Neither Babylon nor Jerusalem: Jewish Argentina

America and Israel loom large in the contemporary Jewish world. Conversations about global Judaism tend to focus on one or the other, or the connection between the two, but rarely touch on the other thriving, vibrant Jewish communities around the globe. If the Northeast Corridor is modern day Babylon, and Jerusalem is, well, modern day Jerusalem, what of the rest of the Jewish world? What of the Jews of my hometown Tacoma, WA, or the Jews of Wellington, New Zealand? Thanks to a generous program put together by the Joint Distribution Committee, this past week I was gifted the experience, along with nineteen other HUC-JIR students, to get an inside look at one of these far flung but vibrant Jewish communities, that of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The past half-century has been a difficult one for Argentina in general, and the Jewish community in particular. After a military dictatorship, devastating terrorist attacks on two Jewish landmarks, and a financial collapse, the community has risen from the ashes of their past to collectively build a bright future. After having run this gauntlet of historic horrors, they have emerged as energetic, optimistic, and most of all unified.

The week was spent touring many important landmarks and organizations that undergird and house the Jewish community both spiritually and pragmatically. We were greeted by organizations that provided social services for the most needy of the community, from childhood to eldercare, and honored all aspects of Jewish Argentina’s spiritual world, from maintaining now-defunct community buildings in rural areas to supporting new ventures, like their soon-to-open Reform seminary. Throughout our trip we witnessed the ideal of kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh embodied in a Jewish community which celebrates pluralism and finds ways to build together across economic and philosophical divides.

I returned home with new Torah from the wonderful community I was exposed to in Buenos Aires. This Torah was the necessity of collective local narrative. Argentinian Jews regularly make use of their history as a touch point for identity across all divides. The descendants of the Jewish Gauchos who raised cattle outside of the urban world as a way to escape a tumultuous czarist Russia and Eastern Europe, and of those who fled the horrors of World War Two, all viewed themselves as a single people. Through the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, the community was bonded together by trauma and internal support in reaction to the trauma. Their Judaism was not one of division by lineage, but one of connection through shared experience.

In a country as big and diverse as the United States, it is impossible to speak of a truly shared American identity. Each region, each city, each town, has its own story. These individual stories, which fuel the identities of Jewish Americans, must be lifted up and shared; must be used to create local and Jewish pride within each community. Like the Jews of Argentina, we must connect through our own shared histories, so that when we disagree, we can do so safely in the knowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This local Jewish identity can then be used not only to strengthen local communities, but also as a way to connect to our more distant neighbors, by comparing and contrasting our stories and selves, delighting in the points of similarity while discussing and learning from the points of difference.

This incredible trip opened up a world to me that may be closer in kind to that of many American Jews than Israel. The small but mighty Jewish population of Buenos Aires has a great deal to teach those Jews living neither in Babylon nor Jerusalem. As we step deeper into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, these smaller communities throughout the world will have a great deal to teach us about their already-developed local Jewish identity. We need only be willing to learn.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last three academic years.


Reform Judaism spirituality

Rabbi, I Don’t Need Religion to Be a Good Person

I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.

Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.

Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.

I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi. 

News spirituality Torah

Reading Between the Lies: Religion, Truthfulness and Nuance

It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion when religion goes under the social science microscope. Consider a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. The survey, “Religion in Everyday Life,”[1] does a good job examining differences in belief and behavior between “highly religious” and “not highly religious” people. But one observation about the faithful and truth telling calls for a more nuanced conversation.

The report finds that “highly religious people” are generally happier with life, more involved with extended family, more likely to volunteer, read the Bible, donate money, time or goods to help the poor, attend religious services, rest on the Sabbath, and rely on prayer when making personal decisions. Beyond these differences, there are similarities: Members of both groups tend to get the same amount of exercise, make as many socially conscious consumer decisions, lose their temper as often, recycle as much – and to the point of truth and falsehood – admit to telling little white lies: 39% of “highly religious” admitted to telling a little lie in the previous week, as opposed to 45% of “not highly religious.” That’s a six percent difference; enough to make a winner out of a presidential candidate, but not very much in this kind of study. We can say that 4 in ten surveyed people – highly religious or not – told a white lie in ANY given week.

