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controversial observations

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 16, 2014

Weird Pew Stats

I know I’m about a bajillion years late to the Pew party, but sometimes you see stats in a new format and it just grabs you in a different way.  Ya know?  I saw this little chart in the OU (as in Orthodox Union) magazine.  And I was like, huh?  Let’s go through the categories one by one.


I know anecdotally that for many non-Orthodox Jews, identity as kids was all about the Holocaust.  I get that.  But Orthodox kids are far more likely to be children and grandchildren of European Jews than American ones, and therefore more directly affected by the Holocaust.  So I wonder how this question was posed for the study.  Was “remembering the Holocaust” measured only when expressed in societally-organized, institutional ways?  For me, having survivor grandparents means I am cognizant of my transiency in the USA in a way that seeps into daily life, although my Jewish identity and schooling as a child wasn’t really about the Holocaust.


Again, I’m not really sure what an “ethical life” is measured by.  Volunteerism outside of the Jewish community?  Not surfing the web at work?  Returning the extra change at Nordstrom?  Creating chessed organizations?  In any event, the Modern Orthodox community leads the way here, at a whopping 90%.  Reform does pretty well as compared to Conservative which is probably due to their emphasis on tikkun olam as a value and as a form of Jewish expression and observance.


How this overlaps and differs from the above, I’m not sure, but there wasn’t a huge disparity in the numbers – only 16 percentage points, which is the smallest range, aside from “having a sense of humor” (at 13 percentage points). Nevertheless, Reform performs best here, and I’m assuming we are talking about justice and equality on a communal, societal and global level (classic tikkun olam).  In general, this category shows a pretty steady upward progression from Ultra-Orthodox to Reform, aside from a small dip at the Conservative station, but again, the differences are truly slight.  My guess is that the more Orthodox you get, the more likely you are to perform these acts of tikkun olam specifically for Jews.  I am not sure if that weighs in as heavily in this category.


Modern Orthodox wins this one, and this backs up a very interesting observation I’ve made over the years. The Modern Orthodox community definitely shows a strong bias toward classes and programs that focus on the intellectual, whereas “regular” Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox would be more likely to offer classes and programs that are motivational, spiritual, or emotional.  In general, I think our community needs both, but I’ve noticed Modern Orthodox people attending spiritual/motivational programs that we’ve offered at our outreach center, as these themes are not as available in their community.  I think some Modern Orthodox scholars consider a reliance on the spiritual or mystical to be backward or a sellout.  In my opinion, we as a community are thirsting for these offerings, and need them badly to remain inspired in our faith.  For the record, I don’t think it indicates that other kinds of Jews are NOT intellectually curious – frankly, I think it’s a human drive – but the focus on it in the Modern Orthodox community is unmistakable.

The 25% in the Ultra Orthodox gives me pause.  What does this mean?  Torah scholarship in these communities is the highest in all categories – even among women. Your average Ultra-Orthodox woman is far more likely than your average Conservative woman to know texts, to have learned rationales behind Jewish practices, and to be conversant in Hebrew.  Does “intellectual curiosity” mean outside of Torah?  Does it reflect interest as opposed to knowledge?


If you’re talking about Zionism, of course the Modern Orthodox community is most likely to be Zionistic, to make aliyah, and to financially support the State of Israel.  But if you’re talking about loving the Land of Israel for its holiness, visiting it, praying for it, and sending its kids to study there, the Ultra-Orthodox community is doing pretty darn well.  In fact, JWRP, a Jewish women’s organization, subsidizes women to travel to Israel – but not if you’re Orthodox.  Because research shows that Orthodox women are far more likely to travel to Israel on their own and thus do not have to be subsidized.  This is true across the Orthodox spectrum.


Really?  This category confused me.  Why is it here?  Whatevs.  Seems we’re not all that funny in the final analysis.  Apparently Seinfeld is an outlier.  Although it makes sense that he has no denomination.  It seems the less observant/religious you are, the more likely you are to be funny.  Harrumph.  I’m officially offended! Us Orthodox are hilarious.  We make fun of ourselves all the time.  Moving along.


