jewish continuity
jewish heritage
jewish people
jews of america
jewish community
jewish history
jewish culture
judaism kabala
jewish tradition
jewish life
torah parsha
jewish links
jewish interest
jewish humor
jews Israel


Subscribe - FREE!



Sharing and caring
on the Internet

In Recognition Of
Aish Hatorah
- Reconnecting Jews To Their Heritage

Preserving a near-lost legacy and heritage.
Sharing and Caring on behalf of Torah Judaism

Provided by Am Echad Resources:
Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles IX


Jonathan Rosenblum

Here's an interesting fact just in. Bnei Brak, Israel's most religious city, also has the highest average life expectancy: 81.1 years for women and 77.4 years for men.

What makes that finding even more curious is that Bnei Brak also happens to be Israel's poorest city, thus confounding the expected correlation between increased wealth and health. Moreover rates of smoking among males remain high, and even a casual glance around the streets of Bnei Brak will serve to establish that news of the benefits of exercise and a low-fat diet has not yet reached most of it inhabitants.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests the key to the longevity of Bnei Brak residents may well be their religiosity. Fully three-quarters of the 300 studies to date of the relationship between religious belief and health have shown a positive correlation. Various studies have shown that religious belief and regular attendance at religious services is associated with reduced doctors visits, a reduced incidence of certain forms of cancer and heart disease, and lower post-operative mortality and quicker rates of recovery.

The Harvard Health News Letter recently devoted a full issue to the impact of religiosity on health and courses in healing and spirituality are proliferating in American medical schools.

While none of the studies conducted to date can establish a causal link between religious belief and improved health, the associations shown are sufficient to give pause. A Duke University study showed that those who attend religious services one a week are half as likely to have elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, which is associated with some cancers and heart disease.

A 1995 Dartmouth Medical school study of 232 patients recovering from open-heart surgery found that none of the 37 patients who described themselves as deeply religious died over the first six months, while 21, or 10%, of the rest did. Those who received strong community support reinforced by strong religious belief were 14 times as likely to survive as those who had neither.

One California study, conducted over 28 years and published in 1997 found that those who attended religious services weekly had a one-third lower death rate. (Orthodox Jewish men pray three times daily, and Orthodox women one or more times a day.)

Even when a strong community support structure is kept constant, religious belief appears to have an independent salutary effect. A study comparing residents of kibbutzim with those of religious communities in Israel over 16 years, found that the religious community had consistently lower mortality rates for the entire period.

While some of the findings of positive correlations between a religious life and improved health can be explained by factors not uniquely associated with religion - healthier lifestyles, greater community support, reduced rates of stress, which Harvard researcher Dr Herbert Benson has found to be related to prayer, and a generally upbeat, optimistic attitude - at least one finding has completely stumped the scientists. Two Duke University researchers presented a study of 150 patients suffering from acute heart disease at the American Heart Association in which patients who were prayed for did significantly better than those who were not prayed for, even when the patient was completely unaware that he or she was being prayed for.

There is a close correlation between depression and higher mortality rates among older people. The large family-size in the Orthodox community and the great stress on the mitzvah of honoring one's parents help ensures that Bnei Brak's elderly will be frequently visited by several generations of descendants and experience the satisfaction on a constant basis of witnessing their own continuity.

From an early age, the primary mental activity of most Bnei Brak males is Talmudic study, and they continue to learn all their lives, even after they have retired from other pursuits. It is not unusual to see hundreds of young men in their twenties eagerly hanging on the Talmudic discourses of Torah sages in their late eighties or even nineties, with both sides shouting back and forth in vigorous debate. The constant source of intellectual stimulation provided by Torah study helps preserve mental acuity and with it life satisfaction.

Finally, Orthodox Jews have much higher rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce, and there is an abundance of evidence establishing the positive effects of marriage on health. Nine of ten married men alive at 48 will make it to 65. The comparable figure for never married men is six out of ten, and divorced and widowed men fare only slightly better.

Of course no number of studies establishing a correlation between religious belief and health can provide that faith to those who lack it. But those who already possess that faith will not be surprised that following G-d's instruction book turns out to be good for you.

[Jonathan Rosenblum, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared, serves as Am Echad's Israeli director.]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bless Peter Singer's immortal soul (whether he acknowledges it or not).

Singer, of course, is the Princeton philosopher who has become well-known for his advocacy of euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly and, most recently, for endorsing the idea of meaningful human intimate relations with animals - what Slate writer William Saletan deems "the love that dare not bark its name."

Professor Singer, who heads the university's improbably named Center for Human Values, made his case in a recent essay where he suggests that there is no inherent difference between humans and animals, and characterizes the latter as essentially the moral equivalent of human infants. The logical extension of that worldview, he then proposes, is the acceptance of cross-species intimate congress as entirely legitimate.

The professor deserves our blessing - well, at least our gratitude - for showing, clearly, cogently and conclusively, the sort of interesting places to which societal rejection of the concept of "morality" must inexorably lead. He has done an immeasurable service by providing limitlessly "tolerant" minds everywhere gaping grounds for pause.

Recent decades have not been kind to the bedrock-concept of morality - the idea that human beings are inherently special, that we carry a spark of holiness within. It has been unceremoniously dumped out the window - like some handicapped baby in a Singerian world - with the bathwater of intolerance.

To imagine, though, that when our nation's founding fathers envisioned a republic independent of any church they meant to reject the concept of morality is to flirt with delirium.

Even the most secular-minded of the men who midwived these United States would have undoubtedly considered a society where unwanted babies, the severely handicapped and the elderly were efficiently dispatched and where men married horses as nothing less than a vision of hell.

Which should lead us to consider how they might have regarded (and, more importantly still, how we should regard) seemingly less outrageous immoralities, like abortion on demand, assisted suicide and homosexual or adulterous relationships.

Singer's gift to us is his - intentional or not - forcing of those issues, his identification of the crux of the matter: morality.

The only conceivable reason for considering animal-human intimate relations (or, presumably, matrimony) as unworthy of societal sanction, Professor Singer cogently observes, is the belief that human beings are inherently special. That indeed is the belief of Judaism, and Singer, with his own air of superiority, summarily rejects it. "We are," he writes, "animals."

Most of us, however, who choose to wear clothes (Professor Singer presumably does too; you'll have to ask him why) and subscribe to an ethical system more sublime than "dog eat dog" or "survival of the fittest" consider humanity special, even hallowed.

Which must in turn lead to the question of what responsibilities our special status as choosing beings places upon us. Judaism is rather clear on the subject and, despite transparent attempts by some to obscure the issues, considers most abortions, the hastening of human beings' deaths and the misuse of the holy power of sexuality deeply sinful.

Taking the stance that those "moral issues" must be ignored by enlightened Americans is setting off on a shorter-than-you-might-think journey to Singerworld.

And the Professor would agree that the only alternative is the embrace of the vision that Judaism bequeaths, of a society where children, no matter what, are cherished, where fragile life is protected, where the elderly are venerated and where human intimacy is considered a holy and meaningful expression, and limited to men and women, in relationships duly consecrated by marriage.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

More that 2000 congregants of a Los Angeles Jewish house of worship were treated to an unusual sermon this Passover. Rabbi David Wolpe told his audience at Sinai Temple that the Torah's account of the Jewish exodus from Egypt - the event the holiday commemorates - likely never happened.

The Los Angeles Times correspondent who covered the sermon was clearly gratified, noting that the rabbi had merely shared with his flock "what scholars have known for years."

Not "what they have theorized" and not even "what they have believed." What they have known."

With all due respect to both rabbi and reporter, though, "know" is not a word one should use lightly.

Not all "-ologies" are equal. There are "hard" sciences and "soft" ones. Biology and pharmacology land in the former category; psychology and sociology in the latter, relying heavily as they do on subjective opinions and dealing heavily as they do with ultimate unknowables. The particular science invoked by Rabbi Wolpe, archaeology, may involve a good deal of digging and hauling, but that still doesn't make it hard science.