It might be surprising to hear that highly religious people lie so often, especially since many of the surveyed highly religious people called “being honest all the time” “essential.” You’d expect more honesty from religious folks – “They should practice what they faiths preach!” – but not so fast. We have to “read between the lies.” To be sure, truth telling is “essential,” yet my faith and others also affirms that that telling a lie – little or big – may well be the moral thing to do. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’ve looked forward to a good friend’s wedding and the day has finally arrived. You’re at the reception, and, as much as you love your friend, this wedding, like any other, is not perfect – it could be the food, the band or any of a number of things. Nevertheless, when the wedding couple comes to your table and asks, “Are you having a good time?”  you reply with an enthusiastic “Today is absolutely perfect!”

Now that’s not the biggest lie a person could tell. The point is that Judaism teaches that kind of lie is no sin, and I am sure that many other faithful would agree.

Centuries ago, the disciples of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai apparently faced a similar wedding question, when a bride – or groom for that matter –  must have asked, “How do I look?”  Shammai, stickler for the letter of the law, instructs the wedding guest to speak of “a bride as she is.” Be honest, for better or for worse. But Hillel has a different opinion. Tell her she’s “a beautiful and graceful bride.” Be positive. Be polite.

In response, Shammai points to the book of Exodus (23:7) – “Keep far from falsehood” – and insists truth be told, regardless. Now, Hillel knows what the book of Exodus says and he doesn’t need a reminder. Hillel believes in the moral good of a lie told to prevent hurt feelings. And the Talmud goes on to say that “From this the Sages concluded that a person should always conduct oneself in a pleasant manner” as when speaking with a groom or bride. (Ketubot 16b -17a) So don’t come to the wrong conclusion: There may be no inconsistency when “highly religious people” preach honestly yet practice lying that serves a higher goal, such as sparing someone’s feelings, saving a life, or keeping the peace. To the point of the recently released survey, we have to keep an eye open to nuance with discussing religion, truth and falsehood. Yes, those who are highly religious and those who are not may appear to lie to a similar degree, but that religious person’s lie is different when it honors a faith teaching that insists a particular kind of little lie serves higher moral good.

So there may be nothing at all hypocritical when religious folks call truthfulness “essential” and then go out and tell little lies. Jewish tradition and other faith teachings – along with common sense – recognize that a little lie can have a positive impact.

Rabbi Dennis S. Ross, MSW, serves East End Temple in New York City. 




How is Your Jewish Self?

Out of nowhere, in a Facebook message, she asked her father, who is more Jewish– you or Rabbi Kedar?

And so, in a Facebook message to me, he relayed the message, my daughter wants to know who is more Jewish, me or you.

I answered; we are not in a contest, no winner or loser. Just a journey toward expansiveness. I walk with you, I said to him. Let us consider together a few more questions. My guess is, I said, we are equally engaged in four of the five categories? He agreed.

And so now I ask you, how is your Jewish self?

Judaism is belonging: Do I claim Judaism as my past, my tradition, my heritage and my people? Do I cast my destiny with the Jewish people? Do Jewish rituals, customs matter to me? Am I part of a Jewish community? Do I participate in that community? Do I care? Do I belong?

Judaism is choice and consciousness: Am I a Jew by default or by intention? Is my Judaism white noise in the background until some event turns up the volume? Like High Holidays. Or my child’s Bar Mitzvah. Or when someone I love dies. Or an attack on Israel. When I am uncomfortable do I hide my Jewishness? Even at work? Am I satisfied with a seventh grade Jewish education? Or do I choose more?