No major surprises here, other than the slight rise within the Orthodox world from Ultra to Modern, with the greatest emphasis on this value existing in Modern Orthodoxy.  I think this may have something to do with the social aspect of belonging that is of high importance within Modern Orthodoxy, hence spawning “social Orthodoxy.”


Again, pretty predictable here, with a downward progression from Ultra-Orthodox to “no denomination.” See the second footnote where it says that 8 out of 10 Orthodox Jews say that observing the law is the essence of being Jewish.  I imagine a Reform Jew might say tikkun olam?


Really?  But yes, I’ve learned that people really care about this in terms of identity.  Ironically, what I have seen partially contradicts the above report.  I’ve found that while “more Orthodox” people are more likely to have Jewish foods on a regular basis (mostly because of Shabbat), it is more important to Reform Jews as a form of identity and connection.

What do you agree/disagree with?
What would you say is the essence of Judaism for you?

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 6, 2014

Blog Roundup: Female Orthodox Clergy, Israel’s Special Unit, Oprah on Shabbat, and more

Although the Jewish world is still reeling from the murders of the three Israeli boys, there have been lots of other things cooking on the interwebs.

1. Rabbah Sara Hurwitz

Orthodoxy’s first female [fill in word of choice here] came to Cleveland to speak recently, sparking locally a huge wave of controversy that is brewing within the larger Orthodox world. Here’s another response to the issue in general.

As an aside, I find it interesting that while in English, our language is moving more toward gender-neutrality, Hebrew will never be gender-neutral.  Therefore, while in English, the word “rabbi” has been broadened to include women, in Hebrew a new, gender-specific noun must be chosen, and what that noun will be is still under debate.

That said, here’s what I posted on Facebook on the subject (granted, in the middle of a conversation):

…another important question that I believe is underlying this entire discussion. It also will clarify why I don’t have a problem with men running the show in established clergy positions. That is: are you willing to accept the status quo in normative Orthodox Judaism, or are you seeking to push the boundaries to where they have not been before? I am not casting aspersion on the second option, but I will say that if your starting point is that women should have as great a role as possible within clergy then no one should be surprised when that endeavor is met with resistance and push back. I accept the status quo and proceed from there. I don’t feel I ever got mixed messages since we didn’t learn Gemara as a subject as I was never taught that men and women do the same things. Am I stupider or happier? Pathetic for not questioning and pushing the status quo, or more fulfilled internally for it? I guess everyone can make their own judgments. I’ll say this. I feel that I am reaching my potential as a Jewish woman leader doing exactly what I’m doing. I find no boundaries or frustrations. That is my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

2. Israel’s Special Ed Unit

Grab some tissues, because you’ll need them for this.  Seriously, is there ANY country like Israel???

3. Your Life In Weeks

Not specifically Jewish, but this was a good piece of mussar – wisdom that helps remind you why you’re here on this earth.

4. Oprah Learns About Sabbath

I found this video interesting from a Shabbat-observant perspective, of course, but a little cheesy from the Oprah perspective.  I like Oprah a lot actually, but what does she mean she didn’t “know” Sabbath was on Saturday?  Wouldn’t you just say you didn’t know it was “originally” on Saturday, until Christians changed it to Sunday?  There was one line in there that I loved – something like, if a door opens for you, and your faith doesn’t fit through that door, don’t walk through that door.  In any case, this is a cool guy (who is apparently famous) standing up for his religious values in Hollywood.  Thumbs up from me, for sure.

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized July 1, 2014

Was All That Praying a Waste?

My friend Andrea is our guest blogger today. See end for Andrea’s bio.

What horrible news we had yesterday, about Eyal, Gilad and Naftali A”H, the boys murdered in Israel 18 days ago. As Jews and non-Jews everywhere reel from the news, I am starting to see the question pop up, on my Facebook feed,  in blog entries and on a bulletin board that I frequent: questioning what the point was to all that praying everyone did.