Biology and chemistry and physics rely on measurements and observations; and theories in those disciplines and others like them can be conclusively proven by experiment. Archaeology, by vivid contrast, relies exclusively and inherently on speculative interpretations of evidence and on theoretical reconstructions whose veracity can never be conclusively confirmed. A chemical compound can be placed under an electron microscope and its molecular structure, to a considerable degree, perceived; its effects on an organism can be observed and measured, and the experiment can be repeated without limit. A collection of shards, bones and papyri from thousands of years ago can certainly suggest things, at times even convincingly; but it can never prove anything. And, in no discipline, "hard" or "soft", can a dearth of evidence constitute a disproof.

Yet that is precisely what some archeologists - like those Rabbi Wolpe trustingly quoted - maintain in the case of the Torah's account of the exodus from Egypt and conquest of the Promised Land. They insist that there is a paucity of corroborative archaeological evidence for the events and therefore they could not have transpired.

As it happens, other scholars, including Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks, have concluded that there are indeed indications in the archaeological record of those events. Welcome to the world of "soft" science scholarship.

But there is something else, entirely outside the realm of archaeology, that argues, loudly and powerfully, for the historicity of the Torah's account. Its Hebrew name is mesorah.

The word translates as "heritage" or "oral tradition" but the concept is more complex - and it constitutes nothing less than the essential component of Jewish history and the Jewish faith.

When masses of people experience or witness something, and entrust the next generation with the knowledge of what happened, that is called history. We know that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, that there was a Revolutionary War and that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, all by virtue of a simple fact: the events were witnessed by large numbers of people. Individuals can fabricate things, but masses cannot. For when some folks claim that something happened to, or in front of, the multitude, if in truth it did not, others will stand up and heartily dispute the contention.

The historical tradition of the exodus from Egypt is no different. It could not have been fabricated, suddenly "made up" one day, as some scholars imagine, because it involved hundreds of thousands of people whose children were solemnly entrusted with the account and sworn to entrust it in turn to their own children, and theirs to theirs... down to our own generation. That perpetuation of the Jewish historical tradition is what transpires most notably as the story of the exodus is recounted - indeed re-experienced - at the Passover seder, which Rabbi Wolpe's congregants presumably conducted despite his sermon.

The historical event's distance from us in time does not weaken its historicity but, on the contrary, empowers it. So powerful was the memory of the exodus from Egypt (and the subsequent receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai), so important to the people who received the account, that they preserved it through thick and thin, through exile and massacre, through displacement and pogrom.

How sadly ironic that after 3000 years of uninterrupted mesorah, the Jewish collective memory should have come to be assailed in a country where Jews are more free and secure than at any time since the Holy Temple's destruction.

And how much sadder that its assailants include a rabbi.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

(You may find it significant to note that Wolpe is quoted in the April 29th edition of the Jerusalem Times as having said that his 'congregants applauded him "for the first time in four years"')

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The word "slave" doesn't generally inspire positive feelings. For Jews, though, especially during the weeks after Passover, it should.

To be sure, the images evoked when we think of servitude tend to be of economically or racially oppressed classes, of men and women being treated as if they were something less than fully human.

There are other types of servitude as well that have little or nothing to do with class. For example, whether we choose to confront it or not, we are all servants - indeed slaves - to a considerable host of masters. Most of us are indentured to one or another degree to any of a number of physical and psychological desires. Some are relatively innocuous, like the craving for a particular food - or for food in general - or the yearning to be entertained or pampered or allowed to sleep late. Other desires are more sinister, like the compulsion to ingest some addictive chemical, or the lust to lord oneself over other people, or the coveting of property or persons.

In contemporary times, many of us are enslaved virtually without even knowing it - chained to our work, taking orders from advertisers, moving to the dictates of the arbiters of style, addicted to the media or to the Internet. Oddly, every modern opportunity seems to morph into a new master; new options pull us even further from true freedom.

It seems almost as if it is a hard-wired part of human nature that we serve. Indeed, Judaism maintains, it is, and for good reason: Because we are meant to be servants. We just have to choose the right master.

Most folks are aware that Passover is the Jewish holiday of freedom, commemorating how the distant ancestors of today's Jews, embraced by God and led by Moses, threw off the yoke of Pharaoh's enslavement. But there is something very essential to the Passover account that many don't realize: Though Egypt was rejected, servitude was not.

"Let My people go!" God ordered Pharaoh. But the command doesn't end there. It continues: "... so that they may serve Me."

The Jewish concept of freedom, or cherut, does not mean being unfettered, but rather fettered to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but rather subservience - not, though, to the mundane but to the divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn't end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days. On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number. The fiftieth day, the day after the counting, or Sefirat Ha'Omer, is completed, is the holiday of Shevuot ("Weeks"); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shevuot is the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, of the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people. And there lies the secret of Jewish freedom.

The life of a libertine is not freedom but quite its opposite, enslavement to perceived pleasures, to substances and possessions, to the dictates of society. Meaningful freedom, paradoxically, is being indentured - but to the ultimate master, the Master of all. And so as we count the days, literally, from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, we express (and, hopefully impress on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shevuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in the ultimate sense: the will and law of God.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, punning on the Hebrew word for "etched," used in reference to the words carved on the Tablets of the Law. The word is "charut," which the Rabbis compare to cherut, freedom.

"The only free person," they inform us, "is the one immersed in Torah."

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

Return To Index of Articles

ICE AND FIRE - A Different Sort of Holocaust Story

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It wasn't the most exciting or terrifying tale of the war years I had ever heard, or the saddest or the most shocking. But somehow it was the most moving one.

The man who recounted it had spent the war years, his teenage years, in the chilling vastness of the Siberian taiga. He and his Polish yeshiva colleagues were guests of the Soviet authorities for their reluctance to assume Russian citizenship after they fled their country at the start of the Nazi onslaught.

He had already spoken of unimaginable, surreal episodes, fleeing his Polish shtelt with the German advance in 1939, of watching as his uncle was caught trying to escape a roundup of Jews and shot on the spot, of being packed with his Jewish townsfolk into a shul which was then set afire, of their miraculous deliverance, of the long treks, of the wandering refugees' dedication to the Torah's commandments. And then he told the story.

We were loaded onto rail cattle-wagons, nine of us, taken to Novosibirsk, and from there transported by barge to Parabek, where we were assigned to a kolchoz, or collective farm.

I remember that our first winter was our hardest, as we did not have the proper clothing for the severe climate.

Most of us had to fell trees in the forest. I was the youngest and was assigned to a farm a few miles from our kolchoz. The nights were terribly cold, the temperature often dropping to forty degrees below zero, through I had a small stove by which I kept a little warm. The chief of the kolchoz would make surprise checks on me to see if I had fallen asleep, and I would recite Psalms to stay awake.

One night I couldn't shake the chills and I realized that I had a high fever. I managed to hitch my horse and sled together and set off for the kolchoz. Not far from the farm, though, I fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on without me. I tried to shout to the animal to stop, to no avail. I remember crying and saying Psalms for I knew that remaining where I was, or trying to walk to the kolchoz, would mean certain death from exposure. I forced myself to get up and, with what little strength I had left, began running after the horse and sled.

Suddenly, the horse halted. I ran even faster, reached the sled and collapsed on it.

Looking up at the starry sky, I prayed with all my diminishing might to G-d to enable me to reach the relative safety of the kolchoz. He answered me and I reached my Siberian home, though I was shaking uncontrollably from my fever; no number of blankets could warm me. The next day, in a daze, I was transported to Parabek, where there was a hospital.

My first two days in the hospital are a blur, but on the third my fever broke and I started to feel a little better. Then suddenly, as I lay in my bed, I saw a fellow yeshiva boy from the kolchoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before me, half frozen and staring, incredulous, at me. His feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags - the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold, without proper boots. I couldn't believe my eyes - Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolchoz!

