still being refined.

Two fellows are assigned to the Incentive Mentoring Project, which builds “families” of volunteers for struggling students at the Academy for College and Career Exploration and Dunbar High School. These families are assigned to students during their freshman year and stay with them for 10 years.

“They don’t just stay with them through high school, they stay with them through college, they help them find summer employment, so they really do so much to help these students succeed,” said fellow Amalia Mark.

Mark and fellow Jared Gorin are working with struggling families and working with the all-volunteer executive board on development, volunteer recruitment and other back-end needs.

Five fellows are working with the chief service officer in Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office on the success mentoring program, which provides mentors for students at risk of being chronically absent from school. They greet the students in the morning, check in with them during the day and spend time one-one-one with the students. The fellows will also be working to recruit other success mentors.

The specialized attention seems to be working.

“Already, one of the students is like ‘When is the next time I’ll see you?’ just from sitting in classes with her,” said fellow Talia Shifron. “It seems like it’s getting them really excited to go to school.”

Two fellows will also be working with Banner Neighborhoods to add extra capacity to afterschool programs that range from arts programming to tutoring.

“What we’re really focusing on is excellent nonprofit organizations that have already figured out how to deliver excellent programs with deep impact,” Eisner said. “Now, we’re helping them build their capacity through the work of the fellows.”

And rather than coming to these nonprofits with their own ideas, the fellows are adding extra manpower to needs already identified by existing organizations.

“What we’re really trying to do is go into the community and say, ‘We’re here to help; what do you need?’” said fellow Alli Lesovoy. “‘What does Baltimore need and what can we do to be of service?’”

Herring Is Not Religion

The reputable car dealer’s advertisement in the local paper screams, “Brand New Mercedes — Only $500!”

You get excited but think it sounds too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, it is. The car dealer is offering only the hubcaps of the Mercedes for $500. If you want the whole car, it will cost the standard price. Suddenly, the car dealer doesn’t sound so reputable.

You would never find such an ad because no car dealer in his right mind would make such an offer. Yet hubcaps masquerading as the car is exactly what Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky offer in their recent JTA Op-Ed titled “Conversion shouldn’t be the only path to joining the Jewish people.”

Cohen and Olitzky bemoan that, as of now, there is only one way for a non-Jew to become Jewish — conversion — and offer an alternative they call “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” Under this scheme, those who are not interested in Judaism as a religion, and even those who follow a different religion, could choose the Jewish Cultural Affirmation path.

To achieve this lofty status, they suggest that the candidate undertake a web-based self-study course along with undefined “experiences of lived Jewishness.” Candidates could sample Jewish topics ranging from politics to comedy to social action and text study. They then would be eligible to receive a “certificate of membership in the Jewish people,” much like my certificate from the American Legion.

As someone who is married to a convert, who has spent the better part of his professional life as a Jewish communal leader and counseled a wide range of sincere people in intermarriages who seek entry into the Jewish people, I find such a proposal shallow, impractical and offensive.

To reduce membership in the Jewish people to a shallow cultural affirmation completely misses the point of being Jewish. To put it bluntly, herring is not a religion.

We are a people who, despite our small size, have for 3,500 years had a critical mission in the world. As Christian scholar Paul Johnson wrote in his seminal “History of the Jews,” “The Jews stand at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”

Judaism addresses the most pressing life-and-death issues, teaches us how to infuse the sacred into all of existence and presses us to strive to become a “light to the nations.” To reduce all of that to a mere cultural affirmation is to say that the most profound elements of Judaism are unimportant.

The proposal is impractical. People who wish to convert can and will do so. The myriad approaches to American Jewish life offer a range of conversion options, from traditional conversions that require years of preparation and a commitment to all of the mitzvahs, to conversions that can be completed in a matter of months with minimal lifestyle changes. If someone is uninterested in following even a minimal conversion route, why would they be interested in affirming a Jewish identity at all?

And just what would such an affirmation accomplish? There already are a number of non-Jews in intermarriages who are attempting to raise Jewish children, who serve on synagogue boards, and who observe some Jewish holidays with their Jewish spouses even as they celebrate Christmas and go to church. Jewish educational opportunities are readily available to them. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders often praise their efforts.

All this has happened without an affirmation process or completion certificate. Creating a new process is superfluous. It would do nothing to change the reality on the ground.

Finally, Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal is offensive. In my experience, Jewish leaders who propose novel conversion procedures almost never consult with the end users — converts themselves, who could tell them from deep personal experience what is and isn’t needed.