Now, I am not the biggest “pray-er.” I do take challah and pray for people on a regular basis, but I find that spontaneous prayer works better for me than reading psalms or formalized prayers.  In the time that the boys were missing, what I saw in news, on social media, and in communities everywhere, was an incredible number of people praying, doing mitzvot and reading psalms, in the merit of the return of the boys. I saw the people of Israel, and so many of our friends, coming together – unified by our desire to see the boys home safe.

In addition, many of us, if not all of us, recognized the unity that was sweeping across the world of Judaism and were impressed that three missing boys could cause such an incredible shift in the old adage “two Jews, three opinions.”  We had one opinion and it was very clearly “Bring them back home safe.”
While we now know that by the time people started davening for them, they were dead, I believe that those prayers were still heard.  It is because we cannot change what has already happened with prayer, and once a prayer is spoken it cannot be taken back, that I believe that those prayers were all heard. They were heard by the world, who saw that Jews were coming together and praying (not reacting in violence), they were heard by ourselves, as aforementioned, and most of all, by God.  If you don’t believe in God, then all that good karma was out there and is still coming back to us…
This past Thursday, my daughter was in an accident.  It was  a very serious situation and one which, if any one of ten different things had gone differently, I would be sitting shiva right now. In fact, it is miraculous that all ten of those things did not happen. After seeing the question “Why did we bother?”  I decided that all that davening, and all those mitzvot and all that ahavat yisrael acted  to make it possible that instead of a tragedy, in or family, we are dealing with “just” an accident, instead of a tragic one.
God heard our prayers.  God saw our achdut (unity) and all the amazing mitzvot done in the merit of the safe return of the boys.  I believe that because there was nothing else that could be done for them, all the incredible goodness that was generated by these prayers and actions, was redirected.
Some people may have survived car wrecks, chemo might have worked, or aerosol cans blew up and yet the injury was “just” like a bad sunburn. In addition, many people were praying for the safety of the members of the IDF who were looking for the boys, and the delay in the discovery of their bodies meant that the IDF had legitimate opportunity to discover the smuggling tunnels, weapons production locations and to confiscate whole arsenals that will not be used against Israel now.

A friend pointed out all of the above and that we will never know how many lives have been saved by removing those threats.

Do you know someone who suffered in the past 17 days from something that could have been much worse and wasn’t?  Do you know someone who walked away from something that should have killed them?  Maybe they, and by extension, you, we, klal yisrael were the beneficiaries of that good outcome precisely BECAUSE we all showed such achdut and we all prayed and did mitzvot!  This may not be the answer we wanted or expected but it is absolutely an answer!
So I, a Jewish mother who is NOT sitting shiva today, believe that your prayers and our achdut are the reason for that. Thank you!
Your prayers in the merit  of a speedy and complete recovery for Ariel Mia bat Chana Miriam very much appreciated. and it was very clearly “Bring them back.
Andrea Levy considers herself an “Under-Constructionist Jew.” Formerly a non-observant, mostly cultural Jew, Andrea and her family are very pleased to have grown in the direction of increased observance of mitzvot. She is married to Marc Schwartz and has two children, Max and Ariel. Collectively, the family is known as “The Schwevys.” Andrea owns a business providing Kosher Catering in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as working as a kosher supervisor for the Hamilton Va’ad Hakashrut. She is the lead volunteer for the Adas Israel Synagogue’s United Shabbat programme. Andrea enjoys post apocalyptic and dystopian books and loves all things Zombie and Vampire.
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 30, 2014


As I sat down to blog, the news reports starting flying in. Unconfirmed rumors at first, quickly morphing into verified news reports with the worst.

The boys were gone.

 Everything else just pales in comparison. What, I should talk about Oprah’s interview with a Seventh Day Adventist? Link an article about how community is the number one compelling factor in Jewish engagement? Include something about which we disagree? Link a cutesy icon with the title of this post?