"Herschel," I cried, "what are you doing here?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Yesterday," he said, "someone came from Parabek, and told us 'Simcha umar,' that Simcha had died. And so I volunteered to bury you."

The narrator paused to collect himself, and the reflected on his memory:

The dedication to another Jew, the dedication... Had the rumor been true there was no way he could have helped me. He had immediately made the perilous journey - just to see to my funeral! The dedication to another Jew ...such an example!...

As a shiver subsided and the story sank in, I wondered: Would I have even considered such a journey, felt such a responsibility to a fellow Jew? In such a place, at such a time? Or would I have justified inaction with the ample justification available? Would I have been able to maintain even my humanity in the face of so doubtful a future, not to mention my faith in G-d, my very Jewishness...?

A wholly unremarkable story in a way, I realize. None of the violence, the tragedy, the horrors, the evil of so many tales of the war years. Just a short conversation, really. Yet I found so valuable a lesson in the story of Herschel Tishivitzer's selfness, unhesitating concern for little Simcha Ruzhaner, as the narrator had been called in those days: what it means to be part of a holy people.

The narrator concluded his story, describing how Hershel Tishivitzer, thank G-d, had eventually made his way to America and settled in New York under his family name, Nudel. And how he, the narrator himself, had ended up in Baltimore, where he married the virtuous daughter of a respected Jewish scholar, Rabbi Noach Kahn. And how he himself had became a rabbi (changing many lives for the better, I know, though he didn't say so) and how he and his rebbetzin had raised their children in their Jewish religious heritage, children who were continuing to frustrate the enemies of the Jewish people by raising strong Jewish families of their own.

And I wondered - actually, I still do - if the slice of Simcha Ruzhaner's life had so affected me only because of its radiant, blindingly beautiful message - or if perhaps some part was played by the fact that he too, had taken on a shortened form of his family name, Shafranowitz, and had named his second child Avrohom Yitzchok, although everyone just calls me Avi.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

Return To Index of Articles


Judy Gruen

In his riveting autobiography, "Fear No Evil," Natan Sharansky recalled one of the many Passovers he spent in a Soviet prison. When his captors confiscated the small piece of matzoh a fellow prisoner planned to slip him in his punishment cell, Sharansky simply used salted sprats as his bitter herb, a cup of hot water in place of the wine-apple-nut mixture of charoset. He recited some Psalms he had memorized from the book that he had smuggled in but which his captors eventually discovered and confiscated.

"I tried to recall everything I could from the Passover Haggadah," he wrote, "starting with my favorite lines: 'In every generation a person should feel as though he, personally, went out of Egypt. . . Today we are slaves, tomorrow we shall be free men'."

Few Jews today can appreciate the sweet taste of freedom at the Passover seder like Sharansky, who was physically enslaved and often brutalized, but, through sheer force of will, remained psychologically and spiritually free.

As Jews around the world sit down to the Passover seder this year, they will commemorate the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt more than 3,500 years ago. Traditional Jews will conduct their seders using the ancient text of the Haggadah that Sharanksky recalled from memory while a prisoner. Undoubtedly, Natan Sharansky will once again read from the complete text as a free man in Jerusalem, something he has been able to do since his own personal liberation in 1986 from the Soviet gulag.

But in an effort to make the seder seem more relevant, some Jews have tried to stamp their own intellectual and political mindsets on the Passover celebration by creating all manner of new Haggadahs: for vegetarians, feminists, gays, environmentalists. Ironically, those most likely to create or use these Haggadahs have enjoyed political freedom their entire lives.

But are these self-styled Haggadahs the pathway to a Jewish spiritual awakening? In fact, the original Haggadah holds many layers of meaning for those willing to focus on its words and to plumb its ancient, timeless commentaries.

Among the Haggadah's most important messages is that gratitude, humility and subservience to God have important places in our lives. The Haggadah (literally, "the telling") underscores this message in part by the way it characterizes the leader of the Exodus, Moses himself, whose name is mentioned only once. The true star of this show is God.

It's understandable that Jews unacquainted with their own tradition would try to create a more meaningful seder experience through alternative Haggadahs, but by rewriting the text, they miss the point. Passover wasn't meant to be an expression of do-it-yourself liberationists. In treading the time-honored path of the Haggadah, Jews open themselves to the possibility of connecting with a primal spiritual freedom. If even Moses, who split the sea with a wave of his staff, remains silent in the pages of the Haggadah, how much more are ordinary men and women meant to ponder the idea that spiritual freedom lies along the disciplined path that God set out for His people. The idea may seem ironic, but it is also deeply meaningful.

After more than 200 years of Egyptian bondage, the Jewish exodus was but the beginning of the birth of the Jewish nation. Only later were our ancestors psychologically and spiritually ready to receive the Torah, the blueprint for Jewish living, the guide to infusing every facet of our lives with holiness.

With that in mind, the Haggadah becomes far more than a menu of things to say, to eat and to drink. It becomes a living reminder that freedom requires discipline. It reminds us too that even today, many of us are still enslaved to a variety of false gods: money, ego, power, status. With its quiet lessons in humility and liberation, the Haggadah needs no external or modern agenda imposed on it to be relevant.

As Natan Sharansky knew even in his darkest days, imprisoned for the crime of being a Jew longing to live freely in Israel, the Haggadah offers a guidepost for true, lasting, genuine freedom.

[Judy Gruen is a Los Angeles writer and the author of "Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy" (Heaven Ink Publishing, 2001).]

Return To Index of Articles


Sarah Cohen

I recently met a man who has been described as "the Israeli version of Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, and Lenny Bruce all rolled into one."

We, the non-famous, are funny about the famous. We gaze at their fabled faces, raptly follow their surreal adventures and outsized lives. We devour reams of print devoted to them and dream that one day we might actually meet one of them.

Well, I did, and I shamelessly admit that I gawked. Uri Zohar was once celebrated as "the top comedian, television and radio talk-show host, social satirist, actor, and film producer on the Israeli scene." More interestingly, though, in a process that began some twenty-five years ago, he set out to investigate, with the purpose of impeaching, the veracity of the claim that the Torah is divine in origin and thus relevant to contemporary Jews' lives rather than a mere cultural artifact.

Today, Uri Zohar is perhaps Israel's foremost ba'al teshuvah, or returnee to traditional Jewish observance. He has long since exchanged his performer's hat for the mantle of a latter-day prophet of sorts. He cajoles, he pleads, he entertains, he instructs; but beneath the tools of his trade, one hears the thunder of the conviction that animates his life: for a Jew, the Torah is not only past, but present, and future no less. Cling to it and, spiritually, live. Abandon it and dissolve the identity that generations of Jews fought and died for.

I discovered his intellectual travelogue, "Waking Up Jewish," as a teenager. I have never lost my fascination over the drama of the story, or over the geometric elegance of his logic. Over and over, despite his thespian talents, he resists the urge to dramatize, to emote, to pull at the heartstrings in order to make his case. He is more likely to impale the temptation on the stake of his own barbed wit.

"If the Torah were not true," he has written, "I couldn't care less that it provides a marvelous respite from the barrenness of modern existence. Opium also provides a marvelous respite of sorts, and you don't have to get dressed up in order to smoke it."

Having been inspired by his spirituality and commitment, I looked forward to meeting him on a recent trip he took to the United States to raise funds for a network of Torah schools in Israel. My husband arranged to pick him up at the airport, and transport him to his next speaking engagement. I had seen a video of his presentation, in which he relates his life's story with drama and humor and verve, and so I was prepared for the impact he would undoubtedly make on the good people of Teaneck. What I was not prepared for was the impact he would make on me.

As we drove out of Kennedy Airport in the waning daylight, Rabbi Zohar pulled a slim volume out of his pocket - a travel-sized volume of the Mishna, the backbone of the Talmud - and began studying it, singing the words in a melodious chant. His focus and concentration were total. The sights of the road, such as they were, remained invisible to him. One got the feeling that, having only begun studying Torah at age forty, he was reluctant to waste a single precious moment of his life on any pursuit less cosmic, more mundane.

