Monday, December 21, 2015

Open Letter to Open Orthodoxy

By Rabbi Francis Nataf 

Rabbis Eichenstein and Lopatin what once was  - could once again be
The following article by Rabbi Francis Nataf appeared in the Times of Israel. It makes eminent sense to me. Despite my strong criticism of the movement, I never wanted them to be ousted from Orthodoxy. To the contrary, I practically begged them to stay. Unfortunately they have done nothing to allay my concerns – concerns which many of us in the ‘center’ have expressed many times. If they make these corrections they will be welcomed back with very open arms.  At least as far as I am concerned. And I think many others who share my concerns. His words follow.

While I have decided to maintain the public nature of this letter, I am pleased to report that it has already elicited a positive response by at least one of the main leaders to whom it is addressed. My hope is that its publication will help and not hurt the maintenance of unity in the Orthodox camp.
While I have decided to maintain the public nature of this letter, I am pleased to report that it has already elicited a positive response by at least one of the main leaders to whom it is addressed. My hope is that its publication will help and not hurt the maintenance of unity in the Orthodox camp.

In a recent essay, I wrote about what I admire in Open Orthodoxy (I have since learned that is a label that some of its leaders would prefer to no longer use). No matter what happens in the future, I will continue to admire these points and many others.

It is precisely because of my admiration for — and sometimes even identification with — Open Orthodoxy that I write this letter. I think you should already know that when the critique is coming from people like Rabbi Shmuel Goldin and Prof. David Berger, it may be time to listen. Besides long being identified with the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy, both men have been known for their thoughtfulness, intellect and sensitivity. At the risk of redundancy, I will add my name to those who feel it is time for Open Orthodoxy to take stock of where it is, not just as a favor to us, but — more importantly — as a favor to itself.

Much of what passes for critique these days is just self-serving harangue and rabble-rousing. No doubt, Open Orthodoxy is tired of having to deal with so much of that since its inception. And it could be that after getting so much unfair criticism, it has become immune to all criticism, even when it is in place. Yet our tradition tells us quite clearly that the wise man loves critique. Difficult though it may be, I call upon you to realize that there are some very important questions now being raised by those who think of themselves as your friends.

Indeed, accepting the critique of others is what kept many of Judaism’s most important movements within the pale, to the benefit of those offering the critique, as well as those accepting it. It is what kept the followers of Rambam from reducing all of Judaism to a metaphor for Greek philosophy. It is also what kept the early Kabbalists from turning into polytheists, substituting the sefirot for God Himself. More recently, it is what kept Hassidut from antinomianism and its turning away from the centrality of Torah study and observance. I need not point out that movements that rebuffed legitimate critique fared less well.

Rabbi Goldin raised the issue of method, Prof Berger of substance. To address the first, there are many — even within Open Orthodoxy — who have misgivings about the confrontational style adopted by several of its most prominent exponents. Personally speaking, I believe that much more is accomplished by those that seek a broader consensus for moderate change than those working for radical change within more narrow confines. 

But more immediately relevant is that if Open Orthodoxy cannot control its firebrands from burning bridges to the mainstream, it should not be surprised to wake up to a situation where these bridges no longer exist. In such a situation, it will have defined itself out of Orthodoxy on sociological grounds, if not necessarily on substantive ones.

Unfortunately, however, there are true substantive issues that threaten to pull us apart as well. Prof. Berger focuses on the authorship of the Torah and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s inability — or lack of desire — to provide clear red lines on what is probably (along with the nature of Halacha) Orthodox Judaism’s most important issue. 

To be fair, YCT President Rabbi Asher Lopatin endorsed the traditional understanding of revelation at Sinai. But, by the same token, he has — so far — refrained from placing any alternative as outside of Orthodoxy’s boundaries. This is not the place to go into the intricacies of this issue, which I and others have discussed in other forums. Suffice it to say that while Judaism’s red lines are intentionally fuzzy, there is no question that they exist. And one of the major items defining Orthodoxy as a movement has been its willingness to unapologetically proclaim and defend those boundaries.

There are other issues, but my point is not to create a laundry list of complaints. It is to simply say that it is time to listen.

I appreciate the desire to hold on to people on the religious and intellectual left. There has always been a tacit understanding that an individual need not follow every belief or law to have a place within the Orthodox community. Hence, all sectors of Orthodoxy would do well to continue to make room for those Jews who disagree with us and to do everything we can to make them feel welcome.

But there are limits. One of them is that the leadership, both in the yeshivot and in the synagogues, has always supported a series of public red lines that define the community’s contours. It is really not about defining others, it is about defining ourselves.

The point is that for Open Orthodoxy to be Orthodox, it cannot be open to everything. And though it may hurt some people by saying so, it will ultimately hurt many more if it does not.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Supporting Israel: Clinton Versus Obama