Judaism is a perspective: Do I see the world through the lens of my Jewish sense of ethics? Is the Jewish story my story? Am I aware of being Jewish everyday? Is Judaism an integrated part of my life? When I see, watch the world and when I try to understand my life, do I have a Jewish filter? Sometimes? Ever?

Judaism is what I do: Do I pray? Bless? Study? Read? Give away my time and volunteer? Give away my money and help others? Do I give away my kindness, and heal? Do I have a sense of obligation to behave in a Jewish way? Do I feel the rhythm of the Jewish calendar? Does Jewish time enter into my time? Shabbat? Holidays?

Judaism is tending to the spirit: Am I aware of my spiritual life? Do I talk to God? Do I allow myself to struggle with my faith? Does my life have meaning? Do I have purpose? Do I sit quietly, settle down. Ever? Do I practice love?

I pose the questions, to me, to you. Everyday is an answer.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE, in Deerfield, IL.


European Conversions to Judaism

During the past 19 years I have witnessed the revival of European Jewry, especially the growth of Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism in Europe. Initially, in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands were there established Progressive Movements able to organise National beit din.  But as new communities were formed in cities and countries, where there was only one or no rabbi, a need was felt to establish a central beit din to deal with issues like Giyur, Gittin and other rabbinic matters.  And so the European Union for Progressive Judaism established the European Beit Din (EBD). The EBD is based in London and is able to keep a database of conversion done in Europe and discusses common standards accepted by European Beit Din.

In the 1990’s, the amazing growth of the Progressive Movement in Germany meant that Germans could form their own national beit din.  Switzerland is also now able to form a national beit din.  At present, the EBD provides services for communities in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Spain.  In addition, it occasionally deals with candidates from European countries with no official Progressive congregation (e.g. Greece, the Balkans, and Norway.)  The EBD also keeps in close contact with the Israeli Progressive Movement Beit Din and with the frequent changes in conditions in place for aliyah by various Israeli authorities.

We have become aware that a number of Europeans have sought conversion by American rabbis.  These Europeans travel to America and appear before an established beit din. Other times, they are being converted by lone rabbis briefly traveling to Europe and interviewing the candidate at the airport. Some conversions are even taking place over the internet.

In some cases, American rabbis might not have been aware of the availability of Reform/Progressive beit din in Europe.  I have provided their contact details below.

I do urge our American colleagues not to consider converting Europeans currently living in Europe.  This conversion may not be accepted should the candidate seek to join a European Progressive congregation, and may cause problems if the person later wishes to make aliyah.  In addition, we find it less than collegial to consider converting people from outside of your country (or continent); and action that goes against the Halachic principle of ‘hasagat gevul’ (see: Walter Jacob, Contemporary American Reform Responsa, #1.) Of course, there is no objection to dealing with a European individual residing in North America.

Contact details of established European Progressive Beit Din:

European Beit Din
Convenor: Rabbi Jackie Tabick

Rabbi Alexander Lyskowoy, Aw Beit Hadin

Av Beit Hadin: Rabbi François Garaï

Allgemeine Rabbinerkonferenz Deutschland
Aw Bet Hadin: Rabbi Henry Brandt

Coordinator: Rabbi Ruven Bar Ephraim

The Netherlands
Av Bet Hadin: Rabbi Menno ten Brink

United Kingdom Liberal Judaism
Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein

United Kingdom Movement for Reform Judaism
Convenor: Rabbi Jackie Tabick

Rabbi Ruven Bar Ephraim serves Or Chadash Congregation in Zurich, Switzerland. He also is the Rabbinic Advisor to the European Union for Progressive Judaism.

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Perspectives on the Pew

And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Fiddler on the Roof 

Is Judaism a religion? Is Jewishness a matter of culture? Are the Jews a nation? These are modern questions….

