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Reform: Changingwith the Times

by Tom Tugend

June 25, 1998 | 8:00 pm

By Tom Tugend,Contributing Editor

From 'Liberation to Palestine'

Now on exhibit at the L.A. Holocaust Museum:Ruth Gruber's moving postwar photos of Jewish refugees

By Ruth Stroud,Staff Writer

The Rebbe's Reach

By Robert Eshman,Managing Editor

 

Reform: Changing with the Times

By Tom Tugend,Contributing Editor

Charting a course toward greater traditional observance of Jewish religious law and ritual, the president of the American rabbinical Reform movement has urged its adherents to renew the bond among all Jews "who stood at Sinai" and to "proclaim that Torah is our center."

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, in addressing 500 Reform rabbis at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis on Monday in Anaheim, also held out an olive branch to a frequent antagonist by calling on his organization to make "a concerted effort to reach out to Orthodox rabbis."

In his formal address, titled "That Holiness May Blossom," Levy urged that the CCAR's 1,700 member rabbis give their 1.5 million congregants the option of keeping a kosher home, wear special religious garb and observe other mitzvot

Levy acknowledged that such traditional observances might have startled the founding fathers of the American Reform movement. In their 1885 platform, they declared briskly: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state."

In an interview, Levy rejected the notion that he was advocating a radical break with the principles that have guided the Reform movement in the past.

The 19th century founders believed that God's will was expressed through an ever higher level of ethical values, while the Torah, as they put it, "reflected the primitive ideas of its own age."

In an age that believed "the spirit of broad humanity" would bring about the Messianic age, the Torah didn't speak to the founders, Levy said. "It clearly does appeal to us in our days...because we know that our people are crying out to elevate their lives in a culture fraught with banality and violence," he added.

In offering Reform Jews the option of more traditional observances, Levy believes he is reflecting a shift in Reform practice over the past 25 years.

Yet there is no unanimity how far and fast the movement should change, with many rabbis clinging to classical Reform practices, and others advocating even quicker adoption of traditional observances.

Indeed, Levy himself is concerned that a passion for social justice, the hallmark of the Reform movement from its beginning, has become too muted.

The solution, he said, is to "create a model of blending issues of spirituality and social concern," to express Jewish tradition in terms of modern conditions.

For instance, he believes that the strictures against wearing garments of mixed wool and linen should also carry a self-imposed prohibition against wearing garments made with sweatshop labor, or at below minimum wage.

Levy included these proposals in a set of Ten Principles of Reform Judaism, which he submitted for a year-long discussion and analysis before a scheduled vote at the 1999 convention.

Such a set of basic principles, last revised in 1976, are to guide the Reform movement into the 21st century, said Levy, much as the 1885 platform was seen as a guide for the 20th century.

The principles address what Levy termed the "paradox of the Reform movement," an emphasis on greater traditional observance in religious life on the one hand, while stretching admission boundaries for those wishing to be part of the Jewish peoplehood.

Thus, the principles reaffirm the equality of men and women in religious leadership, and welcomes Jews, "whatever their sexual orientation" and those "from patrilineal and other untraditional backgrounds."

The principles also affirm the holiness of the Hebrew language, "which binds us to Jews in every land," and petition the State of Israel to grant full religious rights to all its citizens and strive for "a mutual atmosphere of peace, justice and security with Palestinians and other Arab neighbors."

As president, the 61-year-old Levy himself represents a departure for the CCAR, whose previous presidents have been overwhelmingly congregational rabbis. As executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, he is the first head of the 109-year-old organization, representing its chaplaincy branch, as well as the very first to hail from the West Coast.


The Reform Dilemma

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

"This is not your grandfather's Reform service," noted one observer who had joined 500 Reform rabbis at an hour-long prayer service opening the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

A quick glance showed that a majority of the men, and many of the women, wore kippot and tallitot (prayer shawls), scorned by earlier Reform leaders as outdated ritualistic accouterments.

Otherwise, the dress code varied widely, with many rabbis, far away from their congregations and seduced by the Southern California sunshine, opting for shorts, T-shirts and sneakers.

The more athletic types had already gathered at 6 a.m. for Tai Chi exercises and a run along the streets bordering Disneyland.

On the more formal agenda, a call by CCAR President Richard N. Levy in his opening address for Reform rabbis to reach out to their Orthodox colleagues, was met with some skepticism in a follow-up discussion group.

More than one speaker noted that it was almost impossible to bring an Orthodox rabbi to the table if women or openly gay Reform rabbis were present, and attempts at outreach or unity often ended in humiliation.

Levy agreed, but asked that his colleagues be aware that many centrist Orthodox rabbis, who might want to meet with Reform rabbis, "are petrified of (Orthodox rabbis) further to their right."

On Tuesday, the convention took up the highly controversial issue of whether Reform rabbis should officiate or sanctify "commitment " ceremonies linking gay or lesbian couples. The audience heard opposing recommendations and discussed the issue in closed sessions, but avoided, by prior arrangement, a decision by not putting the question to a vote.