Former President Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu
The following Op-Ed by Gil Troy appeared today in JTA. Even though President Obama has been supportive of Israel in many ways, I think Gil's got it just about right. It follows in its entirety.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — By now it should be obvious how absurd it is to call President Barack Obama Israel’s “best friend” ever, as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has claimed.
A Blame Israel Firster, Obama won’t use his moral authority to try stopping the instigators of this latest spate of violence, the Palestinians. Unfortunately he never learned from his Democratic predecessor how to tell the good guys from the bad guys in the Middle East.
While Bill Clinton also endorsed a Palestinian state, and also felt frustrated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he blamed the Palestinians for terrorism and Yasser Arafat for derailing the peace talks in 2000. Clinton finger-pointed when necessary, not always retreating into “cycle of violence” moral equivalences.
He distinguished between Israeli willingness and Palestinian foot-dragging. He never confused Israeli innocents with Palestinian terrorists. This Democratic president clearly stated that “the PLO must do everything it can to end terrorism against Israel.” With his down-to-earth “Bubba” style, he denounced terrorists as “the forces of doom and gloom,” while advising the Palestinians that “struggle and pain and destruction and self-destruction are way overrated, and not the only option.”
Bill Clinton was an empath. He conveyed his love for Israel with words, gestures and flourishes. Heartbroken when an Israeli fanatic assassinated his friend Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton captured the world’s anguish with his famous “Shalom, chaver” sendoff. On Saturday, Clinton will speak at a rally in Tel Aviv to mark the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s murder.
Clinton charmed Israelis, reassuring many who felt he pressured Israel to relinquish too much territory to the Palestinians. Even when Netanyahu’s obstructionism exasperated him, Clinton palled around with Bibi. Obama has scowled.
Visiting Israel in March 1996 following two suicide bus bombings, Clinton defied the Secret Service by visiting Bet Chinuch, a Jerusalem high school mourning three students. The president called two recovering victims on the phone. Later that day, and visibly moved, he told young Israelis: “We know your pain is unimaginable and to some extent unshareable, but America grieves with you.” He called terrorists “destroyers” gripped by “that ancient fear that life can only be lived … if you’re hating someone else.” He backed up his words with $100 million in anti-terror funding.
Clinton differentiated between Israeli openness, even if wary, and Palestinian resistance, even if camouflaged. My new book, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” retells how when Arafat made his unprecedented 24th White House visit in January 2001, shortly before Clinton left office, the president was fuming. At Camp David the previous summer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered to withdraw from most of the 1967 territories and compensate the Palestinians with land swaps. Arafat never even counteroffered.
The oleaginous terrorist tried flattering the president, calling him a great man.
“I am not a great man,” Clinton replied, “I am a failure. And you have made me one.”
Clinton later explained: “Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.” Mourning Arafat’s “error of historic proportions,” Clinton would speculate, “Perhaps he simply couldn’t make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman.”
Also in January 2001, Clinton, in his characteristically colloquial way, warned the Palestinians: “There will always be those who are sitting outside in the peanut gallery of the Middle East urging you to hold out for more, or to plant one more bomb.” He begged them to resist those luring them to “the path of no.”
Today, Palestinians have again erupted in violence, but Obama lacks Clinton’s moral clarity.
“We continue to stress to leaders on both sides the importance of condemning violence and combating incitement,” Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, has said. This mealymouthed amoralism reinforces Obama’s technocratic urging of both parties to try to “tamp down rhetoric that may feed violence or anger or misunderstanding.”
The Clinton-Obama contrast reflects two conflicting worldviews. Clinton entered office as such a national security novice that Ronald Reagan had to teach him how to salute. But Clinton’s passivity amid massacres in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda transformed him. He realized that when America doesn’t lead, evil flourishes. He became a neoliberal interventionist, deploying the military to advance Western values in Kosovo and expressing zero tolerance for terrorism.
A postmodern power skeptic, Obama harbors more doubt about Western values and America’s ability to lead the world constructively. Emphasizing America’s limits, morally and strategically, Obama wants to woo the developing world.
Regarding the Middle East, Obama should learn from Clinton that Palestinian desires to exterminate Israel — expressed through incitement and terrorism — remain the biggest obstacle to peace. If Obama, like Clinton, held Palestinians responsible for turning toward terrorism, he would be treating them as mature decision makers, not infantilized victims.
Even with Obama’s military generosity to Israel, a true friend, let alone a “best friend,” would not always blame Israel first, or obscure Palestinian responsibility by blaming both sides, especially when Palestinians attack Israel. Muddled morality emboldens Palestinian terrorists, who interpret such dithering as greenlighting their bloodlust.
Obama should duplicate Clinton’s moral clarity. Obama must finally, belatedly, blame the Palestinians directly, pressuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and company to stop the violence. Obama should disagree with Secretary of State John Kerry, who blamed the settlements — not lies about the Temple Mount — for this latest eruption.
Clinton understood something Obama cannot comprehend: The world’s one-sided condemnations of Israel compound the trauma of Palestinian terror, reminding Israelis of the long history of anti-Semitic oppression — which Clinton frequently acknowledged. As a lonely, too-often-abandoned democracy, Israel responds to support, warmth, protectiveness. Even though many Israelis disagreed with Clinton’s policies, they trusted him, loved him and thus were willing to compromise.
(Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. His newest book, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” was just published by St. Martin’s Press.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Orthodox Jewish women, “leadership” and Myers-Briggs

by Julie Rosenzweig

The following is a brilliant article from a website called about the role of Jewish women in the 21st century. It was written by Julie Rosezweig who describes herself as “Jerusalemite, translator/mom”. It is a lengthy article but well worth the read. It follows in its entirety.

For a decade or so now, introversion — somewhat out of character — has been making a public case for itself. An acclaimed 2003 essay in The Atlantic sparked a legitimization process that has culminated in Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution. Those of us who hated class participation in school are feeling vindicated as major media outlets discuss the ways in which introverted students are unfairly penalized by it; an aversion to small talk is becoming a mark of distinction rather than of inadequacy; and the idea that one can be a leader without having an alpha personality is gaining currency.
Judaism has always valued quietness and non-pushy leadership. Sound bites to that effect can be found in Ethics of the Fathers:
“All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence;”
“ One who runs away from honor will find honor chasing after him. One whochases after honor will find honor running away from him.”
 and in Psalms 45:14
“All the glory of a princess is within” (“Kol kevuda bat melech pnima”).
It’s easy enough to relate to the first two of the above quotes. However uncritically we accept prevailing assumptions about innate “leadership ability,” we tend to be pleased — after the fact — when some strong but silent type carries the day. The idea of quiet integrity — of leading by example rather than by virtue of personal charisma or will to power — isn’t really all that hard a sell. Hence the broad public resonance of Susan Cain’s initiative.

The third quote — the one about the princess, a stand-in for women as a group — may, by contrast, seem opaque or problematic to non-Jews or to non-Orthodox Jews, and may even have become something of a trigger to those who identify with “liberal” or “open” Orthodoxy — i.e., to Orthodox feminists.

It is a quote that gives expression to aspects of women’s nature that Orthodoxy takes for granted and proposes to accommodate (obviously, a fraught issue for those who object to the idea of “women’s nature”).

It is also a quote that is used to insist on women’s adherence to a stricter dress code than that which Orthodox Judaism mandates for men — a code that is sometimes spelled out in centimeters and illustrated via humiliating diagrams; it is a quote that is used to quell (or attempt to quell) some women’s sense of being left out at synagogue.

I have issues with Orthodox feminism in its current form; yet even I feel a little rankled when I hear kol kevuda bat melech pnima. There is a religious Israeli women’s magazine called Pnima (“Within”) which I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I don’t like being told my place; no one does.

But I think Orthodox feminism has focused way too much on the extremes to which some segments of Orthodoxy take the reclusive-princess concept. I do think that it has much to learn from the first two quotes.In short, it could use a good dose of Quiet Rev.

As a movement, Orthodox feminism has advanced a number of admirable objectives, such as helping agunot (women “chained” to husbands who refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce), making synagogue more welcoming to women, and opening up to women the world of Talmud study, which had long been restricted to males.

Unfortunately, over time the movement has adopted an increasingly extroverted orientation. This is a problem, not in a “strident feminists get on my nerves” sense, but because a preoccupation with the visible public roles that Orthodox women might conceivably occupy is discrediting the movement, dumbing it down, making it uncomfortable for Jewish women who don’t fit a specific personality profile, and deflecting attention from actual women’s Torah scholarship (as opposed to the credential that qualifies one for a “leadership role”).

I will discuss below how Orthodox feminism’s attempt to extrovertize women’s role in the synagogue can make Orthodox women uncomfortable; I will then look at how women’s Torah/Talmud scholarship is being undermined by an unhealthy fixation on publicly-visible roles for those who pursue such scholarship.

The song-and-dance imperative

An enthusiastically-received essay that was featured by the Times of Israelabout a year ago paints — unwittingly — a troubling picture of what shul life under a highly extroverted Orthofem regime might look like.

The author describes a situation in which a Torah scroll has been passed to the women’s side of a liberal Orthodox synagogue so that the women can dance with it on Simchat Torah (an exclusively male custom until the advent of Orthodox feminism) — but most of the women present turn the offer down.

