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Archives Of Previous Articles III

Happiness Is A Warm Succah

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

The cat comes back. No matter how many valuable lessons my wife and I try to share with the kids around the table, there is only one story that I can count on them to remember from one year to the next.

Ages ago, our family enjoyed the hospitality of good friends who shared a story of a childhood Sukkot of their own in a Hungarian village. Bundled up against the fall chill, their conversation had been punctuated by the meows of a cat on the schach over their heads. Shivering like everyone else around, the feline friend was attracted by the mirth, merriment and warmth of the Sukkah below. She wanted in. To the surprise of those around the table, the cat found a way through the branches piled high, and leapt into their midst. Unfortunately, she landed smack in the middle of a large pot of hot soup! No one forgets this story, not the family from Hungary, not my children - and certainly not the cat.

While the cat might not empathize, I am sometimes jealous of her decision. How I would like to jump right into the joy and happiness of Sukkot, sidestepping the emotional seesaw of the preceding weeks. If only we didn't have to pay such a heavy price for the season of rejoicing! Before the final Sukkah decoration is hung, there are the weeks of introspection and nervous anticipation before Rosh Hashanah. We face up to our failures of the previous year, and resolve to change ourselves for the future.

Yom Kippur follows, with its twenty-four hour exercise in living like the angels, while trying to disregard the fact that the stomachs of those celestial beings don't growl from food deprivation.

G-d seems to be mixing metaphors. After all this protracted somber stuff, He rushes us into our partying mood. Wouldn't the fun stuff be more appreciated later on? Wouldn't people appreciate an excuse to celebrate during the long celebratory dry spell between Chanukah and Purim? Scheduling Sukkot five days after the end of the High Holidays seems like an exercise in overkill. It almost seems as if G-d wished to clear his Divine calendar of a few excess holidays that He had to unload in a hurry.

Consulting traditional sources, though, we quickly glimpse the Wisdom of G-d's agenda. He wants us to learn the difference between genuine happiness and contentment, and the ersatz variety that beckons like a thousand hawkers of psychic snake oil.

It is quite easy to get happy in a hurry. Focus on something interesting and likable that allows you to shut out all the things that make you unhappy, and you can melt into euphoria. (Think of William Prince Davis, who was recently executed for killing a man for $712. Just before the effects of his lethal injection took hold, he exited this world with this message: "I'd like to say in closing: What about those Cowboys?")

Alas, the glow fades quickly. So much of what we call entertainment is really diversion, not happiness. We can only really be happy when we are at peace with ourselves and with those who mean the world to us. Try leaving for a fun-filled vacation with your spouse the morning after a major fight. No one is going to have any serious fun unless the tension is first dissipated. So G-d allows us to make amends with Him and ourselves in the weeks culminating in Yom Kippur. It may be hard work, but the gain is immeasurable. The emotionally draining weeks before Sukkot are a necessary prelude to the joy of the final holiday of the season.

Even as we struggle to right a Sukkah wall that doesn't want to stay put, we rightly tell our children that all of this is a metaphor for life. Nothing worthwhile comes without an investment of our time and energy, and we are only happy when we can feel good about ourselves.

There is a complementary thought to this, suggested by a Biblical passage.

Having taken the blessing Esau thought was intended for himself, Jacob had to flee his brother's wrath. Decades later, the twin brothers tearfully reconciled. Esau requested that the two of them spend a bit more time together, but Jacob, fearful of his brother's negative influence on his family, demurred. Genesis records their parting of ways. "Esau returned on his way that day to Seir; Jacob traveled on to Sukkot."

Traditionally, the encounter between the brothers presaged a much greater confrontation. Through their descendants, Jacob and his brother would in time develop into two competing civilizations and world-views: Judaism and Western Civilization. Rabbi Elie Munk, former Chief Rabbi of Paris, points out the irony of the travelogue. Esau went on to Seir, which happens to be the Hebrew word describing the famous biblical scapegoat, sent out to the wilderness each Yom Kippur to atone for the transgressions of the people. The society that Esau eventually built developed its own set of religious principles. Chief among its concerns was the expiation of sin. Esau's religious probing moved along as far as the issues of guilt and redemption, and then stopped.

Jacob went on to Sukkot. Jews would have their opportunity to find forgiveness once a year, on Yom Kippur. But they would not stop there. They raveled on, celebrating a Sukkot with their newfound innocence. They would see forgiveness not as a goal, but as a first step, moving quickly into the frenetic mitzvah output of the holiday of Sukkot. Jews would always realize that Man enriches and ennobles himself not just by freeing himself of sin, but by perfecting himself through his own actions.

G-d gives us here a not so subtle reminder about the way we interact with significant others. As employers, friends, and spouses, we must often criticize others for shortcomings, large and small. If we are doing our parental duty, we will spend much time on housecleaning within the personalities of our children. We take note of their character flaws, chide them for inappropriate actions, force them to confront areas that need change. It is not difficult to fall into the trap of become policemen, focusing only on crime, punishment, and exoneration. How much more satisfying Yom Kippur is when followed by a Sukkot; how much more effective criticism is when we follow up and give people opportunities to push forward with positive, growing experiences!

To make it work, all we have to do is step back and think things through in advance. It's a bit more effort, but feeling good both about ourselves and the way we relate to others is exactly like the Sukkah.

It's not something we can just fall into.

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An Impressive, Disturbing Ad

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It is a striking advertisement, beautifully conceived, well executed... and deeply disturbing.