The responses of converts with whom I shared Cohen and Olitzky’s proposal ranged from befuddled to offended. Most of all, they just didn’t get why something like this is needed. Neither do I.

A Jewish Cultural Affirmation track would undermine the hard work of sincere converts who have chosen to transform their lives and souls in joining the Jewish people. To offer Jewish Cultural Affirmation as an equally viable alternative to traditional conversion is to cheapen the process of conversion itself. And if cultural affirmation is offered merely as a second-class track, then it will do nothing except sow confusion.

Given the current tenuous state of American Jewry, so-called Jewish leaders and funders no doubt will gravitate toward new schemes dressed up as “solutions” to the challenges of Jewish demography. But as the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews shows, the race to water down Jewish life has only weakened it. Rather than throwing more good money after bad, we should focus instead on what makes a Jewish life worth living.

Harold Berman, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” is the former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. He and his wife, Gayle, are the founders of, a support system for intermarried families who seek to become observant Jews. This column was provided by JTA Wire Service.

See “Jewish Cultural Affirmation >>

Jewish Cultural Affirmation

Right now, there is just one way for someone who is not Jewish to become Jewish in a publicly recognized and officially authorized fashion: undergo religious conversion under the auspices of a rabbi.

Whether the path to Jewish identification follows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other auspices, conversion is explicitly and entirely religious in nature. These movements and their rabbis vary both in the preparation they demand and the religious commitments they seek of potential converts. But all require a significant measure of religious education, practice and expressed commitment to a Jewish way of life.

In the United States, interest in becoming Jewish has grown, owing in part to intermarriage, intergroup friendship, and more positive feelings about Jews and Judaism. As a result of Judaism entering the marketplace of ideas, Jewish thought and ideas resonate with many people. And with the melting of hard social boundaries separating Jews from others, many have entered into marriages, friendships and close working relationships with Jews.

Yet, notwithstanding the thousands of non-Jews who maintain familial, friendship and collegial ties to Jews, many with some interest in joining the Jewish people may be disinclined to do so for any of a variety of reasons. In the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, 7 percent of adults who identified as Jewish reported that neither of their parents were Jewish. Of the 7 percent, 2 percent said they formally converted and 5 percent said they became Jewish by personal choice and not by way of religious conversion. How can we explain the popularity of people assuming a Jewish identity without undergoing religious conversion?

We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what for them would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition. Others may be wary of adopting Judaism as an exclusive religion so as not to offend their parents or other family members, or because conversion requires abandonment of religiously grounded customs and holidays like Christmas.

Even though significant numbers of Jews are secular, atheist or celebrate Christmas as a seasonal holiday, holding such positions and observing such practices present prospective converts with insurmountable barriers to conversion.

As a result, many would-be members of the Jewish people have no possibility of engaging in a course of study and socialization that would lead to public recognition of their having joined the Jewish people, and they have limited access to enriching their familiarity with “lived Judaism” — the actual culture and ethos of Jewish life as lived in families and communities. And we know that most people live out their Judaism more in the informal context of family and friends than in the more formal context of religious institutions.

In theory at least, broader access to Judaism beyond that already offered by rabbis, congregations, and religious movements could result in more non-Jews in Jewish families and friendship circles building Jewish homes.

To provide a viable alternative to the religious route to becoming a Jew, we propose a second explicitly cultural pathway to join the Jewish people. This pathway, which we call Jewish Cultural Affirmation, would be clearly distinguished from Jewish religious conversion. Religious conversion would remain a rabbinic prerogative, and Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not assume an anti-religious ethos. Nor are we suggesting that Jewish Cultural Affirmation undermine or obviate the traditional path to conversion.

Rather, by offering an additional vehicle to acquiring a Jewish social identity, Jewish Cultural Affirmation would allow prospective Jews to acquire a measure of familiarity with being Jewish and to undergo a non-religious pathway toward membership in the Jewish people.

Candidates for Jewish Cultural Affirmation would undertake a course of self-guided study and experiences, outlined in a web-based curriculum to be developed by a panel of scholars, communal professionals and others. The curriculum would consist not only of reading, but of experiences of lived Jewishness.

Candidates would be encouraged to sample a variety of areas of Jewish civilization — such as politics, literature, music, comedy, social action, learning, organized community, Israel, chesed, and sacred and secular texts — and to achieve a level of familiarity with and competence in participating in American Jewish life.

Candidates would meet with mentors (in person and virtually), and gather from time to time in small group sessions, perhaps at private homes, restaurants, cafes or other convenient venues that are not explicitly Jewish in association.

