‘Cultural’ alternative to conversion is a bad idea
EFRAT, west bank — The reputable car dealer’s advertisement in the local paper screams “Brand New Mercedes — Only $500!”
You get excited but think it sounds too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, it is: The car dealer is offering only Mercedes hubcaps of the Mercedes for $500. If you want the whole car, it will cost the standard price. Suddenly the car dealer doesn’t sound so reputable.
You would never find such an ad, because no car dealer in his right mind would make such an offer. Yet hubcaps masquerading as the car is exactly what Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky offer, in their recent op ed, “Conversion shouldn’t be the only path to joining the Jewish people.”
Cohen and Olitzky bemoan that as of now, there’s only one way for a non-Jew to become Jewish — conversion — and offer an alternative they call “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.” Under this scheme, those who are not interested in Judaism as a religion, and even those who follow a different religion, could choose the Jewish Cultural Affirmation path.
Right now, there is just one way for someone who is not Jewish to become Jewish in a publicly recognized and officially authorized fashion: undergo religious conversion under the auspices of a rabbi.
Whether the path to Jewish identification follows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or other auspices, conversion is explicitly and entirely religious in nature. These movements and their rabbis vary both in the preparation they demand and the religious commitments they seek of potential converts. But all require a significant measure of religious education, practice and expressed commitment to a Jewish way of life.
It was the mid-1990s. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, working with funds provided in part by the Conference on Material Jewish Claims Against Germany, opened a Hesed Center in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. As part of the ceremony, “gifts” were handed out to some of the elderly Shoah survivors in that city.
One “gift” in particular stood out. Rabbi Israel Miller, the late president of the Claims Conference, handed a table-top refrigerator to a woman in her 80s who had never owned one in her life before then. The woman cried as she received the refrigerator; so, in fact, did everyone who watched her reaction.
She and the other Shoah survivors in Minsk were among the many thousands of Jews caught behind the Iron Curtain in the wake of World War II. They are known as “the double victims”: the victims of Nazism and the victims of communism. The Nazis sought to take their lives, and in almost every case did take the lives of their families and friends. Because they lived under the thumb of the Soviet Union, they were unable to rebuild their lives. That is because the West, the United States especially, refused to allow anyone to send money to them. Despite the intense suffering they had experienced under the Nazis, and the continuing suffering they were going through under the communists, the fact that they lived within the Soviet orbit kept desperately needed reparations and restitution funds from reaching them.
This policy was cruel, but it was also understandable and arguably even necessary. Few doubted that monies sent to survivors would remain with them. It was reasoned that the communist regimes under which they lived would take the funds and use them for their own purposes — to further oppress their own people and to continue to threaten world peace. No one in any U.S. administration enjoyed denying Shoah survivors some modicum of justice, but neither the exigencies of the Cold War nor the reality of it could be ignored.
That is what makes a particular United States policy so hypocritical and unintelligible — a policy that has been in place since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, and has been endorsed by presidents of both parties. This policy calls for sending many millions of dollars to the PA despite the fact that some of that money is used to reward terrorists for killing Jews. If the terrorists die or are imprisoned, their families will receive stipends; “salaries” will be paid to the imprisoned terrorists for the time they served.
A Jewish survivor of the Shoah lived a life of abject poverty because the United States barred her from receiving money that was coming out of West Germany’s treasury, out of concern that at least some of that money would fall into communist hands. A terrorist stabs a Jew to death and knows that his family will be taken care of because the United States will send money out of its own treasury to the PA, and at least some of that money will help foot the bill for his family’s upkeep and perhaps his own.
Where is the justice in that?
Six years ago, an old, extraordinarily beautiful synagogue was restored to life in Berlin. Recently, a seminary to train rabbis was attached to a new Jewish theological college that itself is attached to the University of Pottsdam. (See the article on page 8.)
How far the world has turned since 1945. How different the Jewish world is today than it was back then.
Jewish life is resurgent in the very heart of the land that once marked it for extinction. It is something to cheer about.
And yet there is evidence that the world has not turned all that much, at least not the European world. Anti-Semitism once again has become part of the European landscape, and not just in Germany.
Scandinavian countries, for example, succeeded in October in securing passage in the European Parliamentary Assembly of a nonbinding resolution that called for a ban on ritual circumcision, which it said was a “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
In the wake of that vote, Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, insisted at a press conference in Berlin at October’s end that “in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the circumcision of boys. It is a very important part of Judaism and of Jewish life.”
His reassurance is not reassuring, however. Europe’s parliament, after all, did pass the resolution. It did so in the wake of efforts that have been under way for several years to ban the practice in individual European nations — efforts that often have the approval of sitting governments, and from all sides of the European political divide. Earlier this year, a German court banned the practice; in this case, the German government itself moved to counteract the ruling, but that it was issued at all says much.
Ritual slaughter also is under attack in Europe. Last January, for example, Poland issued a new regulation that required all animals to be stunned before they could be slaughtered, effectively banning kosher ritual slaughter. That decision was upheld by Poland’s parliament in July. It is now under constitutional review.
The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
The early Sunday morning “deal” with Iran already began to show signs of being a big mistake even before the sun rose in Geneva. That is because Washington and Tehran do not even agree on what it was they agreed on regarding the most important issue — the enrichment of uranium.
