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Common Jewish Language: RIP

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Jews - even those of us for whom English is our native tongue - are increasingly speaking different languages.

Take the word "outreach". Used for decades - and to this day by Orthodox Jews - to mean efforts to bring Jews closer to their religious heritage, the word has been co-opted by some contemporary Jewish leaders to describe conversion overtures to non-Jews who have married Jews. Some have even employed it to mean the active proselytization of broader non-Jewish society, which they endorse.

Or, to move to Hebrew, consider a word, "kollel", that has an illustrious history as meaning an intensive high-level Talmudic research fellowship. A kollel has always been comprised of advanced scholars analyzing Jewish texts according to centuries-old traditional methodologies. Of late, however, it  has been appropriated for things like an adult education program offering lectures like "Chicken Soup from the Rabbis: Sermons that Really Worked."

And then there is the word "Midrash" which, for 3000 years, was reserved for the "Oral Law" portion of the Jewish religious tradition, the authoritative meaning of, and addenda to, the Jewish Bible's laws and narratives. Lately, though, "Midrash" has been redefined in some circles to mean any creative exercise of imagination regarding Judaism's holiest text, a sort of bible game for all to play. Thus, Rutgers University English professor and "midrashist" Alicia Ostriker, who teaches "midrash workshops" for the Institute of Contemporary Midrash, can write, as she does in the current issue of Reform Judaism, that "Midrash" writing "requires no special knowledge of the Bible."

The critical word "halacha" is another good example of a word whose meaning has been changed by some. Since well before the Talmudic era, it has described the demands of Jewish religious law, painstakingly researched and applied to life situations. Today, though, it has been employed to mean whatever a group of rabbis (and even laymen) vote as their own determination of what the times - rather than the texts and spirit of the law - require; in effect, a culture-driven system of religious praxis.

Even the most basic Jewish words, those we use constantly, have come to assume different meanings for different Jews. "Rabbi" once meant someone learned in Jewish religious texts and law; today, in many Jewish circles, it means someone who can provide the pastoral needs of a congregation or someone who is a good public speaker (or, best of all, both) - even if he (or she) is ignorant of (or entirely unconcerned with) the Talmud and responsa literature.

Even the word "Judaism" itself, tragically, has become multiple-meaninged.

That process began when German Jews during the previous century created a movement that unabashedly laid aside the idea of divinely revealed commandments - the essential underpinning of the Jewish religious tradition - and yet insisted on retaining the name "Judaism", albeit with a prefix.

That movement's American descendant came in turn to catalyze a number of even newer "Judaisms" - among them at least one group that goes so far as to shun the concept of a Creator. The movements are Jewish - in the sense that they are the products of Jewish people and have many Jewish affiliates - but calling them "Judaisms" does violence to what the word has meant for dozens of centuries.

"Torah", too, has come to be similarly disfigured. One Jewish leader proclaimed his movement's embrace of "Torah, Torah, Torah!" even though the word "Torah" claims more than 3000 years of synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that his movement openly renounces. The same leader also mangled the word "mitzvah" - whose literal and historical meaning is "commandment":

"[U]ltimately," he wrote, " [a Jew] must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance ...?'"

Feeling that something is right and being commanded to do it would seem to be alternatives - perhaps at times compatible, even overlapping, concepts - but certainly not a cause and its effect.

Is it any wonder that the very word "Jew", frighteningly, has likewise assumed manifold meanings? To some, it continues, as in the past, to refer to children of a Jewish mother or to a convert who has met the demanding conversion requirements of Jewish religious law. To others, it also means anyone born of a Jewish father, as long as some degree of self-Jewish-identification is present. Or it means Gentiles who "convert" to Judaism on nothing much more than an expression of interest in being Jewish. With this particular difference of definition, the seeds of a bifurcated Jewish people were tragically sown.

Those of us - one hopes it is all of us - who lament the increasing fragmentation of the Jewish world would do well to ponder the radically different ways Jews have come to use crucial Jewish words today - and then ponder, hard and deep, the possibility that true unity might just lie in our return to a common language.


[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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Our New Mixed Multitude


Neither friend nor foe ever accused David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, of being a theocrat. Yet Ben-Gurion believed in Israel as a Jewish state, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

He realized that only a common Jewish identity could provide the social cohesion for a population drawn from more than 100 countries and facing formidable challenges to national existence. So he appropriated religious symbols, created the Chief Rabbinate, and located the new state in the continuum of Jewish history as the third Jewish commonwealth.