As it periodically does, the Jewish Theological Seminary purchased a page of The New York Times to share a High Holiday message. The headline of this year's offering, over a photograph of a tossed banana peel, quotes Leviticus: "Do Not Put a Stumbling Block Before the Blind." A bit to the side, a comment and question: "Well, of course. What kind of creep would trip a blind person?" The ad copy that follows explains how "there's more than one kind of blindness" and that "we are answerable if we put the young, the impressionable or the vulnerable in harm's way."

Jewish tradition does indeed interpret the word "blind" in the verse as a reference to precisely such people, and "stumbling block" as misleading or harmful advice. The ad is right on the mark.

It then proceeds to catalogue a number of contemporary examples of such "stumbling blocks": "Abet an addiction," "Make lethal weapons available to children" and "Support entertainments that glamorize violence," among others. It even leaves a blank line for the reader to add his or her own example, which it requests to "return to us."

An on-target presentation, an authentically Jewish approach. And yet, despite - or perhaps because of - its accuracy and poignancy, the JTS ad is profoundly unsettling.

For the Conservative movement has repeatedly and staunchly declared its fealty to halacha, traditional Jewish religious law. In the words of the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein: "We maintain that... we regard halakhah as binding... To be committed to halakhah means to live by its values and details - even when we don't like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient." And, as a result, tens of thousands of Jews have come to uncritically accept the proposition that the movement is indeed halacha-bound.

A critical, unbiased view, however, presents quite another picture. Whether the issue was the special marriage laws in Leviticus pertaining to a cohein, or the prohibition against driving a car on the Sabbath, whether the composition of a minyan for prayer or the wording of the Jewish liturgy, the arbiters of Conservative law have repeatedly and tellingly set aside clear halachic principles and precedents in favor of the contemporary sensibilities.

An ordained Conservative rabbi and scholar, David Feldman, put it succinctly in the Fall, 1995 issue of Conservative Judaism: "Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold halakhah as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort." Historian Marshal Sklare, in his work "Conservative Judaism", concurs: "Covertly, the [Conservative] rabbis now recognize that they are not making [halachic] decisions or writing responsa but merely taking a poll of their membership."

The Reform movement, of course, has also discarded halacha. But it has done so openly, without dissembling. What sets the Conservative leadership apart is that it claims fealty to a Jewish tradition it seems perennially prepared to ignore.

Even the Jewish Theological Seminary itself has demonstrated a disturbing attitude toward the personally binding nature of Jewish religious law. In late 1997, the dean of the institution's rabbinical school was forced to backtrack from a letter to his students apprising them that premarital and homosexual sex were proscribed. It was, he later said, only a "personal statement, not a matter of policy."

As it happens, the Conservative leadership's ambivalence toward halacha is the key to understanding something otherwise perplexing: its alliance with the Reform movement in Israel. Were Conservative leaders truly committed to the definitions and mandates of Jewish religious law, they would never be able to find common cause with a movement that openly rejects those ideals. And yet the cause is not only common but resolute. Because neither group, in the end, considers halacha inviolable.

It would be sufficiently sad were the Conservative movement's violation of the verse it featured in its ad a mere sin of intellectual dishonesty. But the stumbling-block it placed, intentionally or not, before the Jewish people has had, and continues to have, grievous flesh-and-blood repercussions. There are legions of well-meaning men and women who were told that their conversions to Judaism were performed according to halachic standards but who later discover - often after considerable pain and anguish - that they are not yet Jewish in the eyes of Jews truly committed to halacha. And in cases where Judaism's intricate and critical marriage laws were at issue, immense personal tragedy has resulted from "placing the vulnerable in harm's way."

Not every "stumbling block" is necessarily laid down with evil intent. One can all too easily "abet an addiction" without malice. But what the verse invoked by the Jewish Theological Seminary demands of Jews is to avoid deceiving others, whether intentionally or not. Banana peels, after all, are impervious to the intentions of those who drop them.

Which is why, with equal shares of sadness and perplexity, I took up the ad's invitation and filled in the line left blank. "Mislead caring Jews," I wrote, "by claiming but not demonstrating loyalty to the Jewish religious tradition."

And then I mailed the clipping to the address provided.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and as Am Echad's American director]

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Right VS. Right

Elaine M. Viders, Esq.

Contemporary American Jewish women are standing up for their rights, demanding equality in Judaism. I have heard my sisters' passionate words of protest and have tried to understand their complaints, to share their anger. But I cannot.

Why am I not insulted that Jewish religious law, or halacha, does not count me as part of a prayer-quorum, or minyan - or allow me to be publicly called to the Torah for an aliyah? Why can't I affirm their assertion that traditional Judaism looks down at women?

With my Ivy League undergraduate education and law degree, I am fairly certain I am as bright as they are. Why have I chosen to become a halacha-observant woman, and experienced sheer joy in the journey? Why aren't I bothered by what bothers so many others? The answer lies in a realization that, despite its essential simplicity, is apparently very difficult for many American Jewish women to even consider.

We American women have been raised on the banner cry of equal rights. We have, and rightfully, insisted on equality in the workplace, on the campus, in athletic competition and in the financial world. And we have achieved much success.

At the core of our demands lies the ideal of democracy. The legal, social and political underpinning of American society, the U.S. Constitution, guarantees the right to equality under the law and the right of redress in a judicial system. Nurtured on this tradition, the modern American Jewish woman tends to absorb the notion of equality within the American democratic paradigm.

