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October 15, 2004

Our Invisible Poor

Of course the leaders of Jewish organizations are amazed that there is such a thing as poor Jews in the United States — they only deal with other rich Jews (“Nearly a Million Living in Poor Jewish Households,” October 8).

Poor Jews, like the poor of the United States in general, are invisible, unless they are being derided as welfare cheats. Poor Jews cannot afford functions that cost more than $100 per person. Poor Jews cannot afford the high dues at Jewish organizations. Poor Jews don’t fit the “doctor, lawyer, CEO” model of Jewish employment.

I am a divorced mother raising three children. At Jewish organizational meetings, I have had people turn and walk away from me when I tell them I am a secretary.

The leaders of Jewish organizations are completely isolated from the realities of Jewish life. Let me give you some examples.

In Boston, several years ago, some rich Jews — who, coincidentally, were in the construction business — decided to build a Jewish community center, which would house a Jewish swimming pool, Jewish exercise rooms and the like. The building was built in an area with no public transportation. Some of us raised the question, “How will our children get to this center after school?” We were told that their mothers would drive them.

As a single working mother, that was not an option for me. Apparently the community leaders who were pushing this project were unaware that there are divorced Jewish women or Jewish women who work full time.

Try to join a synagogue and ask for a reduction in dues or other fees. You will be told: “You can find a way to pay for this if it is really important to you.” Ask for a reduction in fees at your local Jewish community center, and you will be told how expensive it is to run such a facility. Try to rent a room for a Jewish-themed lecture at a local synagogue, or ask for someone to prepare your son for a bar mitzvah when you cannot afford to pay hundreds of dollars for preparatory lessons — same response. Try to get a seat at a synagogue for the High Holy Days, and you will be told you have to pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of praying with fellow Jews on the holiest days of the year.

I am not surprised that the Jewish community leaders don’t know there are any poor Jews. They are as isolated as the rest of Americans from the realities of life for those who earn less than $100,000 per year. How many of the so-called leaders of the Jewish community earn the annual family salary of about $40,000 per year? If our leadership belongs only to the rich, where would they encounter poor Jews?

Beri Gilfix

West Newton, Mass.

Advocate Open Inquiry

The Union for Traditional Judaism’s decision to remove its support from the Montauk Minyan for my appearance on Rosh Hashanah is surely unfortunate, but sadly, mostly for the union itself (“Torah-based Conviction,” October 8). When I offered to back down for the sake of the minyan, its leadership would have nothing of the sort. The Union for Traditional Judaism clearly decided that it was worth ending a relationship to one of its three synagogues in order to draw a public line in the sand on the issue of homosexuality.

For the record, there was never any talk of my becoming rabbi of the Montauk Minyan; I was invited by the minyan to serve as scholar-in-residence and to deliver a number of sermons on Rosh Hashanah, something that the minyan’s own members would have done had I not been present. Had the Union for Traditional Judaism wanted to retain this young minyan on their roster they surely could have found the justification. It appears that the aim of denouncing me in the media was considered to be a more worthy goal.

The rabbis wrote in their letter to the editor that I have “publicly broken with Halacha.” I have not broken with the Halacha; I simply believe that the present normative application of the Torah is at best incomplete and at worst mistaken because it has yet to grapple with the lived experience of gay people. For the record, some Orthodox rabbis have made similar assessments.

In their letter I am described as a “gay activist” and as “an Orthodox-ordained rabbi who openly advocates homosexuality.” I am an activist perhaps, but primarily a Jewish activist seeking to find a way for thousands of gay Jews to remain connected to a traditional Judaism that doesn’t humiliate or demean them. I do not advocate homosexuality, if such a thing is possible. I advocate learning and understanding where there is mostly fear and ignorance.

The Union for Traditional Judaism claims on its Web site to be committed to the “free and open inquiry with intellectual honesty” in matters of Halacha. In their words, it is a sacred duty “to apply our intellects to all fields of human endeavor in order to better understand our universe.” Remarkably, this is just the sort of open inquiry that I am calling for in my book and with which they apparently not only disagree, but prefer to silence.

