Miriam Shaviv

  • Locking up the women - in the name of modesty

    Sep 4, 2008

    Four years ago, Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, chairman of the rabbinic court in Bnei Brak, asked righteous women to kindly leave shul before the service was over, for reasons of ‘modesty’ – ie so that they should not mingle with the men.

    But what if the women didn’t want to leave early? A shul in Tzfat has come up with a rather ingenious solution:

    New guidelines imposed at the Breslover Shul in Tzfas determine women must leave after Shabbos morning Davening before Aleinu, or they are locked inside the women's gallery until men make their exit. According to the new rule, after Aleinu the women's gallery is locked for 15 minutes, during which the men make their exit. The women's gallery is then reopened to allow those who didn't make it out in time to leave.

    As if physically locking up the women (why is it never the men?) wasn’t horrifying enough, the shul didn’t even bother telling them they were doing it – leading to distressing scenes:

    "In the beginning we thought someone had locked the women's gallery from outside by mistake, but as time went on we realized we had been locked in purposefully, without being informed," said one woman, a guest who attended the Shul on a recent Shabbos. "It was horrible; dozens of women banging on the door trying to get out. In the men's gallery someone yelled to the manager 'the women have been locked in!' The men didn't know about it either, and many of them stood helplessly outside waiting for their wives."

    Somehow, in the ever more radical search for “modesty”, all common sense seems to have been lost. Not to mention dignity, kindness and respect for others.


  • Tony Blair's sister-in-law: 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of Gaza!'

    Sep 4, 2008

    So Lauren Booth – journalist and, rather more famously, sister of Cherie Blair – is stuck in Gaza after being turned away from the Israeli and Egyptian crossings.

    She arrived in the Palestinian territory last week on a boat with 45 other activists, aiming to defy Israel’s blockade of the Strip – and to show solidarity with the Palestinians.

    Now she is complaining that she can’t leave.

    Apparently, a week of solidarity is quite enough, thank you very much!

    (Note of caution: according to the BBC, “sources claim that Ms Booth was offered an opportunity to leave Gaza over the weekend, but she declined to take it up” – which would make this just one more publicity-seeking exercise – and a very successful one at that.)

    See also: Israellycool ; Meryl Yourish

  • Barack Obama's Jewish mishpocha

    Sep 4, 2008

    So who is the most ‘Jewish’ presidential candidate in America? Now that Joe Lieberman has missed out on being named Republican running mate, the slot is wide-open.

    And according to the New York’s Forward, the unexpected answer is….. Barack Obama. Not only was he once a Shabbos Goy – his wife has a bona fide rabbi in the family:

    Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, and Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a mostly black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side, are first cousins once removed. Funnye’s mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye (born Verdelle Robinson) and Michelle Obama’s paternal grandfather, Frasier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.

    Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) is chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago. He is well-known in Jewish circles for acting as a bridge between mainstream Jewry and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations, sometimes known as black Hebrews or Israelites. He has often urged the larger Jewish community to be more accepting of Jews who are not white…

    Funnye converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi under the supervision of black Israelite rabbis, then went through another conversion supervised by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis. He serves on the Chicago Board of Rabbis.”

    Funnye describes himself as an independent but says he has donated money to the Obama campaign and is “cheering it on”.

    Considering his at-times strained relationship with the Jewish community, I rather admire Obama for not exploiting this rather unusual relationship. Although not as unusual as you might think - there are, in fact, an estimated 150,000 black Jews in the US.

  • How one Orthodox rabbi joined Conservative

    Aug 22, 2008

    The New York Jewish Week has a piece on Rabbi David Lincoln, a British-born and British-trained rabbi who has just retired from a Conservative shul in NY and is now davening in an Orthodox congregation.

     He recently angered the local Orthodox community by expressing surprise, on a Jewish cable television show, that “there was no sense of outrage” in Orthodox Jewry after a series of headlines about sexual molestation and financial scandals in the community.

    But what is really fascinating is how this rabbi – who received Orthodox semichah in the UK and who has the Chief Rabbi’s certificate, which allows him to serve in communities under the Chief’s auspices – ended up in a Conservative synagogue:

    After two years serving an Orthodox congregation in southern England, he looked west, to the United States. He contacted the United Synagogue of America, precursor to the present United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He assumed the American organisation was Orthodox, like the United Synagogue in his home country. Impressed by his credentials, United Synagogue officials offered Rabbi Lincoln some pulpit positions, and Rabbi Lincoln quickly learned about Conservative Judaism. Theologically, “I felt very much at home,” he says.

    On a serious note, this shows something about how different the British rabbinate was 40 years ago; I can’t think of many United Synagogue rabbis nowadays who would feel comfortable jumping ship like that (although some Conservative pulpits in North America are still filled by Orthodox-trained rabbis, by the way).