For those who may come to desire official recognition, we propose a public ceremony that would need to be designed, and also a certificate of membership in the Jewish people, whose specific substance and formulation would need to be addressed.

Accomplished Jewish cultural experts — professors, writers, artists, educators, communal leaders and others — would constitute boards that would oversee the program and would attest to the validity of the affirmation.

Jewish Cultural Affirmation would not preclude eventual conversion by rabbis, should they seek more traditional religious recognition of their Jewish status by religious authorities. Indeed, acquiring an identification with the Jewish people is a crucial segment in all approaches to religious conversion, implying that Jewish Cultural Affirmation can be seen by religious authorities as comprising a significant step on the path to religious conversion.

We welcome those who would like to support this endeavor to join us in the conversation so that this proposition might be brought to reality.

Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. This column was provided by JTA Wire Service.

Counterpoint? “Herring Is Not Religion >>

Absurd And Unreal

Dr. Shimon Samuels says Greek anti-Semitism has existed for years.

Dr. Shimon Samuels says Greek anti-Semitism has existed for years.

Whenever there is a profound social or financial crisis, covert anti-Semitism will make its way to the surface.

That was the message Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, delivered regarding the recent vocal surge of anti-Semitic sentiments in Greece, mainly through the Golden Dawn Party, which now hold seats in the Greek Parliament.

But Rabbi Cooper painted a picture that is both strikingly concerning and also improving, one in which there is much anti-Semitic talk (though not much action yet) on the one hand and blossoming Greek-Israel relations on the other. It seems inexplicable, but according to other experts in the field, Rabbi Cooper is painting an accurate picture.

Rabbi Cooper’s colleague, Dr. Shimon Samuels, director of internal relations at the center, has been focused on researching and halting anti-Semitism for the last 40 years, especially in Greece. He told the JT that much of the anti-Semitism (usually covert) in Greece stems from the Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Greek Orthodox Church still has a great deal of anti-Semitic tropes in its language,” said Samuels. “The Greek Church has not gone through a reformation like the Catholic Church.”

In Greece today, he said, there are roughly 4,000 Jews, but at one time, before the Holocaust, there was a vibrant, Greek-Jewish community. The Jews lived mostly in Thessaloniki on the Island of Crete. The Jews were wiped out when Nazi Germany invaded Greece during World War II.

While the first recorded instance of Greek anti-Semitism happened during the Hellenistic period with the story of Chanukah, since then, over the years, there have been highs and lows in terms of how overt versus covert Greek anti-Semitism has been, Samuels said. He talks about how during the 1982 Lebanon War, the Greeks used the language of the Holocaust to describe the conflict in the Middle East and blame the Jews. He noted this was likely because of feelings of guilt among the Greek population, which had been accused of not speaking up on behalf of its Jewish population when the Germans arrived.

“If they can dress the Israelis in the stereotypes of the Nazis, then they can feel, ‘I was not so bad, the Jews are doing the same,’” he said.

Over the years, there have been instances of anti-Semitic acts or hate crimes. For example, in October 2012, vandals spray-painted the Rhode’s Holocaust monument, which was dedicated to the 1,600 victims of the city who had perished at the hands of the Nazis. The public prosecutor, however, took care of the case.

In Samuels’ estimation — and according to Christos G. Failadis, press and communication counselor of the Embassy of Greece in Washington — it is likely that the Golden Dawn Party, which has a swastika-like image as its logo, is getting the acceptance it has because of the current dismal economic situation in Greece and the rise in crime by illegal immigrants. The immigrants are not Jewish, but there is general xenophobia in Greece, Samuels said, and anti-Semitism is coupled with that.

“Golden Dawn [members] will escort elderly Greeks to do their shopping, will help them to take out their money,” said Samuels, explaining that by offering social services, people begin to feel loyal. Likewise, he said, they have taken many of the young adults who are out of work and created a powerful youth movement. His fear: The party is not marginalized, but it is growing. While the anti-Semitism espoused by the party is now nonviolent, Samuels said, “It can and it possibly will [turn violent].”

At that time, the only solution would be for the small number of Greek Jews who still live there to leave.

But Failadis strongly opposes Samuels’ sentiments. He said, “You cannot characterize Greek society as anti-Semitic. That’s absurd and unreal.”

He echoed Samuels’ sentiments in noting that “recently, because of the economic crisis, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party had the chance to collect more votes than expected.” But he said, “Personally, I believe that the neo-Nazi elements assailing democracy and the rule of law will be marginalized by Greek society, which, in its vast majority, deplores intolerance and nonviolence.”