Lastly, among the stated aims of the Union for Traditional Judaism is to “bring Jews of all sorts closer to the Torah.” The public excision of the Montauk Minyan surely accomplishes just the opposite, pushing away not only gay Jews, but a growing number of people of all sorts who are their faithful allies. Few people would be able to love God or the Torah if in the bargain they were required to commit upfront to a principled and lifelong denial of intimacy, love and companionship.

The Union for Traditional Judaism may very well be willing to hold fast to the present halachic norm despite these challenges, but in taking an absolutist stand against open inquiry and for punishing a community for standing for it, the Union for Traditional Judaism has sadly betrayed its own principles.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

New York, N.Y.

Danger of Divestment

An October 1 editorial addresses the resolution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from Israel with sophistication and bluntness (“A Failure of Moral Vision”).

Many within and outside the Jewish community, including some Presbyterians, have expressed strong condemnations of that church’s action. Nonetheless, other Christian groups are now more likely to consider, as well, the divestment weapon. Hence, while we must respond to this Presbyterian first strike in a manner commensurate with what amounts to their both declaring economic warfare versus Israel and implicitly equating the Middle East’s only democracy with apartheid South Africa, we also must respond with an eye toward deterring copycat initiatives.

Jewish organizations have issued press releases, convened conference calls and issued calls for invigorated dialogue with Presbyterians. These steps are necessary — but insufficient. Our community also must consider “exit strategies” from certain dialogues should divestment proceed and local Presbyterian leaders and institutions not disassociate themselves now from their national policy.

While the Presbyterian Church (USA) has its timelines, politics and governance structures, we must establish our own communal benchmarks to measure whether we are moving toward the goal of reversing the divestment decision. (Of course, strengthening our ties with those many Presbyterians who have expressed opposition to divestment must be an integral piece of our approach.)

For us at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the formulation of such a strategy has meant that, following five meetings between Jewish and Presbyterian leaders at which each side aired their views on divestment, we have withdrawn from subsequent meetings of that particular group since the agenda is straying from our goal of having the Chicago Presbytery commit itself in some form to reversing the national policy. Topics like theology, perspectives on Middle East history and visions of peace are interesting and important ones, but essentially irrelevant as long as divestment is Presbyterian policy.

Dialogue with Presbyterians cannot be an end unto itself, but must be a means to achieve definable goals. We mustn’t let those who support divestment and all its ugly, damaging consequences use discussions to change the subject, wear us down or string us along. If there is a chance that Presbyterian leaders and institutions will consider speaking out against divestment, then Jewish leaders must keep the dialogue going. But if, as we confronted, Presbyterians answer our call to speak out against divestment with a clear no, then continuing the dialogue sends the dangerous signal that we’re ready to minimize what divestment is and represents: the demonizing of the State of Israel.

Steven Nasatir


Jewish United Fund/

Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

Chicago, Ill.

Striking Out Tradition

The October 8 article regarding Jewish ballplayers and Yom Kippur is sadly reflective of the failure of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to ensure Jewish continuity in 21st-century America (“Thank You, Shawn Green”).

The history of Jews playing baseball on the High Holidays reflects this downward trend. In the 1930s, Hank Greenberg refused to play, but went to synagogue. In 1965, Sandy Koufax refused to play, but stayed home. Shawn Green played on Kol Nidre night, but stayed in a hotel on Yom Kippur Day. Gabe Kapler and Kevin Youkilis suited up and were ready to play. Today we see many families whose connection to tradition has similarly faded, and after three or four generations, are almost all assimilated and intermarried.

Speaking as a long-suffering, 45-year-long Red Sox fan, I do not need Jewish ballplayers to be role models. As the Red Sox were sweeping the Anaheim Angels on Simchat Torah, more than 400 men, women and children celebrated at our Modern Orthodox synagogue. We did not ponder whether it was acceptable to miss work or school.

The real Jewish role models are parents who send their children to day school and yeshivas at great financial cost, teachers who idealistically work for relatively low wages, and rabbis who teach and inspire us to learn and live by the tradition handed down faithfully from generation to generation.

Edward Fistel

Sharon, Mass.

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