Speaking on Iran’s state-owned Press TV on Sunday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “In the final step, the enrichment process will be accepted and at the same time all the sanctions will be lifted.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, however, had a much different view when he appeared on the ABC News program “This Week.” There is no agreement yet on the enrichment process, he said. Rather, “there will be a negotiation over whether or not they could have a very limited, completely verifiable, extraordinarily constrained program, where they might have some medical research or other things they can do, but there is no inherent right to enrich” uranium, he said.
The folly of trying to negotiate a deal with Iran should be obvious.
It is the deal in place, however, and now it needs to play itself out, one way or the other.
What trouble us are the moves in Congress, especially by Republicans and Democrats on the right, to impose even more sanctions, rather than allow the agreement to ease those already in place. It is not the thought behind it that is troubling; it is the blatant political pandering that is odious.
The United States and its allies have been imposing ever more stringent sanctions on Iran, with the blessing of the Congress of the United States, for many years now. Sanctions have only one goal: to bring the recalcitrant nation (in this case, Iran) to the negotiating table. Well, they worked; Iran came to the table. To argue that even more sanctions be imposed now that the earlier ones succeeded is like saying, “We beat you over the head until you complied; now that you complied, we will beat you over the head for complying.”
The politicians in Washington and elsewhere cannot have it both ways. They wanted sanctions; they got sanctions. Now they say they are unhappy that the sanctions worked. It is absurd.
It is also destructive.
Yesterday, most Jewish Americans joined the broader community in celebrating Thanksgiving, a secular holiday that has its roots in the festival of Sukkot, the Jewish festival of thanksgiving.
As Jews living in the United States, we have much for which to be thankful. We live in a society that allows us to be equal partners with equal opportunities. Jews attain some of the highest offices in the land, either by election or appointment. They are leaders in virtually all fields of American life. A Jew even came within a hair’s breadth of being a heartbeat away from the highest office, the presidency, when Joe Lieberman and Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.
Because we are free to be ourselves, we feel free to bring Jewish values into our national debates, and Jews help lead the way in battles for the rights of others here, and around the globe.
It was not always thus, but it is that way now, and if we remain vigilant, it will remain so well into the future. It is a gift we must never take lightly, and for which we must always be thankful.
Holiday parity is a bad idea.
Even before this week’s Thanksgiving holiday, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas on our streets and shopping malls. Each year, in fact, the Christmas buying season seems to begin ever earlier.
For some, this is a time to insist on parity. If there is a Christmas display, there should be a Chanukah display.
Parity is not warranted, and should not be sought. As much as it feels like an equalizer, parity has a serious downside.
Christmas is less a religious holiday today than it is an excuse for the rankest forms of commercialism. By the time you read this editorial, Internet news sites will be reporting on riots breaking out among crowds of early shoppers who braved a cold Thanksgiving night to get through department store doors at special midnight sales. That is not the way to mark what for scores of millions of people was the most momentous event in history.
Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish survival. It is about how a rebel army took to the hills and fought off an invasion by the most powerful army in the region, if not the world, at that time — and won. It is about the desire of Jews to live as Jews, and how that desire carried them to victory.
Parity would water down Chanukah the way Christmas has been diminished, and to some degree it already has. Far more meaningful than pushing our way through hordes of mall shoppers is gathering our families around a small eight-candle menorah and singing “Al Hanissim,” singing about all the miracles, including the greatest miracle of all — the miracle of our survival against all odds, “in those days at this time,” and even in our own time.
The deadly bombing this week near Iran’s embassy in Beirut saw an all-too-common knee-jerk reaction: Israel did it. The evidence, of course, suggests that the bombing was in retaliation for Iran’s support of the Bashir al-Assad regime in Syria, but that mattered little to some.
Two weeks ago, a report by Swiss forensic experts suggested the possibility that Yasir Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority chairman, was assassinated. The same knee-jerk reaction was seen then: Israel did it. The evidence (in this case, the particular poison found in Arafat’s cells) suggests that Russia might have been involved, but that mattered little to some.
Israel is the Middle East fall guy, come what may.
Some of the accusations are so ludicrous as to be laughable, except for one thing: In the interconnected world of the Internet, even the most absurd comments take on lives of their own.
There is no way to stifle free speech, and if there was, we would want no part of it. We do believe, however, that journalism needs to confront a painful question: Should it report charges when they are made, or should it wait to see whether those charges actually have substance?
Whatever is reported today will live in the ether for many years to come, and may have consequences in the future we cannot even imagine today. If it ever was a laughing matter, it is so no longer.
The end is near.
The end of 2013, that is. With it will go any chance of reducing the amount of taxes we will have to pay by April 15.
One way to reduce our tax bills, of course, is to make charitable donations. At this point in the year, many of us already are drawing up our lists of worthy charities.
All too often, however, we look far afield when local needs are just as worthy, and from a community standpoint, they are far more personal.
The Jewish Family Service agencies in our area are called upon to help people of every age group and every walk of life. In times of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, they are there, helping people rebuild their lives. Are they less worthy than a hospital in Tel Aviv?
The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has a long list of agencies and subventions that are vital to us, and that are there when we need them. Is JFNNJ less worthy than a yeshivah in Maryland?
And what about our synagogues? They are there to serve us in our times of need, but are we there to serve them? Are they any less worthy than some institution thousands of miles away?
When making up our lists this year, let us not forget the worthy charities far away, but let us also remember that charity really must begin at home.