For Ben-Gurion, Israel was not a nation like all others, confined to specific geographic boundaries. Rather, Israel belonged to the entire Jewish people, and the entire Jewish people belonged to Israel. The classic expression of that vision of Israel is the Law of Return, conferring automatic citizenship on any Jew.

It is one of history's ironies, then, that the Law of Return has become the single greatest threat to Israel's Jewish identity. The Interior Ministry has a computer file of more than 200,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the leading experts in clarification of Jewish status believe the true figure is nearly twice as high.

Even those figures do not begin to convey the scope of the problem. The Immigration and Absorption Ministry acknowledges that nearly 60 percent of recent immigrants are not Jewish.

That is a conservative figure. A survey of 100 recent immigrants by the ministry found 75 non-Jews, and two weeks ago the Knesset heard testimony that of the 1,004 new immigrants from Chaburusk only 38 were Jewish. Among those of marriageable age, the percentage of non-Jews in the total immigration is much higher.

The percentage of non-Jews will only grow. There are many with a vested interest in increasing the immigration from the former Soviet Union, without regard to religious status. More and more, the Russian aliya provides the Jewish Agency with its sole raison d'etre. And that requires numbers.

Another vested interest is the Reform Movement. American Jewish parents rarely demand even the most pro forma conversion from their children's non-Jewish spouses, which has severely cut into the market for clergymen advertising their conversion services.

But in Russia, they have something of tangible economic benefit to peddle. With the conversion certificate goes automatic Israeli citizenship. The Russian gets his certificate and the Reform Movement claims another adherent.

Concern with non-Jewish immigration has little to do with the personal characteristics of the immigrants. Be they computer programmers or drunken louts, prostitutes or puritans, first violinists or vicious antisemites, they are still not Jewish.

One may dream of another 1,000,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as the prime minister says he does, or one can pay obeisance to the idea of a Jewish state (however defined), but it is pure cynicism to claim to favor both. INDEED, those most supportive of non-Jewish immigration are those most eager to remove all vestiges of Jewish life from the public sphere.Then Tommy Lapid speaks of the Russian aliya as having a valuable "balancing" function, he does not even have to say who is being balanced: the darker and more religious elements of society.

The Jewish Agency emissaries in the former Soviet Union, says Dov Kontorer, senior editor at the Russian-language daily Vesti, have "fully internalized the ideology of creating a new Israeli nation, for which Slavs are preferable to Moroccans and haredim."

Still it might be asked: If we gain computer programmers, what do we have to lose? Why did Uri Gordon, the former head of the Jewish Agency's aliya department, term the immigration of hundreds of thousands with no ties to the Jewish people "a form of national suicide"?

And why did a senior member of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry staff recommend this week a series of amendments to the Law of Return to remedy the situation whereby 10 non-Jews can enter Israel on the basis of the long-departed Jewish ancestor of one of them?

Here are a few answers. The mass non-Jewish immigration undermines the very legitimacy of Israel. The spate of bills introduced by Arab Knesset members to amend the definition of Israel as a Jewish state and to recognize an Arab right of return derive their credibility from the non-Jewish immigration.

What answer do we have to the question: Why should Natasha from Kiev, whose ancestors had no connection to the Jewish people, be preferred to Ahmad, whose family tilled the land around Safed for centuries?

In addition, non-Jewish immigration further erodes whatever remains of national cohesion. The fundamental characteristic of a nation is the ability of its members to identify who is a citizen and who is not. Jews throughout history at least agreed on one definition of who is a Jew. Like all democratic states, the Jewish people recognized only one category of citizenship.

Increasingly, however, different groups of people calling themselves "Jews" do not recognize others claiming the same title for themselves.

As a consequence, a common Jewish identity no longer has the power to bind divergent groups it once did. Mass immigration of non-Jews only exacerbates that diminished sense of common identity.

Finally, mass immigration of non-Jews has the potential to trigger a social conflagration the likes of which we have never seen. Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, who had just begin to recover from the devastation of their own absorption in the country, feel they are being shunted aside in favor of those who are not even Jewish. The resentment aroused by this sense of being shoved back into the underclass has little to do with religion.