We brought him to the home of a relative to rest for a short time before his scheduled appearance. And so, we had an opportunity to observe a few more small things. Like the way he recited a simple blessing. "Baruch atah- blessed are You, G-d, King of the world" on a drink - suddenly, we were eavesdropping on a private conversation in a very personal relationship, a conversation pursued with such single-minded intensity that my host mistook its recitation for that of Ma'ariv, the evening prayer service.

We could not help but be struck by the animating power of his religious observance, by the vitality with which he infused the everyday practices that are so "downgraded" into rote observance... by people like me, for example. I was raised in a strong religious home, given a good Jewish education, live by the book - make that the Book. I even married a rabbi's son, for crying out loud! And yet the very regularity and firm structure of my Jewish life tends at timesto obscure the excitement, the vitality, the "innerness" that undergirds it.

I sensed radiating from Rabbi Zohar a deep satisfaction, the joy of a life lived with a pervasive sense of purpose and mission. "For all his fabled billions, Bill Gates is not nearly as wealthy as I," he is fond of declaring. "If you were to offer me all of his money in exchange for my agreement not to don tefillin tomorrow morning, I wouldn't hesitate one second before refusing. Is he capable of such a refusal?"

He responds to a compliment from some one familiar with his cinematic oeuvre. "I'm handsome?" He grins. "There was a time when I wasn't sure. But now I know. I am beautiful. Black," - he tugs at the lapels of his regulation Orthodox dark jacket - "is beautiful."

In a recently discovered cache of writings by Ronald Reagan, a researcher came upon the following rumination:

"Every once in a while, all of us native-born Americans should make it a point to have a conversation with one who is an American by choice. They have a perspective on this country we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve to be free for another 200 years."

After meeting Rabbi Zohar, after feeling his challenge to my complacency, I am tempted to paraphrase the former president's words:

Every once in a while, all of us born to Jewish observance should make it a point to have a conversation with one who is observant by choice. They have a perspective on eternity we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve to seek and live the truth for the rest of our lives.

They didn't call him the Great Communicator for nothing.

[Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources' writing pool, is a teacher and writer in New York.]

Return To Index of Articles

THE PURIM MERGER: Developmentally Disabled Jews Help Power Purim Campaign

Malky Lowinger

Boruch, Mendy and Shoshie are hard at work. They're making beautiful baskets for Purim. Boruch is peeling labels. Shoshie is busy fussing over the colorful wrapping paper. And Mendy is in charge of counting the baskets. This group is taking its duties very seriously. They work with diligence and care. And when they're all done, they smile proudly with the special satisfaction of those who know that their job is well done.

During the weeks before Purim, Jews all over the world assemble baskets filled with "Shalach Monos" treats that they will distribute to their family and friends. It's a special mitzvah that brings joy to others on Purim day. This particular group is especially excited about the advent of Purim. They are the developmentally disabled adults of HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. And they are part of a very unique Purim basket program.

The program is run in conjunction with an Orthodox Jewish charity, Keren Aniyim, and the merger is reaping immeasurable benefits for everyone involved. Suzy is the director of the Keren Aniyim Purim campaign. She orchestrates the production, sale, and delivery of 2500 Shalach Monos baskets to families throughout the New York area, with proceeds going to benefit the charity.

Making Purim baskets for your own family is one thing. Assembling thousands of them for others is a whole different matter. It takes hours and hours of sorting, filling, wrapping, and coordinating. Suzy is lucky. She enjoys the support and assistance of volunteers within the community who drop by to help expedite the packing process. But the sheer volume of work is daunting and she is always grateful for more help.

And the help has come from an unlikely source. Suri is Coordinator of Day Habilitation Programs at HASC. Her job is to find opportunities to occupy her adult clients with simple but productive work.

One day, as she tells is, she discovers that Suzy needs help with her Purim campaign and she has a brainstorm. "I called Suzy and offered to send her some of our clients," Suri explains. "It's the perfect solution for all of us. Suzy's baskets get filled and our clients are happy to be participating in this tremendous mitzvah."

The phones ring incessantly in Suzy's basement, the headquarters of the Purim campaign. A steady stream of visitors walk in off the street. "Are my baskets ready yet?" demands one fellow who seems to be in a hurry. "Can I order twenty more of these?" asks a young mother with a baby stroller. Delivery men are sorting out their orders. Associates are unloading cases of specialty snacks. All lines are busy and the fax machine is humming away. The Purim campaign headquarters is a happening place.

Which is why Suzy was a bit apprehensive about accepting Suri's proposal. "The truth is," she admits, "that I was reluctant at first. It's very hectic here. Will the HASC participants be able to keep up with our fast pace? I didn't know, but I was willing to give it a try."

Today, Suzy is glad that she did. She's formed a close bond with her HASC helpers, who have become her special friends. "I truly look forward to seeing these HASC clients arrive in the morning," she says. "They are my greatest inspiration. This program has become very special and dear to me."

Suzy's basement isn't spacious by any means. But somehow there's plenty of room for the Purim baskets to be filled at one end of the room while she clicks away at her laptop in another corner.

As the HASC participants do their work, their distinctive personalities begin to emerge. Boruch is clearly the entertainer. Oozing with self-confidence, he belts out one Purim melody after another. Shoshie is the serious one. She focuses her attention on smoothing out the crumpled snack bags. And Mendy, who is more reserved, is perfectly content with filling the Purim baskets with goodies and enjoying Boruch's spontaneous performances.

They're all keenly aware of the special significance of their work. And they're very proud of what they're doing. "This is Shalach Monos for Purim," Boruch explains. "And people buy them," Shoshie adds. What happens to the money that is raised? "The money goes to tzedakah!" everyone chimes in.

As noon approaches, the HASC participants are starting to get restless. They sense that lunchtime is fast approaching. After waving goodbye to Suzy, they take the city bus back to HASC. According to Suri, "Participants take public transportation because it helps them achieve a measure of independence that allows them to function as productive members of society." They return to HASC after a satisfying morning of work, and are ready to settle down to a wholesome meal. At HASC, every effort is made for participants to live fulfilling lives and to become productive members of society. What more could they ask for? What more could anyone ask for?

It is said that mitzvot have a way of regenerating, and that one mitzvah often leads to another. If that's the case, then the unique partnership between the Keren Aniyim Purim Campaign and HASC has evolved into a virtual cornucopia of mitzvos. It's an innovative partnership that elevates everyone involved.

But that should hardly come as a surprise. After all, when two major business corporations merge, the profits generally soar. How high do the spiritual dividends rise when two mitzvah programs join forces?

Nobody knows. But it's easy to imagine them soaring to the very heavens.

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

In a widely published recent opinion piece, UAHC president Rabbi Eric Yoffie cites the case of four men serving prison sentences for misappropriating public funds and claims to have been unable to find more than "a single example" of an Orthodox leader "who has spoken out publicly against [the] reasoning" that misusing such funds in order to keep Jewish communities or institutions afloat is wrong.

He would have done well to have contacted Agudath Israel. We would have happily sent him material from Agudath Israel national conventions and conferences of recent years - which are routinely attended by thousands of Orthodox Jews - where both major addresses on the topic of financial integrity and roundtable discussions with titles like "613 / 9 to 5: The Challenges to Observance and Integrity in our Business and Professional Lives" abound.

We would have gladly provided him our press release of November 24 of last year, for example, recounting how, at our most recent convention, revered Council of Torah Sages senior member and dean of one of the largest Orthodox yeshivos in the United States, Rabbi Avrohom Pam, stated "clearly and unequivocally that it makes no difference whether one is acting as an individual or on behalf of an institution, or whether one is dealing with a Jew, non-Jew or government - meticulous honesty is the mandate of every Jew and must certainly be the hallmark of every observant Jew."

