Tag Archives: Jewish

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 >>

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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!”

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

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.>>

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

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.>>

NSA Director Defends Surveillance Programs

The director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, opened a talk on cyber security Thursday, Nov. 11 in Baltimore by reminding attendees of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Every one of us remembers 9/11,” Alexander said, adding that the NSA office has a big photo of firemen running into the World Trade Center to save people. The firemen and police officers did everything they could to defend the country that day,” he said, and “we in the military and intelligence community said ‘we’ve got it from here.’”

“These are programs that were developed to defend this country,” Alexander said in reference to some of the agency’s surveillance programs that have recently come under fire for their broad scope and implications for individual privacy.

The talk, titled “Cyber Challenges,” was hosted by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs at the Hyatt Regency and filled the ballroom to near-capacity.

Alexander compared the responsibility of running these programs to holding a hornet’s nest. He doesn’t like having to do it, he said, but he and his agency continue to do so because “it is our fear that there will be a gap and the potential for another 9/11,” if they do not.

Alexander defended the programs and credited a lot of the negativity to misinformation distributed by the media.

The NSA, Alexander said, does not monitor the content of calls or emails, but rather just looks to see if any of the lines in its database are in contact with any numbers or emails associated with suspected terror organizations.

While individual privacy is a priority for the government, Alexander said, national security is the top priority. Not only is his and all of his family’s information in the database, but “to ensure their safety, I’d put that data in there every day.”

After Alexander’s talk, the floor opened for questions from attendees. When one questioner asked about recent reports of the NSA monitoring the phones of foreign heads of state, Alexander interrupted him.

“Alleged,” he interjected.

“I guarantee that these things do cut both ways,” he said by way of defense of any monitoring of foreign officials.

To another questioner, James Carew Rosapepe, Maryland state senator and former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, who asked Alexander about the justification for using tools intended for defending the country against terrorism against democratically elected heads of allied states, he responded that the NSA does not make the policies, it simply carries them out.

For a man who has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny lately, the reception at the event was relatively warm. With just a handful of protestors outside the hotel, there were very few signs indicating the degree to which the NSA has been the subject of such dispute over the past few months.

Stephanie Hershkovitz, who recently joined the Baltimore foreign affairs council, said the talk didn’t offer anything she considered to be especially groundbreaking.

“He was kind of a spokesperson today,” she said.

But, she added, as with most talks by high-ranking officials, “that’s the nature of the beast.”