New Jersey cupcake broiges shows Jews aren't immune to US culture wars

The cake order that became a point of Pride for an orthodox Jewish baker


LGBT pride symbol. Umbrella, cap, wig, pin, LGBT cake, pudding, LGBT flag

July 12, 2023 14:52

When Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative (a bit like Masorti) synagogue in Millburn, New Jersey, celebrated Pride Month, the cookies and cake had to be kosher.

So on June 6, Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald took her order to the Bake Shop in nearby West Orange. A B’nai Israel staff member placed a second order of rainbow cupcakes for B’nai Israel’s youth group.

The Bake Shop accepted both orders, but its proprietor, Yitzy Mittel, cancelled them within 24 hours. Mittel is an Orthodox Jew. Last year, he baked a Pride-themed cake but, he says, the experience distressed him. Pride Month, he says, is a “celebration of something which goes against Torah”.

The latest round of America’s culture war has come to the Jews of suburban New Jersey.

Dan Cohen of the Reform temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel accused the bakery of “bias”. That’s fighting talk: “bias” carries legal connotations. In a Facebook post, Cohen accused Mittel of being “simply a bigot”. Robert Tobin of the B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange, accused the bakery of “excluding and denying” Jews and denying “basic Jewish services”. This seems to stretch the meaning of “basic”, “Jewish” and “services”.

Dan Vaisberg, senior rabbi at the independent Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ, applied BDS to baked goods and advised his Twitter followers to tell the bakery why they would no longer buy its products, “great” as they were. Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of the Federation of Greater Metro-West, the regional Jewish umbrella group, issued an internal memo, advising staff to boycott the Bake Shop because we are all made in the divine image. Someone in the Federation leaked the memo to a West Orange news site.

Ben-Shimon dropped the divine image stuff and ate humble pie in the New Jersey Jewish News: “We sincerely regret that our actions have caused divisiveness in our community as our aim is to bring the variety and richness of our many constituents together.”

This being America, Mittel consulted with a rabbi and a lawyer before cancelling the order. He is within his rights of religious conscience.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a Christian baker in Colorado had the constitutional right under the First Amendment to refuse a gay couple’s request for a wedding cake. In late June, the Court affirmed a Christian web designer’s right not to make a website for gay marriage.

“I didn’t want to be making that cake,” Mittel said. No one can force him to. His First Amendment right to free religious expression precedes his duty under New Jersey’s “public accommodation” laws, which require him to serve everyone equally.

Mittel says he has previously refused a church’s request for cakes decorated with crosses. There was no public controversy then.

Do his rabbinic critics believe that a Jewish baker should be forced to provide “basic Christian services”? Mittel says he would also refuse to make a homophobic cake: “If somebody came in and told me they want to pay me three times the price to write on a cake, ‘I hate gay people’, I wouldn’t do it.” If he was visited by a homophobe with a sweet tooth, should he be forced to comply? A refusal often offends. Mittel says his bakery has been visited by “obnoxious” people since the controversy. “There’s no need for that,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We have enough people disliking us without us causing strife to each other.”

Mittel offered to bake the cookies without Pride symbols.

Rabbi Schwarzwald took her custom elsewhere and found another kosher bakery.

The free market supplied what the free conscience could not.

Everyone is offended. The leaders of the non-Orthodox congregations have publicly denounced an Orthodox Jew for following his conscience. This is how the cookie crumbles in America.

July 12, 2023 14:52

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