Failadis cited that Jewish and non-Jewish Greeks have lived side-by-side since the 15th century. (Samuels said a recent survey showed that 24 percent of Greeks would refuse to live as the next-door neighbor of a Jew.)

Failadis said he is very proud of Greek-Israeli relations, which have taken leaps forward in the last three years, partly due to the weakening of ties between Israel and Turkey. He told the JT that the deepening of Greek-Israeli relations is based on “the major potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in a number of sectors, including economy, trade, tourism, investments, agricultural development, defense, technology, energy, the environment, shipping and education. The multifaceted cooperation between the two countries is aimed at promoting development and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. This cooperation does not exclude, and is not directed against, any third party, and it is dictated by the multiple security challenges in the region.”

“They have cartoons of Israelis devouring Palestinian children but will welcome the Israelis into their hotels because they bring business,” said Samuels. “This is a mixed relationship.”

Failadis noted the importance of seeing the positive and said, “Look to the future!”

Netanyahu At The GA: ‘Security’

Security. This was the only message that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered to a crowd of more than 2,000 people on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the opening plenary of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to a crowd of over 2,000 people at this year's JFNA GA. The keyword: security.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to a crowd of over 2,000 people at this year’s JFNA GA. The keyword: security.

“The most important thing is to assure the security and the future of the Jewish state, the one and only Jewish state of Israel,” said Netanyahu as he launched into a more than 30-minute speech.

The PM started with Iran. He told the audience of Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders that an Iran without nuclear weapons is essential not only for Israel, but for the entire world – the U.S., Europe, the Arabs, the Chinese and the Russians.

“But for us,” said Netanyahu, “it is a matter of our existence.”

Netanyahu lashed out at the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany) for agreeing to lighten sanctions on Iran when it came to the table pleading, ready to negotiate because the sanctions are having impact. He said the P5+1 placed demands on Iran to cease and desist the building of capabilities to produce atomic bombs that have brought Iran to its knees, why now would we want to come to a deal without Iran dismantling anything.

“Why Iran has come for a deal is obvious. It is because the sanctions are biting, are crippling that regime. They came to the table because they have to,” he said, expressing exasperation that the group would agree to lghten sanctions when “not one centrifuge is dismantled – not one.”

He said Iran can in a matter of a few weeks take the capabilities it has and produce a nuclear weapon.

“Iran does not roll back its nuclear making capacity at all, but P5+1 are rolling back sanctions? That is a bad deal, it is a dangerous deal. … That affects our survival,” said Netanyahu. “I will not be silenced – never. … When the Jewish people were silenced on matters relating to our survival you know what happened.”

Then he told the audience that Iran was not only targeting his country, but most certainly the U.S., too.

“Who is Iran targeting when it builds the ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles)? They already have rockets and missiles to reach us. They need those [ICBMs] to reach North America. And they can be nuclear tipped. That is the plan –  coming to a theater near you. Do you want that? Well, do something about it,” he charged.

He said Israel is in charge of defending itself and that is what it will do.

And not only when it comes to Iran.

The PM next turned to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and said, again, that first and foremost was the safety, security and longevity of the Jewish state.

“We need to end this conflict once and for all and to end it there is a simple principle. That principle is two nation states, two states for two peoples. Not one state for one people, for the Palestinians. And then another state for two peoples. No, two states for two peoples,” said the PM.

He told the crowd that if the Palestinians expect Israel to recognize a Palestinian state, they must recognize a Jewish state for the Jewish people. He said, “That is what peace is about.”

Netanyahu walked attendees through Israel’s painful and bloody past, through the 1921 attack on the Jewish immigration office in Jaffa, through the horrible beheading of babies in 1929 with the Hebron massacre and on through the systematic attacks by the Arabs on the Jewish community between 1936 and 1939. During World War II, he reminded, it was Haj Amin al-Husseini who partnered with Adolf Hitler and called for a final solution. He then said that in 1947 the Jews accepted a two-state solution while the Arabs refused and when the Jews established their state, they were attacked on all fronts, attacks which lasted until the 1967 war.

“For 46 years there were systemic attacks on the very nature of the Jewish state. Not on settlements,” he said. “There were not any settlement. …. Not about a Palestinian state, they rejected it. … It was about the Jewish state. They have to recognize the Jewish state. … What is their struggle for? Palestine. What is Palestine? It is Kiryat Shemona to Eilat, it is from the river to the sea.”

And so, bringing the talk back to the issue of security, Netanyahu then said that even if the Palestinians agreed to recognize Israel, “there is no durable peace that is not based on security. … A peace agreement that is not based on absolutely robust security for Israel by Israel will not stand test of time. We need a peace based on security. That is the other fundamental piece. We need security to defend the peace — and security to defend Israel in case peace unravels. And in our region, peace has a tendency to unravel.”