The essay’s author, acting as a kind of gabbait for the women of her shul, found this objectionable and undertook to persuade, cajole and bargain with the recalcitrant women. This despite acknowledging objective reasons why women might decline the privilege of holding the Torah scroll, such as its heaviness and the fear of dropping it — a fear that would be quite natural for those who have little or no experience handling the sacred object.

She was dissatisfied with — and rejected — a proposed solution in which women would simply dance around a table on which the Torah scroll had been placed. It was that important to her to see no individual woman refuse the role — a very public, attention-attracting role — of holding the Torah scroll in her arms and dancing with it in the synagogue setting.

Of course, there are reasons other than the weight of the Torah scroll why Orthodox women might prefer not to adopt or mimic this particular male custom. Some are reasons of personal temperament (an introverted woman might be perfectly happy standing on the sidelines, observing the action), while others have to do with Orthodox Judaism’s gender distinctions.

Orthodox Jewish men are expected to pray three times a day with a quorum, and to set times for Torah study within their work/life schedule. Women (though they are also expected to pray daily and though many also engage in serious Torah study) are exempt from these specifically time-bound commandments. They have other duties which are no less important.

But these duties (centered around the home and the care of young children) are not bound up with the Torah as a physical object, or with the synagogue/beit midrash as a physical place. In short: they are not publicduties. I would venture to guess that that is why many — perhaps most — Orthodox women feel uncomfortable taking on the shul-based song-and-dance aspects of Simchat Torah. It is not because they feel inferior, or that their duties and activities as Jewish women are less important or less worthy of celebration. It has to do with a sense of impropriety: those who are commanded in and who fulfill “public” mitzvot — who make the effort to attend synagogue services three times a day, every day, and who keep to a Torah study schedule, rain or shine, throughout the year — are entitled to celebrate publicly and physically with the object of their devotion.

It is often argued that today, when women are active in all secular spheres and able to distinguish themselves in prestigious occupations, it makes no sense to exclude them from active synagogue roles. Orthodox feminists maintain that such women are offended by this form of exclusion and that it alienates them from synagogue life.

However, this argument can easily be turned on its head. Women who are challenged and fulfilled professionally (in addition to their traditional home-based roles, which they are seldom willing to entirely relinquish) are unlikely to be seeking their intellectual/spiritual salvation in shul frameworks contrived for the sole purpose of enabling them to mimic men.

Orthodox feminists have made women’s ritual inclusion into a fetish. The childish, tit-for-tat idea that women must do whatever men do, and that theymust especially do the public things that men do, is insulting to Orthodox women who are happy with what they already do, and particularly objectionable to those women who neither seek nor find satisfaction in highly public roles.
I am not trying, here, to summarily condemn Simchat Torah dancing on the women’s side of the mechitza, with or without a Torah scroll. Those women who get a spiritual high from cradling the Torah scroll in their arms are fully entitled to the experience. Just don’t impose it on me, or judge me unfavorably for not participating.

I’m sure the author of the essay meant no harm. But there is a mindset that wounds without intending to do so — it wounds individuals by making incorrect assumptions about their desire for public attention, and it hurts society — including Orthodox Jewish society — by privileging the outward, the extroverted, over the inward and introverted.

Contrived “spiritual leadership”

Back in the 1990s, when the idea of women’s Talmud study was gaining traction, a Jerusalem-based institute called Nishmat developed a program to train and certify yoatzot halacha — female halachic “advisers” — in the sphere of taharat hamishpacha (Jewish family purity).

The candidates recruited for this program were the crème de la crème of erudite Orthodox Jewish womanhood at that time. These were women who already possessed impressive Torah-study backgrounds in areas where females had long been able to distinguish themselves. What the Nishmat program offered was an orderly framework in which women could study Talmud — a sphere of learning that had traditionally been restricted to men — and emerge with a credential.

In a 2013 Jewish Week article, the program’s co-founder, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, sets forth the program’s original rationale: that of creating “a new religious leadership role for Orthodox women,” one that would “meet a need.” Henkin portrays the pre-yoetzet world as one in which women lacked “a properly trained, rabbinically-sanctioned female address” for family-purity issues, and in which “women felt uncomfortable discussing intimate details of their lives with rabbis,” resulting in “improper observance and, often, personal suffering.”

Accordingly, the women admitted to the Yoatzot Halacha program are expected, on graduation, to serve the Jewish community in very specific ways — as counselors fielding taharat hamishpacha questions via a hotline that Nishmat set up for the purpose; as knowledgeable go-betweens for women in need of rabbinical consultation; and as lecturers and advisers to women in their local communities.

To this day the Yoatzot Halacha program is Nishmat’s flagship endeavor, and the yoetzet halacha title is an esteemed one in modern Orthodox circles. I share that esteem, and in no way wish to belittle or disparage the program itself, or anyone involved with it.

What I would like to call attention to, however, is the discourse of “religious women’s leadership” of which the program is a part — a discourse that requires scrutiny.

One can hardly fault a framework for training women to meet actual needs on the ground. Nor is it unreasonable to expect, as the Yoatzot Halacha program does, that applicants will possess the skills necessary for the task in question— including interpersonal skills.

One can, however, wonder what would happen to an applicant who simply wished to study the subject matter but had no desire to serve the public via the channels marked out by the program. Would she be rejected? Does a desire to engage with Talmudic texts at a high level necessarily go hand in hand with an inclination for serving as an accessible, and even highly visible, public resource? Should it?
And is a commitment to visible public service such as prospective yoatzot are expected to demonstrate, demanded of men when they undertake advanced yeshiva studies?

The keyword that pops up continually as one peruses the websites of the various women’s advanced Torah study programs is leadership. Again and again we are told that the women who participate in these programs are chosen not just for their scholarly potential, but also for their “leadership ability.” Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha program requires it; Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Halachic Leadership program requires it; even Matan, which offers classes to less-Jewishly-educated women in addition to its elite Beit Midrash programs, and which tends to emphasize “enrichment” over “utility,” aspires to be a “breeding ground” for women “leaders.”

The preoccupation with “women’s leadership” reaches its apotheosis, of course, in the Maharat program at Yeshivat Maharat, whose avowed missionis to provide a “credentialed pathway” so that the Orthodox Jewish community can “attract the best and brightest [women] into the ranks of its leadership.” (Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for “female halachic spiritual Torah leader.”) The institution’s founders “sought to provide a path so that women could achieve positions of leadership within the Orthodox community that were on par with the rabbi.”

Now, introverts aren’t necessarily turned off by the word “leadership.” What might well deter them from a study program, though, is an admission requirement that they “aspire to serve as spiritual leaders.” For sure they would be repelled by an institution whose website proclaims such a requirement at the top of every page. (see logo above)

Would it be so terrible for a woman to simply be a dedicated learner, with no aspiration to be a dynamic spiritual leader? Couldn’t a dedicated learner grow, over time, into a different kind of leader — a strong but silent one? Couldn’t she even surprise everyone — including herself — by suddenly turning into a dynamic leader at some date far into the post-graduation future, under the right circumstances? Why jump the gun?