Rabbi Yoffie could have read on about how Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudath Israel, sounded the very same theme at the same gathering, averring that "honesty in all matters, including financial ones, results in 'the sanctification of the glory of Heaven' - something...that Jewish religious law requires of... every Jewish man, woman and child."

And, further, how the Rebbe went on to characterize such behavior as "the overriding challenge and the basic underpinning of Jewish life," whose opposite, G-d forbid, is Jewish life's "ultimate failure."

Rabbi Yoffie could have read even more, about how Rabbi Perlow called it a desecration of God's name when apparently observant Jews engage in questionable practices or seem to differentiate "between glatt kosher and glatt yosher" - between meticulous observance in realms like kashrut, on the one hand, and similar stringency in the realm of financial "straightforwardness" on the other.

Those comments, and similar ones offered by Rabbi Elya Svei, dean of the Talmudical Academy of Philadelphia, were made before close to 4000 Orthodox Jews, and were shared with the media and widely reported.

And they represent only what is said at Agudath Israel conventions. Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel gatherings have placed similar focus on the importance halacha puts on integrity in financial dealings. Meanwhile, in yeshiva classroom after yeshiva classroom, in study hall after study hall, Orthodox Jewish scholars teach their students that "chosomo shel Hakodosh Boruch Hu emes" - the very "seal" of the Holy One is truthfulness.

Yes, there are individuals in our community who may forget those lessons or allow temptations to obscure them. (More about them in a moment.) But they are only individuals. If every leader or teacher would have as successful a track record as Orthodox leaders and teachers do in inspiring followers or students to self-improvement and high moral standards, the world would be a far better place than it is today.

Rabbi Yoffie would also have done well to read further still in the press release cited above, and to seriously ponder the Orthodox sages' additional admonition that Jews avoid not only dishonesty and desecration of God's name Hashem but also the haughtiness of being judgmental of people who are not equal to the challenge, and the moral duty we have to recognize the toll taken on some by extreme financial pressures.

Had he done so, perhaps he would have been a bit more empathetic of those he scorned as stealing money "and then defending their actions on the grounds that the money did not go directly into their own pocket." Condemning what they did does not preclude recognizing that theirs were crimes of desperation, not venality, or empathizing with the dire circumstances that led them to act as they did. For none of the men to whom he referred used ill-gotten gains to afford themselves lavish lifestyles, neither directly (as Rabbi Yoffie admits) nor indirectly. Surely it behooves religious leaders not only to call for strength but to feel, and show, compassion.

Both together, the condemnation and the compassion, the tochacha and the rachmanus, comprise the truly Jewish response.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Judy Gruen

My daughter just turned seven, and the occasion of her birthday brought with it a modest bundle of birthday gifts. With a new pile of things to put away, I decided that her room was ripe for a minor purging of broken or obsolete playthings.

We worked together, unearthing an absurd amount of cheap plastic Barbie shoes, doll-sized furniture, colored beads and other made-in-China discards. With this detritus splayed over her carpet, she said in exasperation, "Mommy, I have way too much stuff! I just can't take it anymore!"

Of course, her feeling of being surfeited with possessions will be short-lived. The next time we're out at the mall, she is sure to stop in her tracks in front of the toy store window, asking if she can get "just one thing." But as we streamlined her voluminous possessions, I thought about how hard it can be to strike the right balance between gashmius and ruchnius. Gashmius means "physicality" (related to the Hebrew word geshem, or rain, which enables physical life to exist). The word, though, has often come to be associated with an excessive or undue emphasis on materialism. Its opposite, ruchnius, from the Hebrew word ruach, or spirit, refers to that which is spiritual.

We Jews have a very specific mandate to be an am kadosh, a holy nation, which is more of a challenge when we live in an environment that's drenched in consumerism. No wonder the Torah warns us not to let our eyes lead us astray: they say that seeing is believing, but seeing is also frequently the brain prompt to desire what has been seen. And let's be honest: We Jews have brought many concepts into the world, but asceticism wasn't one of them. Some of Jackie Mason's most side-splittingly funny, dead-on accurate routines have skewered the Jewish propensity for the finer things in life.

"See this over here?" he asked in one sketch, parodying a Jew giving a tour of his home and pointing to objects d'art. "It was imported from Italy! See that over there? Hand-carved marble!"

Sometimes, I find myself fighting the pull of mindless consumerism as well. While I drive a nice, late-model car with leather upholstery, my husband is still tooling around town in the same car he owned when we were dating fifteen years ago.

"When are you going to dump that heap?" I have asked him repeatedly. "Our gardener drives a nicer car than you do."

"So?" he replies. "Want me to show you the tuition bills?"

I am a little ashamed that I can't stand his old car. I really have no good reason to dislike it, other than I want my husband to drive something that doesn't remind me of a rumpled suit. But his old car is reliable (mostly) and does its job, so what's my problem? Probably a case of gashmius. My husband, generally better focused on the ruchnius side of life than I am, isn't bothered in the least by his aged, decidedly frumpy-looking car.

Certainly Judaism has never preached that poverty is an inherent virtue. While it's clear that our only true "riches" are our children and our mitzvahs, there's nothing wrong with living well, if we are so blessed, in this world. Our patriarchs and greatest judges of the biblical era were almost all wealthy. Wealth enables one to not only live with dignity but to support Jewish educational and philanthropic institutes.

The bottom line, though, is that our reward in the World to Come will have everything to do with how we lived our lives and nothing whatever to do with what we drove.

Still, it takes effort not to be seduced by the rampant materialism of our modern, monied society. I'm glad that my daughter began to feel, if only temporarily, that her possessions exceeded her needs. I hope what it shows is that her education at home and at school is teaching her to keep her focus more on ruchnius rather than on gashmius. Maybe the process of discarding possessions once in a while not only clears space for the things we truly need, but also reminds us that the most important things in our lives are not "things" at all.

[Judy Gruen is a writer in Los Angeles and the author of the new humor book, "Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy" (Heaven Ink Publishing, 2001).]

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

Just about two years ago, on February 28, 1999, 40,000 Orthodox Jews packed more than a mile of 4-lane wide Water Street in lower Manhattan in a bone-chilling rain to pray and recite Psalms. They were there to beseech God en masse to guide the hearts of Israel's leaders to preserve the Jewish State's Jewish character. While the immediate impetus for the gathering had been a series of Israeli Supreme Court rulings threatening the state's "religious status quo," there were no speeches and no slogan-chanting - only traditional Jewish prayers and verses.

The following day, The New York Times acknowledged the unusual event by publishing a photo in its Metro section with the caption: "20,000 Vent Anger Against Israeli Court." The newspaper might be forgiven for disregarding the official police estimate and undercounting the crowd by half. But "anger" was nowhere evident at the gathering. I was there. Not a single word spoken by the event's organizers or by any of the rabbis who led the crowd in fervent prayer, could have remotely been characterized as angry. The crowd itself was serene and serious, and they prayed in what any observer would have described as a heartfelt manner.

But they were visibly Orthodox Jews and the issue that had brought them together was a controversial one, so anger was, even if unwitnessed, presumed.

That photo and caption came to mind recently when several newspapers, including the Times, ran another photograph of Orthodox Jews, on February 9, along with a similar caption, both provided by the news agency Reuters.

The photograph, of a small part of a large crowd that gathered shortly after a car bomb exploded in a heavily haredi, or "ultra-Orthodox," neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem, showed a number of local residents. No one had been killed or even seriously injured by the powerful explosion, though the street where it took place is often filled with students from a large nearby yeshiva and needy Jerusalemites visiting a soup kitchen at the site.

Numerous personal accounts poured in to American friends and relatives of some of those present in the crowd that day, describing the jubilant and spiritual mood of those who had gathered, and how they sang thanks to God for frustrating the plans of the bombers to kill and maim.

In the published photo, a boy is holding up a piece of wreckage from the bomb-laden car; a smiling young man has his arm thrust upward; and, in the foreground, a pair of hands is clasped together in what seems a gesture of celebration.