The pork shops and churches of the non-Jewish immigrants are merely the most potent symbols of the contempt in which the Middle Eastern population feels it is held. Even crucifix-wearing, pork-eating Russians are considered preferable to them.

From our birth as a people in Egypt, the association with mixed multitudes attaching themselves to us has not been a happy one. Nor will it be today.

(c) 1999 The Jerusalem Post

[Jonathan Rosenblum, a biographer and columnist, directs the Israel Office of Am Echad]

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The Shopping Bag Ladies

Malky Lowinger

It's 8:00 A.M. at the Satmar Bikur Cholim kitchen on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and the place is already a beehive of activity. Svetlana and "the Rebbetzin" are stirring huge pots of chicken soup. Esther and Leah are chopping fresh vegetables. The answering machine light blinks urgently.

Mrs. Teitelbaum, petite and middle-aged, is clearly in charge. She sits down at her desk and listens to her messages. The Brody family called at midnight. Their daughter is being discharged from NYU; cancel her food package. Joseph from Long Island will be hospitalized for a week and he needs diabetic-safe food. If it's not too much trouble, says  Mrs. Heller, could the salad for her father be prepared without tomatoes today?

Here at Satmar Bikur Cholim, established by the Satmar Rebbetzin in 1957 to provide assistance to the sick and the needy, and funded by private donations, nothing is too much trouble. The group happily and proudly offers a variety of services, though the ladies of Satmar are best known for their food packages, and especially their chicken soup.

The Bikur Cholim kitchen is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the epicenter of the Satmar Chassidic sect. A tightly-knit, thriving community with highly disciplined religious standards, the Satmar are best known to most Jews for
their unyielding stance against Zionism. They consider the establishment of a Jewish State before the Messiah's arrival as wrong and as a dangerous affront to the other nations of the world. Yet on this particular morning, political philosophy is the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

Ruchie, Layalah, and Frumie are assembling the food packages. The Bikur Cholim kitchen, a model of cleanliness and efficiency, is their pride and joy. One can actually imagine eating off the floors here. The activity is non-stop. Fruit and vegetable salads are lovingly placed into plastic containers, fresh rolls and cake packed into bags. And the soup, the famously delicious chicken soup, is carefully ladled into thermos containers, to maintain its heat, flavor and, presumably, curative properties until it reaches its intended recipients.

Each day, the volunteers assemble a hundred and fifty customized hot and wholesome meals, which are then distributed to Jewish patients, regardless of level of observance or affiliation, at fifteen metropolitan area hospitals. The recipients, many of whom have never eaten a kosher meal before in their lives (and many more of whom insist that the Satmar Bikur Cholim packages are helping to bring about their speedy recovery) are brought to the Satmar ladies' attention through family, friends or the hospital chaplain.

No computer sits on Mrs. Teitelbaum's desk, and no high-tech machinery graces the kitchen. Yet the place is a model of order and efficiency. Mrs. Teitelbaum laughs at the suggestion of storing the daily information in a database. She points to her head. "The best computer in the world," she says, with an old-world wisdom that has quite apparently served her well thus far.

At ten o'clock, a new team of volunteers bursts in the door. The women doing the cooking and packing are dressed in housecoats and turbans; the new group is smartly turned out in designer suits and stylish wigs. They're all ready to spend the day in the big city.

"I volunteer my time once a week," says Rivka, in a chocolate-colored tweed suit, "but some of the women volunteer two or three full days every week year in, year out." The food is carefully packed into shopping bags and last minute instructions are delivered. Twenty five women then pile onto the Bikur Cholim bus, eager to be on their way to performing a very special mitzvah.

As the bus makes its way onto the Williamsburg Bridge, the Bikur Cholim women settle down to their routines. Reizie takes a cellphone from her pocketbook. "This is when I call in my fish and grocery order," she explains. Matti takes out a siddur and begins her morning prayers. Chaya and Estie begin an animated conversation. "Did you hear that Suri made a shidduch last night?"

These women are Bikur Cholim veterans; they've been making the rounds at the city's hospitals for years. The names of New York's most prestigious medical centers easily roll of their tongues. Matti's been visiting Beth Israel and "Joint Diseases" for thirteen years. "That's my route twice a week," she says. Reizie lays claim to Lenox. And Leah reveals that she visits Mount Sinai "with a shopping cart. The doctors, the nurses, they all know my shopping cart. It's famous."