Next, and also connected to Israel’s peace and security, Netanyahu spoke about shalom bayit between Israel and Diaspora Jews. He claimed it his responsibility as PM of Israel to keep the peace of the Jewish people. And he said it was he who asked Natan Sharansky to head a Kotel task force and that he is confident we are on the cusp of making a final solution come to fruition.

He cited an announcement made earlier this week at the Jewish Agency for Israel conference about new plans (see “Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection>>“) to further connect young Diaspora Jews with Israel and noted that he has agreed to invest Israeli money in the endeavor.

“We are committed to it,” said Netanyahu. “We know the challenge of Jewish unity. There are the forces of assimilation and intermarriage [in the States]. … We have sponsored this initiative to work together, to think through [these things] together, and to put forward programs to solidify … a Jewish identity that is so central to our future.”

Netanyahu continued: “When I think of challenges we have overcome over the last 4,000 years – challenges to our physical survival, challenges to our spiritual survival and cohesion — I know we have that inner strength to guarantee the Jewish future. … To defend and secure the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state.”

 View Earlier Posts:
Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection>>
GA 2013: Opening Plenary at 7:15 P.M.>>

Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Washington, D.C.>>

Exclusive Briefing: JAFI’s Misha Galperin On New Program To Ignite Stronger Diaspora-Israeli Connection

With change there is always opportunity, said Debs Weinberg of Baltimore at a morning session run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. And Weinberg’s message was one that will become increasingly more relevant as JAFI, working with the government of Israel and nonprofits from across the world, works to better engage young (between the ages of 13 and 35) Jews with Israel and to enhance their Jewish identities.

Misha Galperin discussed a new project that will focus on Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

Misha Galperin discussed a new project that will focus on Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, told a group of about 15 people in an exclusive briefing on Sunday morning that over the course of the JAFI conference, which is currently taking place in Israel, a group of more than 100 thought leaders met to more formalize plans for a collaborative initiative that will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and invest in Israel education on campuses outside of the Jewish state.

Galperin explained that this program was nearly a decade in the making, as it was current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who signed the legislation in the ‘90s that launched invested by the government of Israel in Birthright.

“This was the first time in history that Israeli tax payers’ money was put into a pot that funded free trips for American kids, which many thought here [in Israel] was a criminal thing to do; it was supposed to the other way around,” said Galperin.

Since then, a number of other development occurred, like the formation of MASA Israel, which was co-founded and is jointly managed by the government and the Jewish Agency.

“At this point, about $120 million a year are allocated by the government of Israel for various prorams that have to with the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish communities [outside of Israel,” said Galperin.

When Natan Sharansky left his seat in the Knesset to become head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, he started exploring what might be next – after or in conjunction with Birthright and MASA.

About one year ago, the PM empowered a team to explore that question in conjunction with leaders in the Diaspora. A late April 2013 meeting help by the PM with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett solidified that there would need to be something done.

“The prime minister said this is important for the Jewish people – that it is in the strategic interest of the Jewish people,” noted Galperin.

Several meetings, focus groups and a white paper later, led to the Nov. 6 to 7 meetings of world thought leaders in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma and the revelation that the government will invest likely double what it is investing now to ramp up programming for young Diaspora Jews. That money – though an exact amount could not be named – would be expected to be matched by overseas nonprofit organizations/philanthropists and by participants’ fees.

“I was personally very anxious about what would happen and how this would work,” said Galperin. “This is a very different planning model. For the government of Israel, it is revolutionary. The government has never done this before – engaged in a collaborative planning process with Diaspora and on-governmental organizations.”

What can Galperin say on the record now?

“This effort is moving ahead,” he said, noting that between now and April when the government would have to present a resolution and ensure funding for the initiative is allocated in the fiscal budget, “exactly what we are doing, in what sequence, how it is going to be evaluated and all that, has to be worked out.”

The outcome could have a fundamental impact on the destiny of the Jewish people – not so much in terms of the types of programming but in terms of how the programming is being worked out — this new method of Jewish collaboration.

Galperin said there will likely be a series of pilot projects in the first year, but details could not be available at this time. What he could say was that while initial talks were focused on growing Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel, and while that is still a part of it, “now we are talking about Jewish identity.”

View previous GA 2012 posts:
GA 2013: Opening Plenary at 7:15 P.M.>>
‘We Want To Hear From You’>>

Read what’s happening with the group traveling from Washington, D.C.>>