The caption, in its entirety, reads: "A crowd of Israelis chanting anti-Arab slogans in Jerusalem yesterday as one held a piece of jagged metal from the explosion of a car bomb."

It was indeed reported by the Israeli paper Ha'aretz that a group of supporters of the outlawed anti-Arab Israeli Kach movement had joined the mostly haredi crowd, in fact that the very religious Jews had "clashed" with the ultra-nationalists.

It is conceivable that some haredim may have joined in anti-Arab chants. After all, though the overwhelming majority of haredim are neither very nationalistic nor "anti-Arab," Palestinian actions over recent months have certainly served to heighten fears of Arabs across all segments of the Israeli populace.

Perhaps the particular handful of men depicted in the Reuters photograph were even, against the odds, among such presumed haredi chanters. If they were, though, they were clearly not representative of the large haredi majority at the scene. Yet the caption (or choice of photo, if the caption is accurate) misled millions of readers into thinking that the gathering had been one of hatred, not thanksgiving.

It is highly unlikely that anti-Semitism or anti-Orthodoxy thrives in the Western media. But what is clearly alive and well in the hearts of some reporters - and, sadly, in one or another way within most of us - is the more subtle but still dangerous evil of stereotyping.

The Orthodox Jewish community is not perfect, but neither is it what the press and public so often assume. If Orthodox Jews gather to pray, it does not mean they are angry. If they celebrate, it does not mean they are hateful. If (to digress in a personal vein) they dare to raise important Jewish issues, it does not mean they are motivated by lack of love for fellow Jews.

Isn't it time haredim were viewed with true objectivity rather than through the smudged lens of stereotype?

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

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

I can't say that it came as a surprise to hear that an uproar resulted in some circles from my recent article in Moment Magazine showing how the Conservative movement's theology is at stark odds with its actions, and calling on members of its laity to re-evaluate their identification with a movement faithful to Jewish religious law (halacha) in name alone. But the angry and oddly personal nature of the response thus far from Conservative leaders, not to mention their studious avoidance of the very real issues I raised, was unexpected. It is also very sad, and telling.

Part of the animus is due, perhaps, to the unfortunately incendiary title the magazine gave my piece. Instead of my own choice, "Time To Come Home," Moment decided to crown the article with a large, bold banner headline reading: "The Conservative Lie."

All the same, the piece itself is, admittedly, provocative, laying out as it does not only examples of the blatantly agenda-driven "halachic process" of the Conservative movement but open admission of the same by a number of Conservative leaders.

My purpose, though, was not provocation for provocation's sake, but to generate honest and serious introspection among my fellow Jews who affiliate with the Conservative movement.

Introspection, however, does not appear to be on the Conservative leadership's agenda.

"A nasty diatribe" is how Rabbi Alan Silverstein, president of the World Council of Masorti/Conservative Synagogues, characterized my article, which is neither remotely nasty nor diatribe (check it out at "Let us," he announces hopefully, "marginalize strident voices like that of Avi Shafran."

"Does [Rabbi Shafran] really think that the masses of Conservative Jews are going to... run out and join his little shtibl?" mocks Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who also accuses me of hypocrisy for having dared critique his movement while claiming at the same time to care about Jewish unity.

Rabbi Steven Bayar, of Congregation B'nei Israel in Millburn, New Jersey, renders his own judgment that by writing what I did, I must be trying to make myself "look good by making others look bad." He then confidently declares that I surely have not brought as many Jews closer to our tradition as he has. He then goes on to reassure readers of the New Jersey Jewish News that he simply will not allow the evidence laid out in my article to bother him. "I'm not going to lose sleep over it," he says contentedly. "I consider the source and I don't expect anything different."

For his part, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, sees in my having raised substantive issues and presented serious questions about Conservative decisions that my claim to be an "ohev Yisrael," one who loves fellow Jews, is clearly nothing but a "guise."

Though all the intemperate reactions are disturbing, that last assertion carries particular irony. Because ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is precisely why I wrote my piece.

Consider a family, which is precisely how all we Jews are to view ourselves. Were one to witness a beloved family member being misled - even by another member of the clan - about, say, a financial investment or a medical course of action, what would true familial love and concern dictate? Ignoring the situation? Pretending it didn't exist?

What any caring, concerned parent or child or sibling or cousin would do, of course, is address the less-informed relative, calmly and clearly, and lay out the pertinent facts and dangers. Indeed, the closer the relation, the more urgent the effort to provide the loved one with accurate information. And if the threat was to something even greater than finances or physical health, the response would be proportionately forthright.

While some, like Rabbi Bayar, may choose to not let the facts bother them, they are nevertheless clear: The Conservative movement - which tells Jews sincerely interested in observing Jewish religious law that halacha permits, among other things, traveling by car on the Sabbath, mixed-seating at prayer, marriages forbidden by the Torah and acceptance of homosexual relations as an acceptable alternative lifestyle - baldly misrepresents both the letter and spirit of the Jewish religious heritage.

Now, I could certainly keep that observation private, convince myself that politeness trumps truth here, that no one will likely listen anyway, and that speaking up simply isn't worth the resultant rain of animus and insults from offended Jewish leaders. But I chose - and choose - to dispense with convenient excuses and act from something deeper: my love and concern for my precious fellow Jews. Many of them, egged on by their leaders, may indeed reject my words and choose to ignore the evidence, but that affords me no moral basis for withholding vital truths, no matter how uncomfortable they might be.

Were all the Conservative movement's leaders (rather than those I quoted in my article alone) to admit, as have Reform leaders, that they simply do not consider halacha binding, I would hardly be happy with the presentation to Jews of an "ahalachic" religious option. They would be guilty, to be sure, of attempting to change the nature of Judaism, but not of misrepresenting what they are doing. When, however, some Conservative leaders tell their congregants - my precious brothers and sisters - that they can be fully assured that the movement of their affiliation is truly faithful to the halachic method, I cannot in good conscience and concern for my fellow Jews simply allow the blatant misrepresentation to stand unchallenged.

When Catholics and Protestants, or Sunnis and Shi'ites, present mutually exclusive perspectives on the legacy of Christianity or Islam, I am happy to be securely "pluralistic" and allow them all equal legitimacy. Because the protagonists, though I wish them all well, are not my flesh and blood. But when the Jewish religious heritage is twisted, I do not feel I can afford the luxury of "hey-who-cares-anyway pluralism" - not if there is true ahavat Yisrael in my heart. My family's soul and future are at stake.

Rabbi Epstein may be right that most Conservative Jews will not likely be spurred by my article to embrace halacha (what he means, presumably, by my "shtibl"). But if even one Jew indeed comes to realize that halacha is not Silly Putty, that we Jews are here to do G-d's will, not to ascribe our own wills to Him, it will have been well worth all the anger and insults of outraged Conservative rabbis.

I personally know many once-Conservative (and Reform, and secular) Jews who are now fully and happily halacha-observant. I've even written a biography - "Migrant Soul: The Story of an American Ger" (Targum/Feldheim) - of two such people, a once-secular Jewish feminist and her then-non-Jewish, mixed-race husband.

They and others like them were also told for years to marginalize the Orthodox perspective, and to ignore evidence like the facts I cited in Moment. But they had the temerity to not listen, and instead explored. Sampling Orthodox books and tapes and websites, entering Orthodox shuls and homes (yes, Rabbi Bayar, not a few of them my own home), they encountered not only warmth and love, but Jewish consistency in the form of uncompromising dedication to halacha. In time, they came to objectively regard both the facts of history and the Orthodox community, and realized that their personal Jewish futures - as well as the collective Jewish Future - are entirely dependent on honest and selfless engagement with the fullness of the Jewish past.

My detractors are free to imagine what they like about me, free to vilify me if it helps them sleep soundly at night. But it was out of deep concern and love for all the sincere and trusting Conservative Jews who have not yet considered the facts about their movement and halacha that I penned my Moment piece.

I pray with all my heart that they be strong and honest, that they not let some Jewish leaders' ugly words prevent them from actually weighing, and acting on, those facts.