"We really get to know the patients," explains Sally, who visits Memorial Cancer Center every Thursday. "And the ones who go home to recover," she says, in Yiddish-influenced English, "we keep in touch with them too." It's not easy maintaining friendships with the critically ill, though, Sally confides, "especially when some of them never make it home at all."

"I lost two patients last week," she adds quietly. "It was very hard for me." For a moment it's easy to forget that Sally is just a visiting volunteer, and not "her" patients' doctor.

Reizie leans over to make a point. "We're not Satmar," she says, indicating her two sisters who accompany her every week. "But this group is so wonderful that we felt we had to join." Her first experience with Bikur Cholim wasn't easy. She was asked to fill in for a volunteer who unexpectedly took a day off. Destination? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "I saw a lot of pain and suffering that day," she recalls. The experience was harrowing, but it left an indelible positive impression.

"I'll never forget the way the patients' eyes would light up when they saw me," she says. "I honestly don't know what they look forward to more, the chicken soup or just having someone to talk to."

The bus weaves through the traffic along First Avenue, dropping off the women at each one's designated location. Sally gets off at Memorial carrying several shopping bags. They are surprisingly heavy, but she manages well. She has her routine. She drops off her jacket in the coat room and stops by the Rabbi's office to ask if any new patients have been admitted. As she passes the visitor's lounge, she scans the room and her trained eye settles on a middle-aged man sitting alone in a corner. He looks Jewish and seems worried. As Sally approaches, he looks up and sees her food-laden shopping bags. "Satmar?" he asks. Sally smiles. She's used to this. Her shopping bags, like Leah's cart, are famous.

Moments later this virtual stranger is confiding the details of his wife's illness to Sally, who listens intently and sympathetically, showing familiarity with the medical jargon. Over time she's become something of an expert in medicine. She offers the man a food package and he happily accepts. His wife isn't able to eat anything, but he's starving and will have it for lunch. "And what about tomorrow?" Sally prods gently. "And by tomorrow your wife will probably be able to eat jello and clear broth. I'll order it for you." And she quickly scribbles a note onto her card. Later she will call Mrs. Teitelbaum, who will store this information on the computer in her head.

Sally makes her way across the floor. She greets the interns and nurses, who seem to know her well. Many of the patients are too ill to accept guests; some are fast asleep. But their families are delighted to talk to someone who isn't dressed in hospital scrubs. On the eighth floor she visits an Israeli family who have been here for three months with their eight-year-old son.

"It's been very difficult for them," Sally explains. "Things are always up and down." After chatting with the family for several minutes, Sally goes on to the outpatient clinic, where some chemotherapy treatment is administered. Bikur Cholim has customized packages for this unit too. She fills the communal refrigerator with sealed bags of sandwiches, salad, and desserts. Then she waves at Jeremy, speaks to Yossele, and exchanges pleasantries with a young mother whose daughter is busy playing with a doll house. Here, most of the children have lost their hair, yet no one seems in the least self conscious. They just go about the business of being kids, despite the massive weight hanging precariously over their heads.

The Bikur Cholim bus will be returning to Williamsburg at two o'clock, bringing most of the volunteers back home. Sally, though, won't be on it. "I like to stay here a bit longer," she explains, "and spend some extra time with the children."

Outside the hospital, life in the big city marches relentlessly on. Everyone seems entirely preoccupied, oblivious to the troubles of those who are hospitalized in their very midst, within these massive medical facilities. On the corner there is a newstand. The day's headlines, three inches tall, scream "Yankees Win!" Derek Jeter is pictured, grinning from ear to ear. Someone is pouring champagne over his head. A city of nine million people pays tribute to its heroes.

It's probably safe to say that Sally, Reizie, and Matti don't know a shortstop from a shortcake.

But that's okay. We all have our heroes.

[Ms. Lowinger is a freelance writer in Brooklyn]

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Bombshell In Italian Custody Battle: Father Revealed As Convert To Catholicism

Agudath Israel Petitions Italian Officials To Overturn Anti-Orthodox Custody Decision

NEW YORK - As an Italian appeals court prepares to consider the custody case of two Orthodox Jewish children separated from the charedi mother who raised them and placed them with their non-observant father, a stunning development - the father's reported conversion to Catholicism - has prompted renewed calls for the Italian authorities to ensure that the children will not be forcibly torn away from their faith.