     On a less serious note, Rabbi Lincoln may have had very impressive credentials; but had I been interviewing him, I would have been less than impressed by the amount of research he did about the organisation to which he was applying…..

  • Is Jewish life in the UK really as bad as the Americans say?

    Aug 21, 2008

    Dave Rich of the CST attempts to refute, in Ha’aretz, the accusation, heard mostly from American Jews, that Britain is a terrible place for Jews to live – beset by antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and Muslim extremists waiting to take over the country and convert us all.

    He argues that while antisemitism is, undeniably, on the rise, the community is prosperous and well-integrated, and that our defences against antisemitism – in terms of monitoring organizations like the CST, government awareness etc - are solid.

    “This is not the 1930s,” he writes, “and a sense of proportion and balance is vital.”

    Similar defensive pieces pop up with alarming regularity – see here and here, for example.

    So who is right? The American Jews – or the Brits? How are we to understand such different perceptions of what it means to be a British Jew today?

    The easy answer is that Americans are simply relying on press reports and have no idea what daily life here is really like. But the real answer, I think, goes deeper – and both groups are, in a sense, right.

    The Brits are comparing life here today to life 20, 30, 50 years ago. By those standards, Jewish life in the UK really is very good. There is no question that we are far, far better integrated than we were a generation ago, thanks, in part, to the multicultural ethos which has become so dominant. Antisemitism may be on the up – but from a relatively low base; most of us have never experienced antisemitism on a personal level at all. We are a more confident, more proud, more open community than we used to be – see for example the annual Simchah on the Square celebration and this year’s Israel parade through the streets of the capital. It is easier than ever to be Jewish in this country, with a booming kosher food / restaurant industry, a wide choice of Jewish schools and extensive Jewish programming - for example through the JCC. There is a lot about which to be positive.

    The Americans, meanwhile, are comparing British Jewish life to American Jewish life. By those standards, things here are uncomfortable. The levels of anti-Zionism (and occasionally antisemitism) with which we put up in our media, and often in public discourse, are inconceivable to an American audience. Jews are far more dominant there in popular culture, the media is far more sympathetic to Israel and casual antisemitism in far more politically incorrect than it is here. Their Jewish organisations are also far more vocal and aggressive than ours, when there is need for action (for example, in the one area where American Jews still do complain of harassment – campus life – students have strong support the wider community leadership). Moreover, Jewish life is far more developed in the major communities in terms of facilities, schools, etc.

    Of-course, life being (possibly) better elsewhere does not make life here “bad”. And while there is, undeniably, a certain level of anxiety in the UK community about the future here, on balance, I think daily life is good here for most Jews. But there’s no point trying to argue that with members of a community coming from such a different experience. At the end of the day, quality of life, including quality of Jewish life, is entirely a subjective matter.

  • Jews in the middle of nowhere: Lubavitch blogs them

    Aug 19, 2008

    Chabad are certainly the PR masters.

    Each summer, some 400 young rabbis are sent to far-flung communities in order to make contact with local Jews, as part of a programme called 'Roving Rabbis'. This year they are running a blog about their experiences - which is actually quite interesting.

    In this post, for example, two young Lubavitchers meet a mental patient at a top-security hospital in Connecticut:

    X came up to us and we slowly ambled on into a conference room. It seems that last year he was in an intensive security wing, while now he's in minimum, which means that he has a lot more freedom. After introducing ourselves, we began to discuss Judaism.

    He's a fan of Mussar and we talked about how Mussar and Chassidus differ. This distinction colored the rest of our discussion, which ranged from reward and punishment to heaven and hell, Gan Eden and the world of Moshiach, suffering in Jewish thought, and the purpose of our existence. I did most of the talking and congratulate myself on having made at least a bit of sense. Once we were finished, X put on Tefillin and we parted amicably.

    In the middle of our discussion on Teshuva, wherein I mentioned that Teshuva is properly not repentance but rather return, he mentioned something along the lines of "Well, I did a big sin. I killed my parents." I didn't quite know what to say, and just responded with a "hmm". The conversation continued unabated, and I explained how no one is inherently evil, no matter how heinous a crime he or she has committed. If anything, their soul has merely become covered; all they really need to do is wipe off the grime.

    Once we got back to the Chabad House, I of course asked the rabbi to explain what was going on here. In short: X was never all there mentally. At one point he wanted to go and study in Israel. His parents told him that he couldn't. He killed them both with furniture. He was found not guilty on grounds of insanity, and spent the next 16 years in a maximum security hospital.

    When we visited X, he seemed perfectly normal. When I look back at our conversation, I think "Wow, he knows something about good and evil, huh?"

    See also this cute entry from Bristol, in which the shluchim think they are going to find 'a ton of Jews' at a local hot air balloon festival; and this rather touching post from Ireland.


  • How many religious youth become secular?