I pray, in other words, that they come to realize, despite all the noise and anger and umbrage-taking, that Jewish words like "Torah" and "halacha", have historical meanings, and that it is indeed time to come home.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Tamar Hausman

They were 25-ish and graduates of top universities. They'd swiftly found themselves in high-flying, high-paying jobs, in sky's-the-limit trajectories. All eyes were fixed on them; their success seemed assured.

Then they wondered: "Where do we go from here?"

Give or take a nuance, those were basically the stories and thoughts of eight new immigrants to Israel from the United States, Britain and Brazil: Four couples who recently left their secular lifestyles, became religious, married and moved to Israel after confronting this question.

Most of the eight had minimal Jewish education, and all had turned to ultra-Orthodoxy during their 20s or early 30s. The men studied in yeshivot, their wives either worked or started families, after having rocketed to success in their rewarding, if short, careers.

Ha'aretz's "Anglo File" talked to the four couples about why they seemingly "gave it all up," renouncing the fast lane to fame and definitely fortune in their home countries, for a life of religious rite and ritual in Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods.

-- Chasing Down Monica --

American-born Aliza Bloom (her married name) grew up with a Zionist education in her home and was active in all Reform-Jewish activities from a young age. But she was also very focused on a career in journalism. Soon after graduating from Columbia University Journalism School, she began working for MSNBC.

The news network sent Aliza to London when Princess Diana was killed. She was responsible for booking interviewees in the aftermath. Her work won her the notice of CNN's "Larry King Live" show, which quickly hired her away.

First in Washington, D.C., and later in New York, she tracked down and booked many of the King show's guests over a period of several years. There was an endless stream of cocktail parties and schmoozing - essential for meeting America's most celebrated celebrities and convincing them to appear on King's show. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Aliza burned up the capital's phone lines trying to track down the presidentially-popular White House intern.

"How many parties can you go to looking for Monica Lewinsky?" asks Aliza. "I became so disgusted at the lack of integrity of our country, and saw that my life had been consumed with trying to book her - with trying to bump into her in a ladies room - that I eventually thought: 'There has to be another purpose in my life than booking Monica.'"

Aliza began reading books on Judaism and gradually became ultra-Orthodox, incorporating one after another ritual or practice in her life as she learned about each. "I had a notebook filled with questions about Judaism, and I would sit with different rabbis and religious people I knew and just run down the list," she recalls. "I was interviewing people, like any reporter would do. It's voluminous what there is to learn."

But her religiosity soon became a problem at work. She began to notice how often she had to lie to do her job - because she had to book several guests for every show, promising they'd be on, but knowing some were merely back-ups. She didn't want to lie anymore. So she took a sabbatical to study at Neve Yerushalayim, the wome''s yeshiva in Jerusalem. After a while there, she decided not to go back to the U.S., and quit her "dream" job.

"I had a very exciting career," Aliza recalls. "But I felt like: 'I can't imagine that this is all there is.' You get to the top of the mountain, or close to it - I wasn't at the top but I could see it - and it felt meaningless. I realized that the top isn't what it's cracked up to be."

Aliza later married Jeff Bloom. He was a non-observant Jew when they met in Washington. But they followed the shidduch system, which she preferred to the more disorderly and confusing secular way of dating . Jeff had come to Israel from the United States several years before Aliza, and has been studying at various yeshivot ever since. Now, Aliza is applying her media skills to improve ultra-Orthodox Judaism's media savvy.

Jeff Bloom's own religious transformation, similar to his wife's, was the product of his innate intellectual curiosity. Despite Chicago's large Jewish community, he grew up there with almost no Jewish education. So, echoing the Hellenized Jews of old, he majored in Greek Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He only turned to ultra-Orthodoxy when he found Judaism and the study of Jewish texts an equally challenging intellectual pursuit - and, unlike the ancient Greeks, one that still lived.

"There's no tribe of ancient Greeks that still reads Homer," he say, "but Judaism is a living tradition."

-- For the love of law --

Michael Rosenberg was a comedian. From age 16, he had performed in Boston's top comedy clubs. By his mid-20s, he was performing in Los Angeles' hottest clubs, including the Improv and the Comedy Store. He was a frequent guest on the now-defunct Arsenio Hall Show.

But Rosenberg's career also meant he spent most of his time alone at home, planning for his next show. Ironically, this gave him time for introspection, and in his early 30s, he opted out. He was sick of the spotlight.

"I didn't want to be looked at anymore!" he recalls. So he came to yeshiva in Israel for what was to have been a three-month "trial" period, and never went back to the "City of the Angels."

Rosenberg met his future bride, Stephanie, in Israel. Brazilian by birth, by age 25 she was a partner in a law firm she helped found. Her odyssey into ultra-Orthodoxy was the result of her love of law and the nagging knowledge that she knew nearly nothing of Jewish law. Like many of "the Orthodox Eight," Stephanie, too, had had minimal Jewish education growing up. "I read all the Jewish laws with my lawyers' mind until it all made sense from a legal point of view," she recalls. It was not long before she felt obligated to follow those laws.

Like Michael Rosenberg and Aliza Bloom, Adam Lynn, a native of Palm Beach, Florida, felt angst over the glitz of America's media and entertainment world. A graduate of Duke University and New York University Film School, Lynn was already an established Hollywood screenwriter by his mid-20s. He'd written scripts for several major movie studios, including Castle Rock Entertainment. He was in the fast lane, but "you see your friends dropping like flies for the lust of fame, and I hated that," he says.

Lynn recalls the moment of his own Paulinesque "Road-to- Damascus" revelation, when he decided to quit Hollywood in order to find a higher meaning to life: He was in his car, on his way to meet his agent. He'd stopped at a traffic light. He looked to his left and to his right, and saw all the other drivers were dressed the same way, sipping the same coffee, driving similar fancy cars. In their race to outdo one another, they'd become nearly identical. The only thing differentiating them was how much money each had in his pocket, or the level of fame they'd achieved.

In Hollywood, "every person is always trying to be better than the guy next to him, and even if he got there, it wasn't enough. After a while, you don't know what you're after," Lynn says. So he shifted his drive for film fame to a new fascination with Judaism in his search for a greater meaning to life. Lynn dropped a screenplay mid-scene that had already been sold and was slated to become a movie with several big-name Hollywood stars. He was not alone; four of his film industry friends all became ultra-Orthodox at the same time. Ultra-Orthodoxy, he says, helped him determine life's greatest good: For him, it's being a good father and husband.

After moving to Israel and entering a yeshiva, Lynn met his wife-to- be, Ruth, an olah from London who had dropped career plans, too. She'd begrudgingly earned a degree at Cambridge University at her mother's insistence before deciding to become a wife and mother exclusively.

-- Unraveling Yentl --

The Orthodox Eight each became religious when they were single. Each was driven by his or her native intellectual curiosity and the need to find greater meaning to their lives. Some admit they were attracted to the orderliness and rules ultra-Orthodoxy offers. Most also say they struggled against - even battled - their religious transformations all the way.

"I fought [religion] kicking and screaming; I didn't want to become religious," says Genna Edwards. "I thought: 'What do I need all that ritual and obligation for?'" says Edwards, a former drama star at UCLA's prestigious theater school. She had an agent starting as a teen, and appeared on various commercials, hoping to perform one day on Broadway.

While in college, she met a Haredi family that took her under its wing, and she became fiercely curious about Judaism. She eventually realized she would have to give up her Broadway dreams if she were going to take Judaism seriously. "You either have to go all the way, or not do it at all," she says, reflecting the views of all the Orthodox Eight. She struggled to find loopholes in Haredi tradition that would let her both be religious and reign on the stage. At one point, she even suggested to a rabbi, whom she'd asked for advice, that she perform for hospital patients.

