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September 24, 2010

Conversion Before Sanctification

As a Reform rabbi, I am proud to be part of a movement that wholeheartedly welcomes converts into our midst. Celebrating converts has a long and revered tradition in Judaism going back to the Book of Ruth, which makes the loyal daughter-in-law of Naomi a direct ancestor of King David.

But lacking a conversion, an intermarriage is not a Jewish marriage. A rabbi?s officiation at such a wedding ceremony does not transform the event into a Jewish wedding, as Edmund Case seems to suggest in his opinion article about the Clinton-Mezvinsky nuptials (?The Missing Mazel Tov,? August 20).

In an intermarriage, neither party has renounced his or her own faith. Their offspring can be educated in either faith or no faith. Is it so outrageous therefore to insist on conversion for a rabbi to sanctify a marriage in the name of God and Jewish tradition?

The ?missing mazel tov? is deservedly missing until both parties are of one mind, one heart and, most importantly, one faith.

Rabbi Herbert H. Rose
Sarasota, Fla.

The Difference Between Genetics and Identity

As co-authors of the study, ?Abraham?s Children in the Genome Era,? we thank you for your coverage (?The Ties That Bind,? August 20). The major purpose of our study was to determine whether Jews are simply co-religionists or are also members of genetically distinct populations, which may be closely or loosely related to each other. The study found that Jewish populations are more closely related to each other than they are to other populations.

Another purpose of the study was to create the framework for developing a personalized genomic medicine, building upon previous discoveries of genetic diseases in Jewish Diaspora groups. In these respects, it is similar to recent population genetic studies of non-Jewish groups.

In your article, Rabbi David Ellenson was quoted suggesting that tying Jewish identity to genetics ?smacks of racist and racial innuendo that is suspicious for someone like me in light of the 20th century and the very negative uses to which genetic data was put.? While Ellenson was not referring to our research, we want to stress that in our study there was absolutely no intent to assign an inherent value to Jews as a people or to specific Jewish Diaspora groups.

Our study has helped to develop a more refined understanding of the genetic ties that have made up the Jewish people throughout recorded history, from biblical times to the present. It does not, however, have any relevance to the contemporary ?Who is a Jew? question. Those who have wished to practice the Jewish faith and join the Jewish people through conversion have been welcomed as Jews from time immemorial.

Gil Atzmon and Edward Burns
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Bronx, N.Y.

Eitan Friedman
Chaim Sheba Medical Center
Tel Hashomer, Israel

Harry Ostrer
New York University School of Medicine
New York, N.Y.

The letter is also signed by four other co-authors.

That?s Not My Israel

In his September 3 column, ?The Dirty Truth About Being a Tourist in Israel,? Noam Neusner describes the experiences he has had visiting Israel. I have been to Israel 11 times, including two months as a visiting professor in 2002, a month as a volunteer in 2006 and two weeks on an ?intergenerational tour? with my 12-year-old grandson this summer. My experiences have been so completely different from Neusner?s that we could have been in two different countries.

I can?t imagine what hotels Neusner stayed in. I have stayed in two-, three- and four-star hotels in all parts of the country and have never encountered the conditions he describes. In my visits to Israel I have never seen lice or heard anything about them. Unlike Neusner, I had no trouble finding anything. I asked ? in English ? and Israelis were more than willing to help me get to that elusive bus stop, street, restaurant or museum.

Neusner suggests that Israelis don?t know how to relax. Hasn?t he ever seen them shmoozing for hours at a sidewalk cafe? He also argues that Israel can?t compare to ?the Spains, Hawaiis and assorted Rivieras.? He should know that National Geographic selected Tel Aviv as one of the top 10 beach cities in the world.

Tourists may not find as much pampering in Israel, but it has modern spas, great restaurants, lovely scenery and layers of history that make European destinations pale by comparison.

Lighten up, Neusner. Go back to Israel and enjoy!

Maxine S. Seller
Buffalo, N.Y.

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