    Aug 18, 2008

    Tzohar, a (usually) wonderful group that does much to advance religious-secular relations in Israel, held its annual conference recently - and for once focused on issues affecting the religious community. One of the topics that came up was how Orthodox parents deal with children who leave the path of religion.

    In the course of Ha'aretz's piece on the conference, reporter Yair Sheleg comes up with this astonishing claim:

    Prof. Shraga Fischerman of Orot Israel College in the West Bank settlement of Elkana, who chaired the session on children who leave religion, said that about 25 percent of religious Zionist youths "defect" to secular lifestyles.

    This seems to be extremely high - especially compared to the diaspora. A book I recently read - and reviewed here for The Forward - on the effects of taking a gap year in yeshivah in Israel included a throw-away line from Chaim Waxman, professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, who claims that, “According to estimates… more than 10 percent of the participants [in the Year in Israel program] leave Orthodoxy within five years of returning home.”

    If either of these statistics are true - and based on proper research rather than just guesstimates - it would be interesting to know why the drop-out rate in Israel seems to be so much higher than in the  US.

    Either way, a 25 per cent drop-out rate seems to me to be indicative of a community crisis - and not just a problem for individuals to contend with privately.

  • 'This weird guy'

    Aug 18, 2008

    The former long-time Egyptian ambassador to Israel, Mohammad Bassiouni, has provoked the wrath of the Egyptian authorities after claiming that he was sent to Israel primarily as a spy; calling Ariel Sharon a "sleeping corpse"; and confirming allegations that Nasser's brother-in-law, Ashraf Marwan, who fell off a balcony in London late last year in mysterious circumstances, was a double agent working for both the Israelis and the Egyptians.

    But one magnificent quote stands head-and-shoulders above the rest:

    Bassiouni said that when he brought Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to meet Mubarak, the latter was angry at him and bluntly said, “What are you doing bringing me this weird guy?”

    On no other issue does Mr Mubarak speak for so many Israelis....

  • Julie Burchill's semichah programme

    Aug 15, 2008

    Julie Burchill - the most enthusiastic advocate of Jews and Zionism in the British media - has made an amazing discovery:

    Dawkins' critique of Judaism seems way too aggressive, when one compares it to the excesses of other belief systems. The oldest and least evangelical of the monotheistic religions, it is also arguably the most civilised and liberal; there are female judges and rabbis in the Old Testament, which makes the C of E's foot-dragging over the ordination of women look a bit sad.

    Female rabbis in the Old Testament?  With Julie Burchill as their advocate, Rabbi Sacks just might be in trouble....

    (Hat tip: Simon Rocker)


  • Why I hope the case against Olmert proceeds

    Aug 15, 2008

    The key witness in one of the several cases against Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, American businessman Morris Talansky, has declared that he won’t be returning to Israel in order to complete his testimony.

    Olmert’s people say this shows how unreliable a witness he is – and leaves the prosecution’s case in tatters. The prosecution retorts that its case is still strong, and that Olmert will still be indicted.

    And I hope the prosecution is right.

    Why? After all, having a former Prime Minister in the dock – and convicted – will be a major embarrassment and a tragedy, particularly in a country in which confidence in the political system has reached an all-time low.

    But I worry that having the prosecution’s case fail would be even worse.

    Although there have, recently, been a couple of convictions of minor MKs – Naomi Blumenthal and Haim Ramon – Israeli police have now gone after quite a string of very senior politicians with very few cases ever coming to court, let alone ending with a guilty verdict.

    Serious corruption investigations which went nowhere were launched against, amongst others, former PMs Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.  None of them were ever charged with any wrongdoing, but the cases seriously damaged their reputations and hampered their ability to function in the political arena.

    Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon fired minister Joseph Paritzky in 2004 after he was accused of attempting to incriminate a political rival – but the case was closed for lack of evidence in 2005. The Attorney General this week decided to close a corruption file against Tourism Minister Ruchama Avraham which goes back to 2004, due to lack of evidence. Similarly, he dropped one of his criminal investigations against former minister Avigdor Lieberman this week, although he will continue several others; the file against MK Lieberman goes back at least as far as 2001, so far with no charges. The trial of former environment minister Tsachi Hanegbi, for handing out government jobs to his political allies, has been dragging on since 2005. Only the embezzlement case against former finance minister Avraham Hirschson, for theft and fraud, actually seems to be moving.

    All these dead-ends are bad enough. But this time round, the prosecutors have actually forced the resignation of a prime minister. This is an extremely serious result, which cannot be taken lightly. Should it emerge that the prosecution’s case was built on sand; or that they cannot carry the case through because their main witness won’t appear – this will truly devastate confidence in the police and the legal system, which many already suspect of deliberately targeting certain politicians for political reasons.

    Clearly, I would not want Olmert to be convicted of anything of which he is not actually guilty. But for the law enforcement authorities to emerge once again as destabilising and distorting Israel’s politics on a flimsy basis would be a true blow to the rule of law, from which the country would find it hard to recover.