The legal underpinning of the Jewish people, however, is not the U.S. Constitution but the Torah, a G-d-given code of law that does not speak in terms of rights, either for men or for women. It bestows no rights at all, only commandments (or mitzvot). And unlike the Constitution, the Torah - and the legal corpus that derives from it, halacha, or Jewish religious law - cannot be amended, even by a legislature's majority vote. The Torah does provide mechanisms for interpretation (by scholars whose sole goal is determining the texts' intent) but not for interpretation, much less change, born of human notions or desires.

"You shall not add to the word that I command you," the Torah commands, "nor shall you subtract from it"(Deuteronomy, 4:2).

The crux of the modern American Jewish woman's discomfort with her Jewish religious heritage is, I suspect, her inability, or refusal, to distinguish between what democracy calls rights and what the Torah calls right. Sadly, that reluctance to leave the paradigm of entitlements for that of obligations prevents so many precious Jewish women from even seeing, much less embracing, the beauty of the Jewish religious tradition.

Ironically, it also prevents them from discovering their true power as women, as commanded beings, whatever their particular commandments. Because being a halacha- observant Jewish woman is so much more, not less, than being part of a minyan; more, not less, than donning a tallit or tefillin. If a woman feels she is equal to a man only through the donning of a religious object or the execution of a public synagogue-role - if that is the sum of her religious expression - then she is indeed missing out on something very important. Not men's commandments, though, but her own.

It is easy to imagine how, for a woman who was denied the opportunity to play little league when her brother donned his uniform, old feelings of exclusion and "unfairness" may be touched off once again when she is told that she is not part of a minyan, or that certain mitzvot are not incumbent on her. What has really occurred, however, is a sort of conceptual short circuit; the "equal rights" mindset has crossed wires with the "divine obligation" reality.

Fairness and equality, in their everyday senses, in their proper context, are wonderful; but holiness and Torah occupy an entirely different universe. True equality - equality of worth - is not measured by equivalent religious roles. If a Jewish woman is really sincere about being the best she can be, if she seeks strength, dignity, self-esteem, and true, lasting happiness, it is not a tallit or tefillin that she needs, but courage.

Courage to recognize that the American definition of equality cannot be used to change the Torah. Courage to learn, with pure honest and objectivity, about her remarkable Jewish heritage, courage to shoulder the obligations and role it bequeaths her, courage to know that her greatest potential imaginable lies in being a Torah woman.

And so, to all my Jewish sisters, from the bottom of my heart: I wish you abundant courage.

[Elaine M. Viders, Esq., an adjunct Professor of Law at Touro Law School, is part of Am Echad Resources' writers pool.]

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Court-Packing Israeli Style

Jonathan Rosenblum

For people who so pride themselves on being in the front rank of socially advanced nations, Israelis often seem blissfully oblivious to the various anomalies of Israeli society and government. The virtual absence of any wide-scale recycling is one example. And the manner in which we select -- unique among democratic nations -- is another.

Mordechai Haller, a brilliant young legal scholar, has now dissected the latter issue in the Autumn issue of Azure. In ``The Court that Packed Itself'' (a reference to President Franklin Roosevelt's aborted plan to pack the United States Supreme Court), he shows how the justices of the Israeli Supreme Court are self-selected, with minimal input from the elected branches of government.

All democratic governments wrestle with the dilemma of how, on the one hand, to preserve judicial independence from unwanted political interference, while at the same time ensuring that justices remain accountable to the basic values of the nation whose laws they are interpreting.

In Israel and elsewhere, life-time tenure for judges is the virtually universal solution to the problem of judicial independence. At the same time, judicial accountability is preserved in every democratic society, except Israel, by a selection process for the nation's constitutional court dominated by the elected representatives of the people. In the United States, for instance, the President nominates judges for the entire federal judiciary, and the nominees must be confirmed by the Senate. In Germany, the two houses of the legislature each select half the members of the constitutional court.

Only Israel allows almost no role for elected officials in the selection process. Three members of the nine-member judicial selection committee are sitting members of the High Court, including the Court's President, two are representatives of the Israeli Bar, and the other four are made up of members of the two leading parties, a member of the Knesset Law Committee, and the Justice Minister.

Thus the majority of the committee is unelected, and the two members of the Bar are subject to many forms of pressure by the President of the Court before whom they may frequently appear. The Justice Minister too is strongly inclined to maintain good relations with the Court President, and the three remaining elected representatives are likely to cancel one another out.

In both theory and practice, the process is dominated by the Court President. Court scholar Martin Edelman sums up the situation: ``By established practice, appointments to the Supreme Court require an affirmative vote of all three justices on the panel.''

The selection of Justice Dorit Beinish demonstrates the absolute power of the Court President to push through his choices. In 1993, the judicial selection committee, with all three justices voting negatively, rejected Beinish as less qualified than other candidates. Two years later, however, after Aharon Barak assumed the presidency of the Court, he was able to push through the candidacy of his good friend unanimously, and she is slated to succeed him as Court President in 2006.

Our method of judicial selection leads to several critical distortions in the judicial system. Not surprisingly, it has resulted in a Court of striking ideological and sociological uniformity. The justices are within five years of one another in age, attended the same law school, and most made their careers in academia or public law. Not one has even a baccalaureate degree in any subject other than law.

To say that the Court is unrepresentative would be a gross understatement. Though the Court has repeatedly intruded in areas involving the fundamental values of society, including fleshing out of the meaning of Israel's identity as a ``Jewish and democratic'' state, there is only one kippah-wearing justice out of fifteen. Nor is there a single justice of Middle Eastern background.