—Leorah Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion

October 1st was a funny day.  I woke up to a stuffed e-mail inbox filled with messages from family, friends and colleagues, who all sent me a link to the same article in that morning’s New York Times.  The Pew Research Foundation had just published the results of a major population study entitled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, and it seemed everyone wanted to talk about it.  An hour later, when I walked into a meeting at the offices of UJA in White Plains, everyone in a room filled with Jewish professionals either had their nose in the newspaper, or was waving around the front page as we wondered what it all meant.

I imagine the Jewish community will be responding to the data from this survey for quite some time, just as we did following the Jewish Population Studies undertaken by the United Jewish Communities in 1990 and 2000.  But there is one major headline from this survey that I think is more interesting and complex than even the people at Pew realize: the discovery, which represents a significant increase, that 22% of American Jews describe themselves as “having no religion”.  This revelation, as you might imagine, is the source of great consternation in the organized Jewish community.

But this number is not surprising to me, and, in some ways, not even troubling.  I will tell you why.  Often, people come into my office—especially when they are joining the synagogue—so we can begin building a meaningful relationship.  We talk of families, upbringings, relationships with synagogues and much more.  And a line I hear more often than not—importantly, from people who are about to join a temple!—is something along the lines of the following: “Being Jewish is really important to me, but I’m not religious.”  To me, this is the same phenomenon of someone replying, “no” to the Pew poll’s question, “Are you Jewish by religion?”  And to me, for years, this is a fascinating phenomenon.

I have long wondered what it means for a Jew to claim that being Jewish was vitally important at the same time they downplayed the role of religion.  I used to think these people were ceding the definition of “religious” to the Orthodox, and were basically distinguishing themselves from Jews who wear black hats and earlocks, or wigs and long skirts.  But soon I came to realize that something deeper was happening.  As I became more and more comfortable probing the statement “I’m Jewish but not religious” with people, I began to discover (in my very unscientific sampling) that people were expressing either an ambivalence about belief in God or a disconnect from the power of prayer.  Sometimes, “I’m not religious” was code for saying, “Judaism is incredibly important to me, even though I’m not sure I believe in God and don’t really feel anything significant is happening when I sit in the sanctuary for services.”  To my ears, that statement translates as follows: I’m a committed Jew, but no synagogue or individual has ever helped me understand how I can consider myself fully Jewish if I have doubts or reservations about faith and prayer.  And if that’s what people really mean when they say “I’m Jewish but not religious,” then it’s a miracle that only 22% of American Jews feel this way!

jew-overview-2For as long as there has been a Jewish people, Jews have had serious questions and conflicts about faith and prayer.  Pharaoh in Egypt was the first one to call us a people; the same generation he enslaved, once they were free and found themselves at Mt. Sinai meeting God, fell into such a quandary of faith forty days later that they built the Golden Calf.  Before this generation, Abraham—the first Jew—questioned whether God would deliver on the divine promise for a large family, considering Abraham was 100 years old and had no son.  His daughter-in-law Rebekkah, and her daughter-in-law Rachel also confronted God with fundamental, existential anguish.  Our Prophets castigated our ancestors for roughly 200 years of questioning God; our biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes wonder aloud how anyone can believe in God, given the state of the world.  As much as Jews have been a people of The Book for millennia, so too have we been a people of questioning and doubt, especially regarding the God we call Adonai.

But this lack of faith, or evolving faith of every individual, has done little to stem centuries of Jewish commitment to a Jewish way of life.  Generations of Jews have embraced Torah—literally and figuratively—even though they didn’t necessarily embrace God or prayer at the same time.  Judaism has long been much more about living a certain way of life, following a certain path, halakha, a way of walking through our world, than it has been about subscription to any sort of creed of belief or fidelity.   We are obligated to mitzvot, commandments, even if we have our doubts about Who issued those commands.  Agnostics and athiests light Shabbat candles, lead Passover Seders, and engage in the work of Tikkun Olam as much as do the fully faithful.  Our tradition considers all these people Jews, with no distinction.  They are all part of the Jewish people, regardless of belief.