I don’t think so.

One of the most chilling – in a good way – things about this whole awful event was how united we became. We all prayed – no matter what our affiliation. We all cared – no matter what our beliefs. We all were united in our fear, hope, and ultimately grief.

Can we keep that up? That awareness that nothing supersedes unity? That while it takes the worst events to bring it out, maybe we can try, just a little, in their merits, to keep it up?

Can we sing the sad song together?

While there are no words, Judaism does give us words. Those words are “baruch dayan ha-emet” – blessed is the true judge. It’s one of the hardest mitzvot to fulfill. To affirm, in our pain, that God is a just and compassionate power. Jews all over the world are saying it, are singing that sad song.

May the souls of Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali find peace and honor and may God avenge their murders.

That is all. No more words.

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 26, 2014

Eli Talks #4: Can’t Buy Jewish Continuity?

Our fourth and final installment of our Eli Talks summer series. It’s been a great partnership!
This piece is in a way the lightest of the four, and in another way completely radical and riveting. I have been thinking about its message since viewing it back in May (ages ago).

Eli Talks’ director Miriam Brosseau says:
For a long time this was the most-viewed talk in the ELI catalog, and with good reason. Sam Glassenberg is an engaging, enthusiastic guy with a solid idea and a cute kid. But it wasn’t just that. This is a talk that ruffled a few feathers. (Here’s one response. And here’s one more.)
The heart of the argument was often this question: should Jewish life be a for-profit venture?
Oscar Wilde has a great quote, “Nowadays people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” What is the relationship between cost and value? How should that relationship play out when we’re talking about something as important as Jewish continuity, or Jewish education? And ultimately how sustainable is either the non-profit or the for-profit approach? (For more on the “cost of free,” check out this talk by Dr. David Bryfman.)
For me, this is a question that comes down to lining up your strategy and your goals. What do we want to accomplish, and how can we be true to who we are and stick to the principles that guide us along the way? Whichever path we take – whether for-profit, non-profit, or something else completely – we need to ask and honestly answer: does the method fit the message?
OOTOB’s Ruchi Koval says:
There’s a long-standing debate in modern Jewish education: should we charge fees for Jewish education, or pay kids to learn?
Your instinctive response might be emotionally driven, so take a sec here and think this through. Traditional day school costs money, while supplemental education is usually also rewarded with college credits or other incentives.
If the most important goal is to get our kids to love learning (see Judaism, Unbearable Lightness) then shamelessly bribing them to motivate that initial foray is an awesome idea. But why does it feel somewhat slimy to pay kids to learn Torah?
People usually value things they have paid for, as opposed to things they get for free.  Personal investment and all that. But why does it feel ethically wrong to charge money to learn Torah?
So we’re stuck between a rock and hard place, both ethically, and in terms of evidence-based success.
This talk touches briefly on that theme. It brashly challenges standard trends in education. Tell me what you think.
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 23, 2014

Rude Orthodox Men

Hi Ruchi,
Was wondering what your thoughts were on this. 
The woman that I work for, who is an unaffiliated Jew, went into the local kosher takeout place yesterday to pick up an order. I go out socially with her and some other friends once a month. They are so respectful and accommodating and want me to be able to eat. They either order from a kosher restaurant or check with me before they buy something from the grocery, and serve on all paper/plastic.

So she asks me in front of the other women last night to explain to her why observant Jews seem to be so unfriendly. She goes on to say that she was waiting at the restaurant to get her order and there was a man with his wife and kids also waiting at the counter. She said in non-Jewish restaurants (elevators, bank lines, etc.) people say hello or might make small talk. She said the people at this kosher place were so unfriendly.
She typically dresses VERY conservatively. She happened to have a sleeveless dress on yesterday with a somewhat plunging neckline, which was out of character for her. So I explained to her that religious men try to be careful about having too much conversation with other women.
I have another friend who is the receptionist at my other office who asked the same thing about a religious man who comes in and barely (if at all) looks at her. If you are not observant, you don’t get this at all. It just seems flat out rude and then these women associate that behavior with Orthodox Jews across the board and probably mention it in conversation to their other friends.
So I understand and value men not making too much conversation with another woman (especially if she is not dressed very modestly) but it affects us religious Jewish people as a whole in such a negative way sometimes. I don’t have an answer. Do you?
Controversial Observations, Uncategorized June 19, 2014

Eli Talks #3: Two Zions

Welcome to Eli Talks #3, A Tale of Two Zions.