Self-selection has resulted in a Court lacking any ideological clash. The history of the United States Supreme Court is usually portrayed in terms of ongoing battles over conceptions of the proper judicial role, with justices of high intellectual caliber on both sides. Once Felix Frankfurter dueled Hugo Black, and today Antonio Scalia and Stephen Breyer represent opposing conceptions of constitutional interpretation.

Yet in Israel, there is not one justice who has consistently set himself up as an intellectual counterweight to Aharon Barak, or who has had the slightest mediating impact on Barak's jurisprudence. We effectively have a Court of one. That ideological conformity extends down the judicial system and into academia, as anyone of ambition knows that advancement is entirely dependent on the good will of the Court President.

Moreover, as the Court increasingly ventures into areas devoid of any legal materials to guide it, the lack of diversity is particularly telling. Some of these areas involve complex factual determinations. A Court whose members are, in Elyakim Rubenstein's words, ``not known for their exposure to public and social affairs,'' is poorly suited for such determinations. Other decisions turn on nothing more than the naked value preferences of the justices. In such cases, the ideological uniformity of the Court has resulted in what Dror Ben-Yemini describes as the ``circumvention of democracy in favor of the ideological coterie that controls the Court.''

Finally, the ability of today's Court members to ensure successors in their own image, undermines the legitimacy of Israeli democracy, in general, and that of the Court, in particular. The fundamental basis of democratic society is the recognition by all groups that even if their views do not prevail today they may do so tomorrow. Rules that tend to enshrine one viewpoint forever are a contradiction to this perception. American constitutional doctrine in this century has undergone large shifts over time. The rise and fall of ``substantive due process,'' whereby conservative justices struck down social legislationm, and its resurfacing fifty years later in the abortion decisions is one example. The reversal in recent years of the longstanding assumption that the Commerce Clause gives the federal government unlimited authority to legislate national standards is another. None of these shifts would have taken place if the sitting Chief Justice and two others chosen by him, rather than the President and Congress, had controlled the selection of new justices.

Needless to say Aharon Barak loves the present method of judicial selection. ``May God save you'' from any attempt to tamper with the system, he once told the Knesset Law Committee. The question is whether the rest of us should be so enamored with our peculiar judicial selection process.

[Jerusalem Post columnist and Am Echad Israeli director Jonathan Rosenblum]

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Sarah Cohen

They advertise their services through names ranging from utilitarian ( to wishful ( to earnestly purposeful ( to hopelessly cutesy ( The ubiquitous "dot com" may give this endeavor a hyper-connected, cutting edge, millennial facade, but this is very venerable wine, no matter how new the barrels.

It was an August 26, 1999 New York Times story that shouted the good news from the rooftops. The e-shadchan had come of age. In "You've Got Romance! Seeking Love on Line", Bonnie Rothman Morris described the various Internet dating services that have sprung up around an ancient need that has preoccupied the human race ever since G-d told Adam that it was not good for man to be alone. Most of us, however, lacking Adam's connections, have to make somewhat more of an effort than simply agreeing to a rib donation under anesthesia.

The article abounded with happy tales of now-blissfully-wedded couples who had met through the anonymity of Internet dating service sites, of which over 2500 exist, catering to every preference from nonsmoking Mozart lovers to follicularly-impaired Dalmatian-owners.

One paragraph in particular sent my SQ (Smugness Quotient) flying into the stratosphere. "Relationships that begin on line may have a better chance of succeeding, because they start from the inside, from communication, and work their way out. For many people, this does seem to work well in the sense of focusing more on the thought processes and common interests before they have appearance to distract them from how they feel about the person."

It took the Age of Internet for this seemingly simple bit of wisdom to reach large numbers of people. The absence of any taboos and barriers in situations of face-to-face contact, save those of contemporary social convention, has spawned an era of confusion and often heartbreak in male-female relationships. Initial communication on a verbal-only level allows for exploration of intellectual and emotional compatibility and shared ideals, and provides the distance necessary for levelheaded assessment. Reading a contemporary acknowledgment of the fact made me feel deeply grateful and proud to be part of a community and a tradition that had been in on this secret for a few thousand years.

I have often marveled at the incredible brilliance and sensitivity of the Jewish religious tradition's laws of tzniut, or modesty. Growing up Orthodox, I took it for granted that mothers and fathers loved and respected each other; that girls and boys were not educated together and did not mingle in casual social contact; and that as a result of this ethos of distance and modesty, I could expect to marry someone with whom I would recreate the atmosphere I witnessed growing up, not only between my own parents but in all (bar none) the homes of my classmates.

The rules governing male-female relationships were, and are, deceptively simple: Modest dress, no physical contact and no seclusion in private areas.

Under these conditions, which allow for the presentation of an integrated, attractive person as opposed to a sexual object, dating in the traditional Jewish world is undertaken in a spirit of seriousness, purpose, and respect for the humanity and spirituality of the other, an attitude grounded in the bedrock belief that all humans carry within them a spark of the Divine.

Thus, it was especially rewarding to read of signs of Divine reciprocity, as it were; there is probably no area of human endeavor in which the hand of Providence is as obvious as in the successful culmination of the search for a mate. Morris writes of Diana, who spotted guitarist Greg at an outdoor concert. Plans to see the band again the following week, with the hope of meeting him, fell through. A month later, Diana logged on to to inform her fellow cyber-searchers that she was thinking of relocating to a new town. One response, asking her to delay her move, caught her attention, and several e-mails later, the gentleman invited her to a local concert to watch his performance. Fast forward several months, and mazel tov! Diana has a new last name.