I’m sure that some men’s Torah study programs talk about leadership, building a “young leadership cadre,” etc., in their marketing material. But where men‘s learning is concerned, I believe that this really is just marketing, and not the essence.

In the male Torah world, no one thinks that a four-year quasi-academic program, however rigorous, qualifies one to be a “spiritual leader,” dynamic or otherwise. At most, it would qualify one to be a teacher, and provide one with a basis for further intellectual/spiritual growth. In fact, the very term “spiritual leader,” when applied to young women (or men) who have trained for the specific purpose of functioning in that capacity, is embarrassing.

Nor does the male Torah-scholarship trajectory involve demonstrating leadership potential in a simplistic, college-application-essay kind of way. No particular personality type is preferred. Though if anything, the intensive, single-minded effort needed to achieve profound Talmudic expertise would seem to favor those who shun the limelight — those with sitzfleisch.
Where does the “visible public role” approach — i.e., the extrovert approach — to advancing women’s Torah scholarship lead?

It leads to a devaluing of women’s Torah scholarship — as may be seen in the way that the yoetzet halacha role is being appropriated or co-opted by other frameworks that feature a “visible public resource” component similar to that of the yoetzet, but without the element of Talmud study.

One such framework is the NILI hotline, in which “trained kallah teachers” offer a family-purity “resource” to Orthodox women in the Chicago area that mimics the service offered by yoatzot halacha.
Kallah teachers — women who instruct soon-to-be brides on the basics of Jewish family purity — may be highly educated, Jewishly or otherwise, in their own right; but their training for the specific task of premarital instruction entails no rigorous textual component or quasi-academic credentialing process. 

In fact there is no standard curriculum for the training of kallah teachers. In past generations, women presumably learned family- purity praxis from their mothers, who may not even have been literate. Kallah teachers add value in terms of providing background on the laws and rituals of family purity; but their authority, such as it is, is not based on scholarly rigor. The role of “facilitating” family-purity questions for married women appears to be a new departure for kallah teachers, who are thus being set up as rivals to yoatzot halacha.

In Israel, the Puah Institute has created a course for would-be community-based “advisers” (they use the term yoatzot) on Jewish-family issues — a course that, in 28 weekly sessions, with no prerequisites, proposes to train women for a role that could easily be confused with that of the Nishmat-certified yoetzet halacha, who studies full-time for two years in order to obtain her credential, and has to demonstrate significant background in Jewish sources in order to be admitted to the program.

And in fact these disparate roles are becoming confounded in the public mind. A recent executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance,one whom the media look to as an authority on issues relating to Orthodox feminism, has publicly and indiscriminately lumped yoatzot halacha and kallah teachers together in a vicious diatribe against the Orthodox family-purity laws and practices. And a popular blogger on Orthodox Jewish women’s issues, Susan Shapiro, essentially equates the NILI service with that offered by yoatzot halacha, barely acknowledging any difference between the training undergone by the kallah teachers who staff NILI and that undergone by yoatzot.

Could a similar fate be in store for the female “clergy” who are being produced by Yeshivat Maharat? The Maharat program’s focus on training its students for pastoral counseling and community leadership could conceivably backfire. Graduates who go on to occupy such demanding synagogue positions asDirector of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement while also juggling family obligations may not be well-positioned to build credibility as halachic authorities.

Institutions do exist that take a less obviously utilitarian approach to women’s Torah scholarship. In Jerusalem, Beit Morasha has a program that “teaches halakha to women on an exact par in terms of quality and quantity to that which men are expected to achieve in order to pass the rabbinical ordination exams in Israel,” but without aspiring to create spiritual leaders by fiat (although it does incorporate the omnipresent word “leadership” into its name). According to the program’s director, Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky, the program wasn’t meant to attract “women who were supposed to grow into leadership roles,” but rather women “who were already filling these kinds of positions.” By “these kinds of positions,” Rabbanit Tikochinsky means “women who serve in important teaching positions,” to whom female students should be able to turn when asking “halachic questions.”

Speaking more generally, Tikochinsky notes that “ “the instruction of Halacha by wise women is already an established fact,” and that women “instruct on simple questions and complicated questions, according to their training and strength.”

Here I am moved to ask: is a woman who instructs on simple questions as much a “leader” as one who instructs on complicated questions? Is a woman who issues halachic rulings a leader, but a yoetzet halacha, who merely “advises” other women and consults with ordained rabbis on issues requiring adjudication, not a leader but merely a “service provider?”

Where do you draw the line? Do we even know what we are talking about when we use the word “leader” and the term “leadership ability?”

I propose that we declare a moratorium on the use of the word leadership and its derivatives in connection with Orthodox women and their religious scholarship and employment opportunities. It is not a useful term. It disfavors certain personality profiles, and it contributes to a discourse of outwardness and show that may well be inimical to Jewish values.

What we can and should do is talk about women’s opportunities for distinction — in pure scholarship, in public service, and in spheres that straddle the two.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Torah Dedication on Father’s Day

Yesterday's Hachnasas Sefer Torah -  R' Sassoon in center of picture
The following appeared in today’s Chicago Tribune. Very nice coverage of yesterday’s Hachnosas Sefer Torah in honor of Rabbi Gabriel Sassoon who attended the event. I was there for part of it. (Video below - shot with my i-phone) Here is the Tribune report in its entirety:

In Chicago on Sunday, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue welcomed a Brooklyn rabbi who lost seven children in a house fire this year, dedicating seven Torahs, one for each child, to him on Father's Day.

West Rogers Park resident Andrew Glatz helped organize a procession of more than 800 men, women and children of the local Jewish community from his home to Ohel Shalom Torah Center on Sunday for the tribute to Rabbi Gabriel Sassoon, whose seven children died in March. Sassoon's wife and one daughter survived the blaze, which reportedly was started by a hot plate used for cooking in observance of the religious prohibition against lighting a flame on the Sabbath. At the time, Sassoon was away at a religious retreat.

Jewish faithful from throughout the Chicago community took turns inscribing the hundreds of thousands of characters in each handwritten scroll. Sassoon etched the final letters in each scroll before sharing his gratitude with the congregation, Glatz said.

"As a father myself, I don't know how any father could wake up in the morning let alone speak in front of a crowd," Glatz said. "This is fresh. It's not even a year yet. We're hoping that getting the community together to honor his children, that it would give him some comfort."
Though the event wasn't planned in conjunction with Father's Day, members of the synagogue who attended the speech learned that the date also had another sentimental meaning to Sassoon.
"Tonight, it came up that it was the birthday of his oldest daughter," said Rabbi Jack Meyer, of Brooklyn, who helped put together the event through a Brooklyn-based emergency relief and bereavement group called Misakim.

Glatz added: "If this could give him some solace, give him peace and some comfort, then that was the whole point — showing him that we love him and we love his family even though we never met him per se."