The main reason I chose this particular talk out of the selections Miriam sent me is this: I disagree completely with most of it.  More later.

First, here’s the talk, and a comment about the name “Mishael.”  I think it is an excellent name.  I wonder why it’s not more common.  Daniel, Mishael and Azariah were a threesome but somewhere along the way Mishael fell off the name wagon.  OK.  Onward, or as they say so pithily in Israel, “Yala!”

Eli Talks’ Miriam Brosseau says:
Rabbi Mishael Zion is nothing if not a family man (he even wrote a haggadah with his father); and that includes his extended family of the entire Jewish people. Which makes the premise of his talk all the more provocative. What does it mean for a family to be simultaneously united and divided?
In some ways, I find his premise to be totally intuitive. Of course! It’s a descriptive talk, not a prescriptive one. This is just how it is! And I love the way he intertwines Hillel’s deceptively simple teaching about responsibility and selfhood.
In other ways, it’s an unsettling position. The Land of Israel isn’t the only great dream of the Jewish people? And hey, even if we are talking about Israel and America (or Jerusalem and New York, as it sometimes feels), what about the rest of the Jewish world? What are they, chopped liver?
Ultimately I do think it’s a prescriptive talk – a talk that’s trying to encourage a sense of mindfulness. We are a people with a project…or two. We are in it together. So we should learn from and with one another and get it together. Cuz if not now, when?
(And if you liked this talk, a good companion piece is Gidi Grinstein’s “Flexigidity.”)
OOTOB’s Ruchi Koval says:

I mean, I loved the stories about the grandfather – how could you not?  And of course about working together, etc.  But there’s  underlying premise here that I really just can’t get around, and the irony is I felt that way when I first watched this talk a couple of weeks ago, before #bringbackourboys.  Before Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali were kidnapped – three kids, teens, unarmed – just for being Jews.  Not for being Israelis mind you, as one is not Israeli but rather American.
How can we say we’re better off than in our ghettos, when there are plenty of neighborhoods – shockingly, the whole middle chunk of the country – that is unsafe for Jews?  How can we say our dreams have come true when kids are kidnapped for no reason whatsoever?  How can we say this is the successful story of our arrival?  By the same token, how can we say the Diaspora experience is the fulfillment?  The only thing Israel has over America is its holiness.  And it had that before 1948.  If you look at our prayers, it’s all about Israel.  Every single thing we say references Israel.  “God, thanks for the awesome meal!  Oh, and bring us back to Israel!”  Really.  True story.
And part of that is fulfilled by Israel today.  The holiness.  The intensity.  The opportunities for Jewish expression.  But much is NOT fulfilled.  Much is unfulfilled.  And it’s unfulfilled in the Diaspora too.  That’s why we continue to wait for the Messiah… may it be soon.

In this vein, not only isn’t the rest of Diaspora “chopped liver” (yum) but Israel is the epicenter from which all radii, um, radiate.  So Israel, then unifies us ALL.  No matter which Jew I am chatting with, Israel is something we can talk about, even if no one has been there.  This actually happened to me at a rest stop in upstate NY when three teens with tattoos and chains walked in.  I was terrified, till they came over and seriously bageled me!  In Hebrew! We all care about it.  Most of us know someone there!  (The only thing that really comes even halfway close is Jewish NY’s weird relationship with Miami.) So Israel, far from being a competitor (!) to “us,” is a unifier.