The tale instantly brought to mind the story of my friend Aviva, who was smart, beautiful, single, and sick of the search. For a change of scenery, she took a vacation to Israel. Waiting in line at the airport on the way back, she noticed, standing a few feet in front of her, a well-dressed and friendly-looking yeshiva student. She found herself thinking, "Why can't anyone ever set me up with a guy like that?" Putting the subversive thoughts firmly in the Wishful Thinking department, she strode purposefully onto the plane, and made it safely back home.

Several weeks later, a phone call from a shadchan (the stone-age equivalent of's Online Dating Coach) suggested a particular candidate. He arrived at her home at the agreed-upon time. As she entered the living room, where the candidate was chatting with her father, he turned to greet her- and her jaw dropped. It was Mr. Wishful Thinking! Who has, at this point (need I say?) smoothly segued into Prince Charming.

Whether or not the Internet will seriously impact American courtship is anyone's guess. But one thing is certain. Jewish tradition has been responsible for a consistently high level of happily-ever-aftering over the centuries, well before the advent of americansingles or 2ofakind.

It's probably because it's always been the Oneandonly.

[Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources writers group, is a teacher and writer in New York]

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Jonathan Rosenblum

American Jewry is busy counting itself again. Soon we will be waiting breathlessly to see how the year 2000 National Jewish Population Study compares to that of 1990. These censuses reflect American Jews' ongoing obsession with perpetuation. Millions of federation dollars are earmarked for Jewish continuity.

Two years ago, 11 millionaires committed $18 million to create Jewish day schools across denominational lines; more recently Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt contributed generously so that a trip to Israel becomes a part of every Jewish teens "birthright."

One finds no comparable level of concern with self-perpetuation among any other ethnic group. Irish and Italian Americans do not pull out their hair over the declining ethnic identity of their children. They maintain no large apparatus of communal organizations to foster ethnic identity or to commission large-scale studies to document their disappearance and chart rates of intermarriage.

Why are the Jews different?

The answer lies in a profound intuition that continues to animate many Jewish hearts: a feeling that the entire world depends on a continued existence of our tiny people.

The source of that is an experience forever implanted in the collective unconscious of our people: the Revelation at Sinai 3,400 years ago. There God spoke for the only time in human history to an entire people. There we were given the mission of bringing knowledge of Him to the entire world through observance of His Law.

Many of those who wring their hands over Jewish continuity no longer consciously believe in the defining moment at Sinai. To them the claim of Jewish chosenness smacks of racism.

And so it goes. The Jewish head denies what the Jewish heart knows to be true.

By now it is abundantly clear that money spent on Jewish continuity has barely made a dent. There were 4.8 million American Jews in 1928. Today those who identify as Jews by religion is 4.4 Million. Given normal population growth the number should be three times that.

And the future is even grimmer. Already in 1975, Elihu Bergman, assistant director of the Harvard Center for Population for Population Studies, projected an American Jewry shrunken by 85 percent to 98 percent by 2076. While that projection failed to take into account the astonishing Orthodox growth rate-it is now predicted it will reverse American Jewish decline 40 years from now-it is depressingly on target for the remainder of American Jewry.

Jewish continuity efforts are doomed to fail as long as Jewish parents convey to their children a message diametrically opposed to the intuitions of their hearts: No matter what you do, Judaism accepts you. Judaism makes no demands; there is no beyond the pale. Judaism is trivial.

Desperate to preserve the illusion that their progeny are not lost to the Jewish people, American Jews demand that clergy officiate at intermarriages, even when their children sign statements in advance that any offspring will be raised in another religion. To convince themselves that their grandchildren are Jewish, they invent patrilineal descent.

They beg their non-Jewish sons and daughters-in-law to convert on the easiest possible terms. When even those terms are rejected, they insist that the temple show an accepting attitude to intermarried couples.

All this is justified in terms of "keeping the children within the fold." But the fold is being expanded indefinitely to encompass them no matter how far they stray.

And it doesn't help. Only 18 percent of children of intermarried couples are raised Jewish, and 85 percent marry non-Jews. Every time the fold is expanded, the message of Judaism's triviality is conveyed loud and clear. The same message is sent every time a Jewish child hears that the law proclaimed by God Himself no longer applies because it is found too difficult or is no longer spiritually fulfilling.

Not without logic do young Jews conclude: if Judaism confirms my every opinion, and accepts my every action, why do I need Judaism? Raised to view their religion as insignificant, they cannot comprehend why their parents give so generously to Jewish charities, and even less why they should not marry a gentile with whom they are in love. And they certainly have no clue as to why for three millennia their ancestors gave up their lives for Judaism.

Until American Jews heed the intuitions of their hearts and figure out why their survival is truly so important, their future as Jews is bleak.

[Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem-based writer and Jerusalem Post columnist, serves as Am Echad's Israeli director]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A number of well-known international groups are very unhappy with my wife and me.

We are, you see, "multi-children" parents, violators of both the law of averages and the sensibilities of folks like those at Zero Population Growth and other such organizations. Yes, my wife and I helped contribute, even more than most American parents, to the world population's recent passing of the six billion mark.

Many of our friends, for the most part Orthodox Jews like us, have similarly chosen to raise large families, sometimes with six, seven, even ten or more children. To others, we must seem at best unbalanced, at worst irresponsible, for our choices - choices we regarded, and still regard, as entirely wise and proper.