Meyer, who responded to the scene of Sassoon's home the night of the fire and assisted in organizing similar events back in New York, said Sunday's procession and ceremony was the first outside of the New York-area for Sassoon's family. It's also the first such ceremony Ohel Shalom has hosted for someone outside of the Chicago community, Glatz said.

Glatz said he hoped that the event held at Ohel Shalom, a Sephardic Jewish community in Rogers Park for about a decade, would inspire unity among the Jewish faithful across the globe.
"We're stepping up to get other communities to step up," Glatz said. "The message we hope the rabbi got was that we are one large community. It doesn't matter if you're from Jerusalem, Mumbai or New York. We in the global community feel that tragedy and feel that pain. That's the whole reason we're doing this today."

Despite the solemn message, the event had a lively and upbeat atmosphere. Outside the synagogue, children played in bounce houses, danced and took pictures with two local firetrucks. The synagogue also hosted a dinner for Sassoon, who didn't want to comment publicly, after the dedication ceremony.

Monday, June 1, 2015

American Pharoah

American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby (New Jersey Jewish Standard)
Update: American Pharoah wins the Belmont - and triple crown!

This horse has the chance to win the triple crown. This means winning all three major horse races in America. It has already one the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. If it wins the Belmont, it will be the first horse to win the triple crown since a horse named Affirmed did it in 1978.

That's pretty cool. What's even cooler is that the owner is a Frum Jew who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. From New Jersey Jewish Standard:

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.
There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.
How did they get there?
It’s an unusual story.
Although most Jews in Egypt left the country in the 1950s — when its ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, made it clear that their lives were likely to be longer, healthier, and happier were they to live them elsewhere — “some affluent Jews stayed, for various reasons,” Joanne Zayat said. That group included Ahmed Zayat’s family.
Mr. Zayat, born in 1962, grew up in Maadi in suburban Cairo. “It was a very mixed neighborhood, with a lot of ex-pats,” Ms. Zayat said. “It looked a lot like here.” To foreshadow a bit — among his pastimes was riding horses at his country club.
When he was 18, Mr. Zayat came to the United States; he went to Harvard, graduated from Yeshiva University, and then earned a joint master’s degree with Harvard and Boston University. A natural entrepreneur, he worked in a number of fields. Among his companies was Al Ahram Beverages, which eventually he sold to Heineken. He did very well.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Zayat retired — or so he said. “He decided he needed to stop traveling,” his wife said. “He wanted to be home with my kids.
“But everyone who knows my husband knows that he can’t be retired for more than 15 seconds. So he decided to take his passion and turn it into a business.”
What did he love? Horses!
“There is a phrase — if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life,” Ms. Zayat said.
“So he decided to go into the horse business.”
Because her husband is a “very zero-to-180 kind of person, he is either not in it or in it to win it,” she said. “So he decided he would go buy some horses.”
Mr. Zayat decided that he would go into the thoroughbred part of the horse business. “When he needs to know something, he becomes engulfed in research,” Ms. Zayat said. “So he learned about it.”
When he began, nine years ago, “he knew a little about horses, but not enough to say at that point, ‘I am a horse maven,’” she continued. “So he started learning about the industry — what it means to buy a horse, at what age to buy a horse, what are the great pedigrees. You want to make sure that your investment is a smart investment.
“He is a very good businessman.”
Looking at the world of thoroughbred racing, Mr. Zayat noticed some things right away. “It is a very old business,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is known as the sport of kings. Many of the families in it are old-time families, like the Vanderbilts.” It’s a high- stakes world.
In some ways, Mr. Zayat’s approach to this old world was new. He uses computer analytics to study all sorts of aspects of breeding, buying, training, and racing horses. He also decided to develop a more broadly based business than most of his competitors. “There are many different elements,” Ms. Zayat said. “There are people who only race horses, who only breed them, people who have only broodmares, people who have only stallions, people who only have babies, or buy babies and sell them.
“He decided that he would have a much more eclectic stable. We have every end — we have broodmares, racing horses, stallions, and babies.”
Thus Zayat Stables was born.
Experts at their stables — and there are many, each specializing in a different part of the same world — decide which horses to keep and which to sell, which to train for turf and which for grass, and which to pair with which trainer. “Each racehorse — every horse — has a personality,” she added. “We have to know what kind of personality it is.”
The stable, only eight years old, started big and has stayed big.
“We bought 25 horses the first time,” Ms. Zayat said. “We probably have one of the biggest stables in North America. We keep the babies — anywhere from 20 to 25 of them — in a stable in Florida, and then they go to the trainers to learn how to become a racehorse.”
Note her use of the word “we.” It is a family business; the Zayats’ oldest child, Justin, 23, “has worked in the business more or less since he was in 10th grade.” He is now graduating from New York University, and “he is our stallion and racing manager. He and my husband work hand-in-hand as far as doing financial analysis and race analysis.” Ms. Zayat works in the business as well.
The next oldest child, Ashley, who is married to Glenn Weiss, owns a costume jewelry business called Point Ashley — named after her family’s first winner, a horse also named Point Ashley, after her. Benjamin is a sophomore at the Frisch School, and Emma is an eighth-grader at Yavneh.
Not only has computerized data analysis changed horse racing, Ms. Zayat said, but so has social media.
Zayat Stables has owned a remarkable number of winners in the nine years since it opened, including three Kentucky Derby runners-up. (It is a mean feat to get a horse into the Derby — they must qualify by winning enough of the right races. It is not a berth that can be bought. “There are probably 30,000 three-year-olds across the world, and only 20 horses make it to the race,” Ms. Zayat said. “It is an honor even to get your horse into the Derby.”) It also has developed and nurtured a strong fan base.
“My husband and Justin are very aware of the fan base,” Ms. Zayat said. “You have to keep them apprised of what’s going on.
“People follow our horses on Twitter and Facebook.
“A couple of years ago, we had a horse named Paynter. He was a wonderful horse, but he got sick after a big race one summer, and we had to take him home and out of racing all summer. We put a tremendous amount of time and energy and finances into him, because we wanted to do right by the horse.
“If you do right by a horse, the horse will do right by you. A horse is not a machine.”
Paynter had many fans, and his illness worried them.