Importantly, the Hebrew language has no word for “religion”.  The word dat, which is Modern Hebrew for “religion” is in fact a loan word from ancient Persian that snuck itself into the book of Daniel in the mouth of a Persian politician describing our people.  The Hebrew way—and thus authentically Jewish way—to talk about Judaism has nothing to do with religion: we are a people.  We are called Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, or B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel.  We are a conglomeration of ethics, morals, rituals and practices accumulated by people willing (sometimes in the least friendly of environments) to call themselves Jews.  Princeton Professor Leora Batnitzky rightly teaches us that Jews only began to consider themselves a religion (which is a European, Christian way of understanding faith) when Jews began to live in closer emancipated quarters with non-Jews in the modern age.  Going back through history to Abraham, fewer than 22% of Jews in history would even know what the word religion (in any language) meant, let alone consider themselves “religious”.  Instead, we would likely define ourselves as Tevye did so aptly in the great Broadway musical: we Jews are a tradition.

So I am one Rabbi, and perhaps the only Rabbi, who is not terribly concerned that many modern Jews do not define themselves by a term neither Jewish nor particularly descriptive of Jewish practice: religious.  Instead, I am encouraged that so many Jews (69%) express that leading an ethical life is essential to their Jewishness, that an equal number (70%) attended or hosted a Seder last year, and that more than half (56%) say that working for justice (what we call tzedakah) is core to their Jewish identity.  These Jews are all maintaining Jewish tradition and building their Jewish identity, which has been the real work of our people since the days of Abraham and Sarah.

  Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

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Month One: Thoughts from a New Rabbi

I have frequently been telling others that now that I am a rabbi, my dreams have become a reality.  Yet, I’m not quite sure how real this reality feels.  There are days in which I still feel like the student Rabbi who visits his pulpit for the weekend, or the rabbinic intern who has a myriad of responsibilities that exposes him to all aspects of congregational life.  I sometimes have to be reminded that when someone refers to someone as “rabbi,” they very well could be talking about me.   Even with the numerous signs in my synagogue that addresses me as “Rabbi P.J. Schwartz,” I still think I am in the dream and this is not my reality.

During my second unit of CPE, we spoke a lot about the power of a title such as rabbi.  I always asked, “Where does P.J. fit in all of this?”  I have learned that being a rabbi and being P.J. are not separate things, but two aspects of who I am that are inextricably linked together.  In some sense, my name has become my title, and my title as become my name.  Believe it or not, I know which rabbi my administrative assistant is referring to when she speaks about my Senior or I.  “P.J.” and “Rabbi” have become interchangeable terms and I’m getting used to the idea that maybe I am no longer visiting my student pulpit or no longer an intern.

Transitions are difficult, and I can’t deny the fact that transitioning from student to working professional or in my case rabbinical student to Rabbi has been overwhelming and exciting, scary and thrilling, and nerve-wracking and affirming.  As my eyes begin to open, the dream begins to fade, and the reality sinks in, I am constantly reminded of the fact that we are in the month of Elul.  We are supposed to reflect upon our transitions, our growth, and our lesser strengths.  We are supposed to think about what it means to have a support team, reexamining how we manage our time, and explore what we can do to renew ourselves for the year to come.  I’ve always looked at my Judaism as a road map for how I should live.  In this case, my Judaism is guiding me, one day at time, as I fully integrate myself into this new role.  My excitement only grows as we head to the kickoff events of the year and I start to meet more congregants.  Soon enough, the hallways will be filled with kids from the Early Childhood Center and Religious School, my days will be filled with planning meetings, programs, and kids hopefully will be calling me Rabbi P.J.! (which, of course, is my solution to the name and title dilemma).

May my reflections inspire you to reflect in this month of Elul, and may the year to come be as sweet as you want it to be, inspirational as you need it to be, and awe-filled as it can be.

Rabbi PJ Schwartz is Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, in Westport, CT.