The disapprovers are entitled to their opinion, of course. But it can become irksome when strangers, confronted with the sight of my beloved family, offer unsolicited judgments.

The smiles and even the pointing fingers don't bother me; I try to follow the Talmud's dictum to judge others favorably, to assume the best: here, that the smilers and pointers are happy for us. But commentators like the fellow in the airport who snidely query-editorialized, "Catholic or careless?" leave very little room for good will. ("Jewish and caring," I responded; it was all I could summon at the moment.)

And then there was what was probably my personal nadir of incivility, years ago in a California supermarket, when a severe-looking lady with an unmistakably Teutonic accent scolded a much younger and brasher me - wheeling a daughter-filled double stroller - with a humorless comment, something like, "Well YOU certainly don't believe in population control!"

On that occasion, I must admit, I was inexcusably rude. My Polish-born father and father-in-law each had siblings who never managed to make it out of young adulthood, thanks to some folks' efficient determination to starve, shoot, gas or burn them. Several of my children carry the names of those unmet great-aunts and great-uncles.

Maybe it was the matron's accent that sent me, relatively speaking, over the edge. "When I reach six million," I heard myself intone through clenched teeth, "I'll consider stopping."

Though I think that, over the years, I have become more understanding of others' dismay at large families, I haven't quite managed to bring myself to regret that particular retort, graceless though it was.

As it happens, though, the Fraulein was quite right. My wife and I are unrepentant infidels when it comes to the ZPG movement. The "expert" predictions in the 1960s about a world swarming with wall-to-wall humanity within a decade or two have proven silly. And although new claims have emerged about a future "population crisis", they, like their predecessors, are impelled more by ideology than by empirical evidence. One need do no more than take a drive across the vast empty spaces even within our own relatively crowded country to realize how lightly populated the planet really is.

And, if that doesn't do the trick, return across Canada.

A subsequent stroll, moreover, down any Manhattan, Chicago or Los Angeles restaurant-row, taking note of the prodigious amounts of food daily discarded in modern cities, would be an equally eye-opening experience. Human malnutrition, informed folk know, is the result not of new babies but of old problems. Humans still starve, tragically, at the turn of the millennium not because there is too little food but because of poor management, inefficient distribution and - perhaps primarily - because of the unconcern (or worse) of other humans.

In any event, much more than disbelief in doomsday scenarios or determination to re-establish truncated genealogies figures in my wife's and my choice of a large family. We would have endeavored no less even if Canada resembled Calcutta, even if the Holocaust had been only a bad horror film instead of history, even if we had needed to pull names for our children from the void.

For our faith-system, that of all Jews' ancestors over millennia, views procreation in and of itself as the holiest of endeavors, and children as the greatest of blessings. And when it comes to blessings, as most folk seem to naturally (though less aptly, to my lights) understand with regard to the monetary sort - the more, the merrier. How ironic, I often  reflect: Were children shares of blue-chip stocks, my wife and I would be regarded with neither disapproval nor curiosity but envy.

Which is not to say that having children is, in the end, a self-serving vocation. It is true that life offers no joy remotely approaching the resplendent sight, at the end of a long, hard day, of a joyous, squeaking two-year-old face one has loved since its appearance on earth bobbing above a pair of little arms opened wide. But the challenges of raising children, especially several times the average number of children per family, are considerable. Barring a lottery-win, my family won't ever retain a housekeeper or own a boat - or, for that matter, a road vehicle that someone else hasn't driven for 50,000 or 60,000 miles first. And any disposable income we manage to amass is quickly absorbed by one or another worthy but costly educational institution.

At the same time, though, and above all else, we believe with our hearts and souls that our children are gifts beyond all earthly value. And my wife and I are doing all in our power to help ensure that our progeny will use their precious lives for the good of their fellow Jews and of humanity.

So if you should find yourself at a playground or highway rest stop and spy a group of Jewish kids of various ages who seem to resemble one another, please don't think their parents irresponsible. Try to remember that a profound commitment and deep love likely lie behind the striking sight.

And if it should happen to be my family, we'll all do our part, and try to interpret any smiles we elicit as expressions of delight.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America and is the American director of Am Echad]

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Jonathan Rosenblum

On June 23, 1858, the papal police entered the home of Shlomo Mortara, a Jewish merchant living in Bologna, Italy, and removed the Mortara's six-year-old son Edgardo. Six years earlier, a servant girl in the Mortara household, fearing that Edgardo was on the verge of death, had sprinkled water on him. When the local papal inquisitor subsequently learned of this, he declared Edgardo baptized and had him seized. He would never return to his parents.

While the Church no longer has the political authority to seize children, an Italian court in Genoa and the Italian attorney general's office have recently applied a secularized version of the papal inquisitor's reasoning. Duty, they believe, requires them to "save" two Jewish girls from being raised as observant Jews.

In 1991, Tali and Moshe Dohlberg, native Israelis living in Genoa, were divorced. Custody of the couple's two children Nitzan, aged 6, and Danielle, 2, was awarded to Tali. Four years later, Tali became observant and married a religious Jew. That change enraged her former husband and he challenged Tali's continued fitness to retain custody of their two daughters. The court ordered a psychological examination of Tali to determine "the damage done to the minors as a result of the religious choices of the mother."

In light of the court's evident hostility to Orthodox Judaism, Tali fled with her two daughters to Israel. On April 29 of this year the Israeli Supreme Court ordered Nitzan and Danielle returned to Italy for a custody decision by the Italian courts. The Israeli Supreme Court expressed its confidence -- naively it would turn out -- that the Italian courts would consider the welfare of the girls and the damage that would be caused to them by being uprooted from familiar surroundings.