Despite her ambivalence, Edwards moved to Israel to study at Neve Yerushalayim. Eventually, she decided she'd made the right choice. But, she says, "The true test was whether I could be religious at home." Back in Los Angeles, "I came out of the closet. I was so used to wearing jeans at home, and then slowly, I began to wear skirts. I said goodbye to a lot of things. Becoming religious was the hardest thing I ever did."

Almost all of the Orthodox Eight say their parents were skeptical, disappointed in their own parentage, or hurt as a result of their childrens' religious and career changes. Edwards' father suggested she see a psychiatrist, and her husband Brandon, also newly-religious, says his mother cried that she had failed him.

The parents had stereotypes of Haredim that only really dissolved when their sons and daughters brought their new spouses home with them. Says Edwards: "My parents thought that I'd marry someone out of 'Yentl,' but then they saw Brandon and saw he was a normal human being, and suddenly they were really okay with it all.

(c) copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

Return To Index of Articles


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The recent tragic earthquake in India, like similar catastrophes, has yielded reports of survivors like Viral Dalal, who was discovered unscathed five days later underneath the rubble of a collapsed building.

It is for such joy amid misery that dedicated rescue workers labor mightily to remove debris and search for signs of life, even when there seems little reason to imagine that, buried beneath tons of concrete and metal, a human being may live and breathe. Our hearts and our minds, moreover, insist that even the mere possibility of saving a life is cause enough to warrant such action, even if it drains our energy and resources.

What, though, if searching for a possible survivor would take an even greater toll, if it would interfere, say, with an important religious obligation?

The Talmud, the essential Jewish legal text, posits just such a case: the collapse of a not-known-to-have-been-occupied building on the Sabbath, when, according to Jewish religious law, or halacha, an act like digging through the rubble transgresses the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, constituting a desecration of one of the Ten Commandments. Notwithstanding that fact, however, the Talmud requires one to assist immediately in the task of moving the debris until it is ascertained that no survivor is languishing beneath the ruins.

Even the remote possibility of saving a life, the Talmud is saying, renders otherwise important concerns secondary and, with only the rarest exceptions, demands our every effort. In fact, even if the violation of Sabbath might yield only short-lived survival, the added moments of life take precedence, according to halacha.

While it may be that halacha is accepted as binding today only in certain Jewish circles, one imagines that Jews of all levels of religious observance would readily accede to the wisdom and morality of this particular ruling. Life is important enough, most reasonable people would say, for even its possibility to concern us.

Which might lead us to wonder why the prospect of saving possible life by limiting abortion on demand engenders so vehement a reaction among so many Jewish Americans.

Consider: The Pope, Supreme Court Justices and feminists may all have beliefs or opinions about when life begins and when it is morally acceptable to terminate fetal life, but no one can in any way objectively prove that his or her view is definitively correct. They can all argue, to be sure, but the dialectic will necessarily be limited to the "is so!"/"is not!" genre more commonly associated with grade-school playgrounds.

So what we have, in the end, at least from a secular perspective, is an essentially unanswerable question. Life becomes real, priceless and inviolable at some point, at latest after birth (though Princeton Professor Peter Singer apparently disagrees even there). What, though, of a viable fetus just before birth? A day before its third-trimester "pre-birthday"? Or one even younger? Or one not yet viable?

Ought we not concede, in all humility, that as objectively unanswerable as these questions may be, there is at least a possibility of life at these stages? And, if so, that even the mere possibility of life must concern us desperately as human beings, if we aspire to the title "moral" on any level at all?

And for us Jews, shouldn't the teachings of Judaism on this sensitive subject be at least relevant to our thinking? The Torah does, after all, have something to say about when life begins, and under what circumstances pregnancy may be terminated. Under Jewish law, while a Jewish woman may procure an abortion in a situation where her life is endangered by continued pregnancy, and perhaps in situations where the pregnancy poses grave danger to her health (a matter of dispute among respected rabbinical authorities), abortion is otherwise prohibited.

Stated simply, unfettered "reproductive freedom" is a concept entirely alien to Judaism. Why then does it appear to command so much allegiance among American Jews?

An earthquake, and the Herculean efforts to find and rescue potential survivors, should shake all of us up to confront not only the terrible end of so many lives but the question of the beginnings of so many others. We imperil our status as caring, thinking beings if we refuse to consider whether the "facts on the ground" here in our nation, the effective acceptance of abortion on demand, might just reflect a very imperfect approach.

If, in other words, we insist on pretending that abortion is somehow a simple issue of personal choice, rather than a complex one of human life.

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

Return To Index of Articles


Zev Roth

When Cesar Kaskel first saw the notice, he likely rubbed his eyes. In a daze, he probably ran home to his family. One look at him and his wife would have realized that there was something dreadfully wrong.

"Why, what is it? What happened?" she surely asked.

And then he told her about the order for every Jew to leave his home within twenty- four hours.

"Leave? Why? What have we done?" she may have asked, bewildered.

And he may have answered: "Do they ever say why when they throw Jews out of their homes? I just never thought it would happen in America."

Whatever the precise words of their conversation, Kaskel informed his spouse about General Ulysses S. Grant's General Order 11, signed on December 17, 1862. As Military Governor of newly conquered Civil War territory, he had issued the order in Holly Springs, Mississippi, mandating the total expulsion of "the Jews, as a class" from an area corresponding with what is today Northern Mississippi, Kentucky and Western Tennessee within "twenty four hours," without trial or hearing

In Paducah, Kentucky, many families were expelled. They could not believe they were being forced from their homes in so abrupt a manner.

A certain Mr. Silverman from Chicago, visiting the town, unfortunately came to share the fate of his local brethren, who on December 17, denied even rail transportation for their exodus, were forced to travel all the way to Memphis by foot. For his efforts to use some contacts to get a desperate telegram through to General Grant, Mr. Silverman was promptly thrown into a Holly Springs prison.

For his part, Cesar Kaskel tried to contact the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. He wrote an urgent telegram to the White House, protesting "this inhuman order, the carrying out of which would be the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as citizens under it, which will place outlaws before the whole world."

As it happened, his letter was the second to find its way to Lincoln's desk concerning the Jewish people. A few days earlier, a missive had arrived from one B. Behrend, the father of a religious Jewish soldier in the Union army. Behrend wrote to request Lincoln's assistance in allowing his son to observe the Jewish Sabbath. He asked Lincoln, "as your namesake Abraham", for his help in this matter. "This will be exactly lawful, as the Constitution of the United States ordains it, and at the same time be exactly according of the teachings of the Bible, as recorded in Leviticus XIX, 18: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Kaskel realized, due to the desperation of the situation, that he had to make a trip to Washington. With the help of Congressman Gurley of Ohio, he secured an appointment to see President Lincoln. Together, they were quickly admitted to Lincoln's office on the second floor of the White House.

It quickly became apparent that Lincoln knew little or nothing about the Jewish expulsion. Kaskel, however, had brought documentation along, and provided a first-person account of Jews being evicted from their homes. After carefully listening, Lincoln asked, "And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?"

Kaskel said, "Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham's bosom, asking for protection."

Lincoln replied "And this protection they shall have at once." He then ordered that General Order 11 immediately be revoked.

Historians debate whether Ulysses S. Grant was the one responsible for the expulsion, or whether he had merely carried out the wishes of an anti-Semitic higher government official. What is clear, however, is that Lincoln was very sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish Americans affected by the order.

Perhaps, in part, because of a letter from a Sabbath-observant soldier's father.

[Zev Roth is an author living in Israel. His most recent book is "The Monsey-Kiryat Sefer Express: True Tales from Two Cities" (Targum Press, 2000)]

Return To Index of Articles

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


Rabbi General's Warning: Unbridled web surfing is not recommended. Navigate the web with caution. Use the Internet in a way so that it enhances quality of life for yourself as a person, as a family member, and as a member in society. The Internet can enhance the mastery of Torah knowledge and it can also interfere. If you are able to study in a Bet Medrash at this time then you should do so right now.

© 1996- by Harlan Black, JewishAmerica. All rights reserved.