“Our fans were concerned, so we decided that we would keep them apprised,” Ms. Zayat said. “And then Paynter became like a cult. They would send him pictures and letters. It became like Paynter was a person. A group went to visit him, and took pictures of him.”
Paynter came back the next summer, and his fans were overjoyed. “It was like he was the comeback kid. It was a crazy feeling; after the race, people would say to us, ‘You don’t know what Paynter means to me.’
“He really caught the hearts of so many people,” she said.
It’s okay. This story has a happy ending. Paynter is now a stallion at the family’s Winstar Farms in Kentucky, happily siring the new generation of aspiring racehorses.
The Zayats try to give their horses names that have some meaning, “something to do with our lives or our friends,” Ms. Zayat said. “Justin decided that he wanted to do a contest with the fans. They could submit names, and we would pick one.
“A woman from Arkansas submitted American Pharoah.” He’s named in homage to Ahmed Zayat, who was Eyptian to start with and is American now.
This woman, the anonymous horse-namer, clearly was very good with history and allusion, but spelling seems not to have been her strong point. She misspelled Pharaoh, putting the o in front of the a. After the family chose it, “Justin cut and pasted the name from her email, and sent it to the Jockey Club.” (The club vets the names, and rejects those that are already taken or considered somehow offensive.)
“We never thought about it — and now people ask if there is a reason for that spelling,” Ms. Zayat said. “But it was just cut and pasted!”
American Pharoah was particularly dear to the Zayats even before he won the Derby, because he is the stable’s first second-generation winner. “American Pharoah’s dad, Pioneer of the Nile, was our very first home-bred winner, and he was the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby,” Ms. Zayat said. “He was nipped at the wire” –in other words, his victory was snatched from him. “We bred him with Little Princess Emma” — named after the family’s younger daughter — “and American Pharoah got revenge for his father.”
What is it like being Orthodox Jews at the Kentucky Derby? “There is no conflict,” Ms. Zayat said. “Most of our big races are on Saturdays, so we walk to the track.”
They stay at a hotel in Louisville, which is an easy walk on race day, and get kosher meals, including full Shabbat dinners, from a caterer, “but for the Preakness and the Belmont we can’t walk from any hotel, so we rent a trailer.” It’s not just a regular old RV; “It is 45 feet long, has two bathrooms, has a full kitchen and dining area, and sleeps six to eight people.
“Shabbes is still Shabbes. You are still getting gefilte fish for dinner,” she said.
“I think that when you are true to yourself, and you have a strong value system, people respect it.
“This is a free country, and people get that.”
As exciting as she finds horse racing in general, Ms. Zayat considers the Kentucky Derby to be particularly thrilling. “It attracts such a diverse and interesting group of people,” she said. “There are Derby groupies, who spend all year making their hats and getting their outfits together. There are men in floral suits, and women in crazy outfits. There are people who are there either because they are in the industry or because they are Kentuckians, and this is what Kentuckians do.
“Hank Aaron is there, and Bill and Hillary Clinton have been there, and Michael Phelps, and Hugh Hefner. It goes from the president of Visa to Ogden Phipps to people who own stallion farms to racing families to the loved ones of people in the industry.
“We like that it is a family thing for us. We all travel together for all the big races. We go together as much as we can. It is not just a business. We are close to our trainers and their families. That’s part of what makes it nice.
“Yes, it’s big business, but it’s also a humanistic thing. We all know each other’s kids. We have watched each other’s kids grow up.”
“Being in the Derby is the dream of a lifetime,” Ms. Zayat said, but for her, it is a recurring dream. Zayat Stables has had at least one horse in the Derby almost every year since its second year in the business.
May 2, Derby day, “was business as usual,” Ms. Zayat said. They were not the only group to walk from the hotel — traffic and parking both are nightmares, so many people avoid it. “It was a beautiful day. We walked down the street toward Churchill. It’s a pretty stadium. Everyone was trying to sell souvenirs, and security was checking bags, blocking off streets.”
Once they reached the stadium, the Zayats and their guests peeled off from the spectators. “We sit in certain dining rooms. We have viewing boxes. Churchchill is a huge track, and it is very well organized.”
The day goes by. There are 12 races on Derby day, and the Derby itself is the 11th to be run. (It helps with crowd control to have another race after the big one, so not everyone tries to leave at once, Ms. Zayat hypothesizes.) “As the day progresses, there is more time in between each race,” she said. Tension builds.
After the 10th race, “most of the owners go to the barns,” where the staff would have taken the horses out “and start to prep them for the race, to freshen them up,” she said. “They take the horses out, the trainer and the assistant trainers and the grooms and the owners, and you walk with them on the track if you choose to.
“We always walk our horses from the barns all the way around the track to the paddock, where they are saddled.” (“We,” at this race, was “me, my husband, all four children, and our guests, maybe 20, 25, 30 people.”)
“The crowds are roaring as you are passing by. People are yelling ‘Go, American Pharoah, we love you!’ They are trying to pat you. They wave at you. You talk to them. They are screaming and hooting. There are zillions of TV cameras.
“It is fun. It is exciting. It is exhilarating. It is show time.
“Everyone dresses up. I wore a pink suit with a hat. I don’t wear heels, but a lot of people do.
“You go to the paddock, and every owner is in front of his horse. It is jam packed. The horses go into the carrel to be saddled. The jockey, Victor Espinoza, is a great guy. I said, ‘Come on, I promise you a home-cooked meal if you bring this home to me.’ And he said, ‘Mrs. Zayat, just sit back and watch the show.’”
The race finally started. “It is only two minutes — but it is the most exciting two minutes in sports history every year,” Ms. Zayat said.
“They are coming down the stretch, and I see Firing Line and Dortmund coming down, and I see American Pharoah coming, and he’s behind them, and then they are neck and neck, and I say that I can’t. I can’t do this again. I can’t come in second again. The other times we lost at the wire. And I become hysterical. And I start to cry, this emotion of ohmigod.
“And then the next thing I know, I hear that American Pharoah and Victor Espinosa have won the Kentucky Derby.
“And then you go in five seconds from despair to elation. It was an out-of-body experience. It was crazy. And then they hustle you off to get your trophies.
“You don’t know how much time has passed. It could have been a long time. It could have been a short time. I don’t know. They brought us to the podium, they brought us to a cocktail party.
“This is ours. This is a real Zayat horse. There is something really special about it. It’s still surreal now.”
When you look at horses, Ms. Zayat said, there is a lot of science; “numbers, anatomy, genetics,” and much more. But there is also the emotional component. “The objective and the subjective have to meld together.
“And I know that this is the horse.”