The subsequent custody proceedings in Italy, unfortunately, confirmed Tali's fears that adherence to an Orthodox Jewish life would be deemed prima facie proof of her parental incompetence. It was uncontested in the Italian court that the girls' strongly expressed preference was to remain with their mother, who had been their primary caregiver since birth. Yet the very vehemence of the girls' wishes was used against them and cited by Mr. Dohlberg's psychologists as proof of the brainwashing to which they were subjected by the "cult" into whose clutches they had fallen.

Those same psychologists informed the court that Orthodox Jews view "exploitation and abuse of children as legitimate'' and that Orthodox parents, like drug addicts, are incapable of expressing autonomous love. For good measure, they compared Orthodox Jews to everything from Serbian war criminals to cult members who kill their children. The Genoa court apparently accepted these characterizations at face value. It refused the local rabbi and former Israeli Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman the right to testify about Jewish belief or practice. Many of the "findings'' about Judaism of Dohlberg's psychologist were incorporated verbatim by the court.

Upon the advice of the Itallian attorney-general, who intervened on the side of Dohlberg, the court entered a draconian decree virtually severing the girls from their mother and denying them any contact with their past life. Tali is allowed to speak to each daughter for no more than ten minutes twice a week, and only in Italian. Dohlberg tapes the conversations. The girls are permitted to see their mother only three times a month, in a location designated by Dohlberg and in the presence of people chosen by him. Again all conversation must be in Italian.

Tali and her daughters last met in room of six square meters, together with four "observers" sent by Dohlberg. The girls are denied the right to speak on the phone or write to anyone, besides their mother and maternal grandparents, without Dohlberg's explicit permission. Dohlberg has separated Nitzan and Danielle from one another. He has forbidden them to talk in Hebrew or to have contact with anyone in Israel. He also prevented the rabbi of Genoa from speaking to the sisters or even to make kiddush for them. The girls are afraid to talk to anyone in the local Jewish community for fear that such contacts will be used as an excuse to cut-off their last ties with her mother.

In one surreptitiously written letter, Nitzan describes her father forcibly taking away her prayerbook. When she continued to pray, he yelled in her ear that her prayers were worthless. Finally, she writes, "he grabbed my nose and mouth in a frightening manner, slugged me and pinched my mouth and nose and this really hurt me." Not surprisingly, Antoinietta Simi, a prominent Italian psychologist, who examined Nitzan's letters to her mother, found that despite the girl's "excellent intellectual capacity in analyzing and relating to the situation effectively . . . the danger to her mental balance or even her life, is real and imminent.''

Nothing can explain the absolute power the Genoa court has granted Dohlberg over Nitzan and Danielle other than its disdain for Jewish and Israeli life. The court even instructed the girls' maternal grandparents -- secular Israelis -- to converse with them in English, though they and the girls barely speak any English. Remarkably, the court did not order an independent psychological examination of either parent. The only psychological exam was three years old, and its author herself had noted that it was incomplete and inadequate for reaching any conclusions on custody. Nevertheless she termed the girls' relationship with their mother as excellent, and stressed the need for preserving an intensive connection with Tali, their primary parent. In the same preliminary report, she described Dohlberg as "immature," "narcissistic," prone to "uncontrolled bursts of aggression."

In addition to its failure to order a psychological evaluation of the girls and their parents, the court gave no weight to the universal presumption that girls at this crucial stage of development should be with their mother, especially when the mother has always been the primary parent. Nor did it take seriously both girls oft-reiterated desire to be returned to their mother and Israel.

Despite a worldwide outcry, by Jews and non-Jews alike, Edgardo Mortara never returned to his parents. Let us hope that Italy proves more responsive than the Church of those days.

[Jonathan Rosenblum, a Jerusalem Post columnist, is Am Echad's Israeli Director]

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SWIMMER IN JERUSALEM:- A Musing on Assisted-Suicide

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill making physician-assisted suicide a federal crime - and thereby raised an alarm among those who favor allowing doctors to help patients end their lives. For me, the renewed debate brought back the image of a man who currently lives in Jerusalem. Once suicidal himself, he insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him was his swimming accident, when he became a quadriplegic.

His story came to me via a well-known and respected head of a Jerusalem yeshiva. The handicapped young man was a personal acquaintance and had told the rabbi how the first twenty-odd years of his life were spent cultivating an athletic physique, honing muscles to perform at their optimum -- and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death. A graceful athlete mere moments earlier, he was now unable to move in any useful way, barred by an obstinate spinal cord and an army of rebellious neurons from playing ball or swimming laps, from eating or going to the bathroom - even from so much as scratching an itch - on his own. He could not, he discovered, even kill himself without assistance, which he desperately tried to garner, to no avail.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, so to speak, he began to turn in -- inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed decisively from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If life is indeed now worthless, he wondered with newfound seriousness, then was running and jumping and swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really what defined its meaning before?

That quandary, and pursuant ones, led the wheelchair-bound ponderer to contemplate the very meaning of creation itself and -- to make a long and arduous journey of self-discovery seem misleadingly trite -- he concluded that spirituality is the key to meaningful existence. Where he was then led was to his forefathers' faith, to what has come of late to be called Orthodox Judaism, and it is in the multifaceted realm of intense Jewish observance and study that he thrives to this day.

Most remarkable, though, was his auxiliary and inescapable realization -- that had he not suffered his paralysis, he would never have thought to consider the things that led him to his new, cherished, life.