The case concerns the 14 and 10 year-old daughters of Moshe Dulberg and his former wife, who is now remarried and a practicing Orthodox Jew. The girls, who were spirited by their mother to Israel and lived with her there for eight years before an Israeli court returned them to Italy, were ordered placed with their father earlier this year by a court in Genoa. It has now been revealed that Mr. Dulberg has apparently severed his ties to his Jewish heritage by formally converting to Catholicism. This striking development, along with reports of extreme steps that Mr. Dulberg has taken to prevent his daughters from maintaining their Jewish religious lifestyle - including forcing them to listen to New Testament readings - has heightened the sense of World Jewry's urgent concern for the welfare of the two children.

In missives to Italy's prime minister, president, ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to the United States, Agudath Israel World Organization's director of international affairs, Professor Harry Reicher - himself a professor of international law at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law -- alerted the Italian officials to the serious problems the Genoa court's decision raises under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Italy is a party.

That agreement, like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaims the right to individual freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Another international agreement, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explicitly applies those rights to children. Professor Reicher also cited an article in the latter convention that insists that "a child belonging to [a religious] minority... shall not be denied the right... to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language."

"The Court," asserts Professor Reicher, "has not only ignored these basic tenets, but has set about a course of 'social engineering' to 'wean' the girls away from their strongly professed and sincerely held Jewish heritage."

The Genoa court seemed to imply that it views Orthodox Jewish religious practice as unacceptable and that the mother's Orthodox Jewish life was prima facie proof of her parental incompetence; it ruled that their father see that the girls "re-enter models of cultural life and alternative conduct: by reading books of all kinds, familiarization with elements of cultural communication..."

The court, moreover, was told by psychologists that Orthodox Jews view "exploitation and abuse of children" as legitimate, and refused the local rabbi and former Israeli Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman the right to testify to the contrary about Jewish belief or practice. It has been charged that the court.

Further, the court virtually severed the girls from their mother, denying them any contact with their past life, a situation Professor Reicher characterizes as "horrific." Their mother is allowed to speak to each daughter for no more than ten minutes twice a week, and only in Italian. Her ex-husband tapes the conversations. The girls are permitted to see their mother only three times a month, in a location designated by their father and in the presence of people chosen by him. Again all conversation must be in Italian.

Making the matter even more troubling, notes Professor Reicher, is the fact that the girls feel threatened by their father, who was described by a preliminary psychological exam three years ago as "immature," "narcissistic," and prone to "uncontrolled bursts of aggression," and that they desperately want to live as Orthodox Jews with their mother.

In transcripts of telephone conversations with a third party, one of the girls describes her father as "frightening" and as threatening his daughters with physical punishment for their determination to rejoin their mother.

Testifying before the Genoa Minors' Court, the same girl stated that "My life was happy in Israel. The other girls in the school in Genoa live a very different life-style than the life I lived in Israel... I wish to point out that on the day of the first hearing before the court for minors, my father came home and told me, 'You have no hope any more.'... In Israel I was much more free than I am here."

Before the same court, her sister asserted that, "The people who love me are 1) my mother, 2) my sister." And, in a letter to her mother: "I am longing for you so much... [Father] is screaming all day, it's impossible to stand him, he's absolutely crazy and he says that we will never go back to Bnei Brak..."

The girls are reportedly 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 their mother.

With a hearing of an appeal of the court decision scheduled for December 2, Agudath Israel and other organizations, like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Orthodox Union, are asking Italian officials to recognize the devastating human impact of the Genoa court 's decision. In his communication, Professor Reicher urged those officials to intervene and insist that the country's "international obligations be upheld, and that the girls be afforded every opportunity to practice their religious beliefs freely, and without fear or interference."

"The eyes of the Jewish world are upon your country and its judicial system," the Agudath Israel World Organization missive concluded. " We urge you to do everything within your power to reverse the terrible course that this case has taken thus far."

The new revelations about Mr. Dulberg's religious affiliation, contends Professor Reicher, provide all the more reason for the the Italian court - which referred to Mr. Dulberg as a "pure Jew, who observes the commandments" - to reverse its original ruling.

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More Am Achad Articles



In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
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