Update: ...and then there's this:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Israel and the Arab Nations - A Necessary Alliance?

Mudhar Zahran
An article Israel Hayom by Mudhar Zahran, a Palestinian Arab living in England speaks for itself. Even though this paper is owned by the politically right wing American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, I believe that what Zahran is saying may very well be the case. And maybe the not so secret view of Arab leaders in the region. If true, it could very well change the course of history. The article follows in its entirety

For some time, there have been voices within U.S. intellectual and academic circles that question how vital Israel is to the U.S. Some openly wonder whether Israel has done anything good for the U.S., or if Israel is actually important at all to American national interests. Such voices, while few, still manage to utilize a very effective anti-Israeli propaganda machine, for example the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, as well as some academic institutions that have chosen to turn themselves into enemies of the Jewish state. Their main argument is: What do we need Israel for?

Of course, those voices get a lot of support from us, the Arabs. We Arabs have been claiming for seven decades now that Israel is the source of all evil. Some of our rulers have been saying this to the Western media for decades. Basically, we claim that if Israel disappears, our lives will become wonderful and iPhones will grow on the trees in our backyards.

Nonetheless, facts on the ground suggest that these claims could not be further from the truth. Let's see why.

It is no secret that the Obama administration has had a very difficult relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Israel has become more vital to American interests than ever, for the following reasons:

First, Iran has been expanding its power in the region, as a result of decades of intelligence work and recently because of unprecedented U.S. tolerance for it. While the U.S. is negotiating with Iran, one of the U.S.'s leverage points is the fact that it is keeping Israel from launching a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, as Israel did to Saddam Hussein's reactor in 1981. Whether we agree with the usefulness of U.S. negotiations with Iran, one thing remains certain: The U.S. would have had a much weaker negotiating position had it not been for Iran's fear of a looming Israeli strike.

Further, with the Islamic State beast expanding in the region, many of the U.S.'s closest Arab allies could fall easily under Islamic State's sway if not for Israel. For example, given that Islamic State sympathizers have a base in southern Jordan, and control Jordan's border with Iraq and almost a third of Jordan's border with Syria, why is Islamic State not attacking Jordan? It knows it will have to face Israel if it harms Jordan's security, because Israel will not tolerate Islamic State in Jordan and threatening the Jordanian-Israeli border.

In addition, Islamic State would not dare make advances to southern Syria toward the Golan Heights, again, knowing that this would draw Israeli opposition. Instead, it has focused its operation far from Israel and into north-central Syria and western Iraq. This has limited Islamic State operations to particular areas and kept some of the U.S.'s most important allies safe.

It is true that the U.S. has the strongest military on the planet, and some of the most dedicated, patriotic and well-trained soldiers. But Israel has the regional experience, the know-how and the stamina to keep Islamic State at bay and fight it if necessary.

While the U.S. has many militarily strong Arab allies, those allies lack the one thing Israel has -- democracy. This means that you never know who will be in power tomorrow in those countries. Nor could the U.S. guarantee their stances toward it or toward terrorists. Today's moderate dictator could always wake up tomorrow and decide to go to war. Let's not forget that Saddam had been America's ally until the very morning he invaded Kuwait.

With unrest, chaos and uncertainty sweeping the Middle East, Israel remains one of the very few stable, strong and predictable American allies in the region.

As for us Arabs, while most of our governments would not admit it, we know that Israel is the only Levant force capable of keeping Iran at bay. Iran has strong control over Iraq and the Syrian regime, and as a result, both countries are a mess today. We Arabs can also see the brutality with which Iran's militias have fought the Sunni Muslim Arabs in Syria and Iraq, and how Iran has been trying to destabilize the peaceful kingdom of Bahrain. It is in our best interest to have Israel around as it would actually walk the walk when it comes to confronting Iran's ghoulish ambitions for controlling our region, which we cannot confront alone. And thus we might someday find ourselves in a direct open alliance with Israel to fight it.

At the same time, Arab Muslims in the region know that if, God forbid, Islamic State becomes stronger than it already is, Israel is the only party capable of stepping in and destroying or at least limiting their advances.

Some Arab governments already realize that Israel is a necessity. We might hate Israel -- we might curse it day and night -- but that does not mean our intellectuals and sane ones want it gone, as each area that Israel leaves falls under chaos, trouble and even Iranian influence, be it in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

Let's not get confused here -- we Arabs are most likely going to keep hating Israel and Jews for decades to come. Still, we may have reached the point where we publicly admit that Israel is a better partner than our so-called Muslim brothers in Iran, Syria or elsewhere.

After all, a strong Israel has never threatened us without a provocation, while Iran is burning up Syria, dismembering Lebanon and destabilizing Bahrain. Iran would also be threatening Saudi Arabia from Yemen, were it not for the tough and pragmatic Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who decided to lead the fight on Iran's militias there.

An Iranian expansion into Arab states would destroy us Arabs and severely damage American interests and national security. Israel is now the only sane regional power capable of stopping Iran. Iran knows this and thus has limited its harassment of both Arabs and the U.S.

If Israel were to disappear tomorrow, Iran would be in Jordan, Bahrain and even Kuwait the next morning.

We Arabs, along with some Americans, can demonize Israel all we want, but deep down we know we are lucky to have Israel around at such a critical time. We have to admit that, as much as we may not wish to do so.

American voters, taxpayers and legislators should also realize that supporting Israel means supporting the U.S.'s interests to the fullest.

Mudar Zahran is a Jordanian-Palestinian who resides in the U.K.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The New Political Clout of Orthodox Jews

Republican candidate Ted Cruz now studies the weekly Torah portion
The following article by Nathan Guttman appeared in the Forward today. Have we Orthodox Jews become a real force in politics - despite our tiny numbers?

Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have long appreciated the importance of tapping into the pool of Jewish donors, who are among the most generous political contributors in the nation.

But until recently, Orthodox Jews have been an elusive target.

Like their Democratic counterparts, Republican candidates chose to go after more secular — albeit more conservative — Jewish donors, many of whom were hawkish on Israel; a demographic embodied in the old-line Republican Jewish Coalition, founded in 1985.

But now, Republican hopefuls from the right end of their party’s spectrum are beginning to discover the potential of a separate new breed of Orthodox Jews — wealthy enough to make significant donations, secure enough to pronounce their conservative social preferences and fueled by their anger at the Democratic administration’s policy toward Israel.

The emergence of these new donors has moved libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul to take interest in the Talmud studies of yeshiva students; it has motivated Ted Cruz to read up on the weekly Torah portion, and it has sent Jeb Bush to a Modern Orthodox high school to celebrate Israel’s independence day. Outreach to the Orthodox community is no longer a novel idea in the Republican camp — it has become a must.

Tevi Troy, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush and a leading voice among Orthodox Republicans, described the dual attraction Orthodox donors have, especially to candidates on the right end of the Republicans’ already conservative spectrum: “Orthodox Jews like the story Republicans have to tell on Israel,” he said, “and at the same time they’re not frightened by the Republicans’ social agenda.”

Described by some as “Modern ultra-Orthodox,” these potential new donors and activists are, according to a longtime Orthodox political operative, typically “very successful in business, very prosperous, with a yeshiva background and deeply involved in public life.”

It’s a description that fits Richard “Kasriel” Roberts perfectly. Roberts, who is now viewed as the biggest Orthodox name in Republican political giving, lives in an ultra-Orthodox enclave of yeshivas and synagogues in Lakewood, New Jersey. In the previous presidential election cycle, he gave $750,000 to the pro-Romney super political action committee Restore Our Future and $1 million to Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, another Republican Super PAC. His total political giving in the 2012 elections exceeded $2 million.

This time around, Roberts has been spreading his support between the libertarian-leaning candidate Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a potential presidential candidate who has yet to declare his intentions.

In 2013, Roberts invited Paul to visit his home and a nearby yeshiva in Lakewood, and accompanied and funded the senator’s trip to Israel the same year. Paul’s views on Israel have been so cool that he was shunned by the RJC, but they have warmed considerably. As he toured the Lakewood yeshiva, Roberts described him as “real” and “authentic.”

On April 27, Roberts’s courtship with Paul continued at the offices of Torah Umesorah, an association of religiously right-leaning Orthodox day schools headquartered in Brooklyn. During a meeting with Paul that Roberts sponsored there, the GOP candidate focused almost exclusively on Israel and the Iranian nuclear deal. Only one participant asked about schools, an issue where Paul’s stand in favor of government-funded vouchers for private schools pleases many Torah Umesorah members.