The rather dry issue of states' rights will likely be the gist of any legal challenge to an eventual federal measure that will effectively trump state laws permitting physician-assisted suicide, like the current one in Oregon.

But a more trenchant concept to be included in any consideration of assisted suicide is "quality of life." Are some lives, the question essentially goes, to be considered less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence less worthy of society's protection than others?

Legislators and judges facing the issue of assisted suicide will contemplate many questions, but none of more enormity than whether American society is ready to define what makes life worth living, and to act on such definition by allowing ill and depressed people to enlist the help of doctors to kill themselves.

Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life's meaning. Not all of us at the end of our too-short journeys will experience epiphanies, but all of us have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if immobile, in pain and without hope of recovery, might still engage important matters - matters like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d - perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered over the course of our lives. Cutting such vital engagements short is no less tragic than ending a pain-free, undiseased, young and vibrant life.

And so as the host of constitutional and moral issues swirling around the issue of physician-assisted suicide are weighed in Congressional halls and judicial chambers, the weighers would do well to contemplate, too, the edifying story of a once-promising swimmer in Jerusalem.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America and is the American director of Am Echad]

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Harriet Gold Cabelly

Tolerance, like charity, begins at home. I learned this from my oldest daughter.

Sometimes we parents can learn the most and the best from our children if we allow ourselves to open up to them. Parenting is not simply watching our children grow, but growing along with them. This takes awareness, flexibility and the ability to change. Our children certainly present us with opportunities.

Raised in a modern Orthodox home and having attended a modern Orthodox yeshiva, my daughter began her self-directed journey toward greater religiosity when she was 12. It started with her decision to no longer go mixed swimming. When our family, along with our friends, went on a camping trip and she wouldn't go in the water, that was a tough one for me. I thought it was ridiculous not to go swimming at age 12 just because boys were there. My friend and I spoke about it and I recall her asking me how I dealt with it. This was all new to me; I didn't know. What I did know, however, was that I wasn't going to throw her in the pool, force her or have an all-out power struggle.

I wanted to understand her reasons, her thoughts behind this first major behavioral change. So began our dialogues. She began wearing only long skirts-no more pants or shorts. Then came the long sleeves. And there were numerous other examples along the way. Each new development brought with it new discussions.

As she grew into teenagerhood, there were no parties or dating. Now some parents might say, "This is great! I don't have to worry about my kid being out until all hours of the night, doing God only knows what." I looked at her self-imposed restrictions and said, "This is the time to have fun." Her answer: That was not her kind of fun, not the kind of lifestyle she was looking to lead.

This led us to talk about the whole area of dating. Her idea of dating was for the sake of finding a husband. She had no concept of dating for the fun of it or for the experience. It was for a specific goal. To me this was a foreign way of thinking. I kept saying, "You're missing out on your teenage years and what they're supposed to be about." And then I heard myself. "Supposed to" according to whom? According to my perspective, or hers?

I kept trying to listen to her, to hear her ideas, thoughts and views on her world. In the process of continuous talking and letting her try on all her ideas for size, so to speak, it became easier for me to accept that she was evolving into her own person with her own ideas about her life and how she wanted to live it. After all, she wasn't hurting anyone. It was just different from my way and what I thought her way would be.

Now I'm certainly aware of this type of lifestyle. I know people who live it. I know the more "right-wing" Orthodox live this way. But again, it's not my way. How did it become my child's?

Letting go and allowing for differentiation takes a lot of conscious work on our part as parents. As we raise our children from birth, we have a symbiotic relationship in which we as parents define their world. This has to change as they grow. We need to allow our children to take small steps toward defining their own worlds. We need to encourage and promote this. Our job is to begin to see them as separate begins with distinct personalities, with their own likes and dislikes, thoughts and feelings. And separate can mean different.

Tolerance comes into play when there are differences. There is no need for the idea of tolerance when everyone is in agreement. Religious differences may appear quite small to an outsider, i.e., coming from an observant home and moving further along the continuum toward a more observant level. But the tolerance of the person whose reference point is being challenged - the parent - is being put to the test. Power struggles occur and arguments escalate; parents deliver the message, "Why can't you be like us? It's good enough for us, we're comfortable with it."

But this is where respect and tolerance enter. My daughter took a change upon herself and we have become closer through it. There is beauty in reaching a high level of respect and acceptance, and doing so, in and of itself, creates closeness. This closeness comes about through the support, respect and tolerance of another's way.

We can start with small differences within our own family structure. Trying to see the things from another's point of view without necessarily agreeing or taking on that viewpoint is difficult. However, as long as no one is imposing his or his views on another person, we can get to that point of agreeing to disagree while maintaining respect and tolerance.

When this occurs within the microcosm of a home, it is more likely to extend to the macrocosm of the outside world, where differences among people are so common-cultures, religious, facets within religions, lifestyles, etc. Sometimes it's easier to be tolerant of outsiders simply because we don't have the same kind of emotional investment in them as in "our own." The key here is to see that our children are not extensions of us, but rather separate and unique individuals.

The most important message our children can receive and feel on a deep level is that they are respected by is and loved unconditionally for who they are. We are then sending them out into the world to do and be the best they can. That feels good to all.

[Harriet Gold Cabelly is a Certified Social Worker and writes on occasion for the Long Island Jewish World, where this article first appeared.]

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More Am Achad Articles



In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
In Loving Memory Of Our Mother, Mrs. Norma Black (Nechama Bas Tzvi Hirsh) O"H


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