“He was personable and funny,” said Jewish activist Yaacov Behrman, who attended the meeting. 

“His goal was to quash fears about his views on Israel.”

Roberts also supported Walker generously in 2012 and gave him another $10,000 in 2014. The Wisconsin governor, who famously faced down his state’s public employee unions, has had to work at learning his Jewish political vocabulary. As a Milwaukee County executive prior to becoming governor, he confused one of the most basic Jewish expressions with an incendiary device, wishing a state GOP official “Molotov” for the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. But his strong conservative credentials and his support for Israel have caught the eye of donors like Roberts.

Walker has also proposed radically boosting the role of private school vouchers in his state education budget, which would for the first time allow an unlimited number of students to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.

Roberts, who is a doctor, made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Since selling his company for $800 million in 2012, he divides his time between philanthropic activity in the local Orthodox community and campaign finance activism in Republican politics.

“Obviously I don’t come from the standard yeshivish background. I went to the yeshivas of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania,” Roberts joked in a videopromoting Lakewood. He called living in Lakewood a “wonderful privilege” that those who lived in an ultra-Orthodox environment all their life may not appreciate. “We certainly don’t want them going out into the secular world and seeing how bad things are in so many other places,” Roberts added.

Roberts did not respond to calls from the Forward.

Black yarmulke donors such as Roberts are no longer a rare sight in the Republican Party. For years, donors such as California venture capitalist Isaac “Yitz” Applebaum or telecom executive Howard Jonas were reliable mainstays from Modern Orthodox communities. Now, the push is on to register the more conservative elements of the Orthodox community.

Israel has served as a catalyst for these donors’ involvement in the GOP. But a sense of shared conservative values is providing an additional foundation. The mutual affinity on this front was highlighted April 27, when Agudath Israel of America, which represents large parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging justices not to allow same-sex marriage.

The battle over same-sex marriage has emerged as the main social issue uniting Orthodox Jews and conservative Republicans. For reasons tied to nuances in traditional Jewish religious law, the GOP’s emphasis on restricting abortion rights has resonated less with Orthodox Jews.

The Orthodox community is also not overly concerned about separation between religion and state, and actively supportive of social conservatives on issues such as government funding of parochial education.

There is one final factor in the growth of Orthodox givers: the growing affluence of some members of this community.

“Now, in 2015, you have more Orthodox individuals who are more affluent than in past years and more interested in being politically active,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.

When it comes to voters, as distinct from donors, the Republicans’ stepped-up outreach to Orthodox supporters at first glance defies demographic reasoning. The Orthodox community, according to the 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, makes up only 10% of the Jewish community, which, in turn, represents a little more than 2% of American voters.

But these numbers tell only part of the story. Because of higher birth rates and stronger denominational retention, the Orthodox share in the Jewish community is on the rise, and among those under the age of 18 they represent 26% of American Jews.

Politically, Orthodox Jews have bucked the broader Jewish liberal trend and currently lean strongly to the right, with 57% identifying as Republican and more than half identifying as conservative. Among the ultra-Orthodox, almost two-thirds say they are conservative.

But the Orthodox role in Republican politics has been stifled in the past by demography and geography. The community was viewed as too small to have an impact; moreover, with most Orthodox Jews living in heavily Democratic districts, their voting Republican made little difference. For the Republican Party it was a question of priorities.

And for Orthodox Jews, especially those identified by their black hats and referred to as ultra-Orthodox or Haredi, political activism has traditionally been directed at local issues of immediate concern to their community: support for parochial education and for the social services on which many Haredi families depend. These interests led to strong communal ties to the mostly Democratic elected officials in their districts, regardless of broader political approaches.

But today, said Jeff Ballabon, a prominent Orthodox Republican activist, “it’s no longer only domestic concerns like school choice and

‘Orthodox Jews… will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race.’
vouchers, but also protecting Israel.”

Recently, the broken relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the two leaders’ dispute over the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran made the stars align for Republicans and Orthodox supporters. The feeling that Israel is in dire need of a more supportive administration has driven members of the Orthodox community to step out of their comfort zone and back their already existing sympathy for Republican values with votes and major gifts.

“Orthodox Jews are growing as a segment in the Jewish community… I believe the community will be very involved in shaping the [2016] Republican race,” said Nick Muzin, deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz.

Muzin knows this well from his own experience. A doctor and lawyer by education, Muzin was born in Canada, where he attended top yeshivas in Toronto. He later attended Yeshiva University in New York. Muzin is the man behind Cruz’s full court press towards the Orthodox community. The Texas senator, who has been the most visible among the candidates in reaching out to Orthodox supporters, told Politico that he shares “a great many values with the Jewish community and the Orthodox community.”

Muzin, who spends much of his time on the road with Cruz, takes off for the Sabbath, during which he stays with local Jewish communities. Cruz, he said, always wants to know about the weekly Torah portion and tries to work it into his speeches. “He is a religious Christian and has an affinity to the Jewish community,” said Muzin, who described the candidate’s attitude toward the Jewish people as “a natural kinship.”

Ballabon, who identifies with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, believes that Orthodox Jews like himself should be at the center of the party’s outreach to Jewish voters and donors. “I want to be an agent of change in these elections, telling people that as much as they don’t want to admit it, partisanship regarding Israel is a long-standing reality and it’s a mistake to ignore it or whitewash it,” he said.

Though a bit behind Cruz and Paul, other players in the field are also now looking to this community for votes and cash. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce his candidacy and who enjoys the backing of several key GOP Jewish establishment figures, visited New York’s prestigious Ramaz School, an Orthodox day school, to mark Israel’s independence day on April 23. In a closed-door question-and-answer session with the upper-school students, Bushcriticized the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration as “naive.”

For now, the battle within the GOP is focused on donors, with RJC donors tending to back politicians representing the party’s establishment, such as Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Orthodox donors leaning to candidates on the populist right, including Cruz and Paul.

Thanks to the relaxation of political funding regulations, and to the introduction of super PACs, even just one wealthy backer can play a game-changing role in sustaining a candidate through the grueling primary process.

Meanwhile, as voters, the role that Orthodox Jews can play is limited at this stage. “Clearly, Republicans are not investing in Orthodox Jews in order to win Iowa or New Hampshire,” Troy said, referring to the first two states to elect their candidates, both with insignificant numbers of Orthodox Jews.

But in the general election, the focus will likely shift. While the large majority of Orthodox Jews live in heavily Democratic states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, where their votes may have no impact on the outcome, there are two states where they might: Florida and Ohio.

This is not just Orthodox wishful thinking. Political observers in the community look to an analysis of the 2004 presidential election, when George W. Bush won the state of Ohio on his way to beating Democrat John Kerry. Looking through the voting records precinct by precinct, it was clear that Kerry lost because of weak support in the Cleveland suburbs. And within those suburbs, those with large Orthodox Jewish populations went clearly to Bush.