On Wednesday, an "emergency resolution" was introduced on the conversion bill, now pending in the Knesset, and which is strongly opposed by the Reform movement.

The "emergency" was apparently triggered by recent remarks by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, implying that Reform rabbis were liable to perform "quickie" conversions.

The remark angered the convention, and Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff of Westfield, N.J., CCAR's vice president and president-designate, termed it "an outrage and insult to our integrity" and vowed that "we will not be pushed around anymore."

Kroloff, speaking personally, urged that a portion of all funds raised in the United States on behalf of Israel go directly toward strengthening the Reform movement in Israel.

On another sensitive issue, an ad hoc ethics review committee was to recommend on Wednesday a range of penalties for rabbis found guilty of sexual misconduct and will seek tougher conditions for suspended rabbis seeking reinstatement.

"We are responding to a different climate in our country, in which sexual misconduct is unacceptable," said Rabbi Sanford Ragins of Leo Baeck Temple, and a member of the committee.

In an extracurricular activity, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, pictured above, was to lead a demonstration outside a bingo club owned by Dr. Irving Moskowitz.

Beliak charged that Moskowitz has endangered the Middle East peace process through his financial support of "radical Jewish settlers" in Jerusalem, and that locally he has exploited the Latino community.

For differing opinions on the direction of the Reform movement, read Rabbi Avi Shafran, Rabbi Richard Levy, and Gene Lichtenstein's articles.

Journalist, photographer and author Ruth Gruber spoke at the opening of an exhibit of her photos. Photo by Peter Halmagyi.

From 'Liberation to Palestine'

Now on exhibit at the L.A. Holocaust Museum: Ruth Gruber's moving postwar photos of Jewish refugees

By Ruth Stroud,Staff Writer

"Even though we are born Jews, there is a time in our lives when we become Jews."

For renowned journalist, photographer and author Ruth Gruber, that moment came in the middle of World War II, when she was dispatched by President Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, on a secret mission to help bring 1,000 refugees through Nazi-infested waters to safety at a former army camp in Oswego, N.Y.

A photo by Ruth Gruber from "Exodus 1947."

Known as "Mother Ruth" to the group of mostly Jewish refugees she befriended and championed aboard the Henry Gibbons, Gruber last week told a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust: "I became a Jew -- it was the turning point of my life. I learned about Jewish courage.... I realized [the refugees] were all alive through a miracle."

Similar instances of "Jewish courage" are currently on display in her exhibit "Photographs as Witness: 1946-1950, From Liberation to Palestine," which is in a first-floor gallery at the Federation through July 26.

Gruber's visit was sponsored by the Holocaust Museum, a Jewish Federation department; the Federation's ACCESS young adult group; and the Council of Postwar Jewish Survivor Organizations, an umbrella group. The two co-chairs, Jacqueline Shelton and Michele Burdowski, are both children of survivors.

Gruber, 87, repeated a story that she also described in her book about the Oswego experience, "Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees." In it, she told of the inspiring words of Rabbi Mossco Tzechoval as the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor and the eyes of all aboard were fixed on the woman with the outstretched arm and the torch. The bearded rabbi said the "Sheheheyanu" and exhorted the refugees not to believe what the Nazis said of them -- that they brought evil upon the Earth. "We did not bring evil upon the Earth. Wherever we wandered, we brought the blessings of Torah," the rabbi said.

Gruber also detailed the story of Exodus 1947, the ill-fated ship that was bombarded and turned away by Britain, and whose 4,500 Holocaust survivors were transferred to prison ships that were sent back to France and Germany. Gruber became the press pool correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, and her firsthand accounts and photos of the events (available in another recently reprinted book, "Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation") jarred the world's conscience and helped lead to the creation of Israel. They also became the basis of the book and movie, "Exodus," and were included in the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary, "The Long Way Home," whose director attended the opening Tuesday.

Several former Oswego and Exodus refugees also were on hand, including Manya Breuer, a survivor of five concentration camps who was married in Oswego. Breuer brought one of her three children, Diane. Both wiped away tears while listening to the featured speaker.

Gruber has kept in touch with many of the Oswego group, including Breuer. Still, she laments those who weren't rescued. "Instead of 1,000, we could have saved half a million," she says.

Gruber, a native of what she calls "the shtetl" of Brooklyn, never took a course in either journalism or photography, yet her photos are in the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington and the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage, among others. She is passionate about teaching the next generation about the Holocaust. "I think it is very important that children visit these museums and learn the history and the truth," she says.

Being the only woman journalist -- and often the only journalist, period -- at crucial moments in history has not been a problem, Gruber says. Sometimes, the men were jealous of her access to important leaders such as Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion, but, often, her male counterparts were courtly and carried her camera equipment. "Sometimes, they just wanted to marry me," she says.

Gruber did marry, at age 40, and had two children. Her son is an epidemiologist and professor, and her daughter worked as an associate producer at CBS' "60 Minutes." Gruber has three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way.

She is currently gathering the stories of those who were aboard the Exodus, for an updated special edition of "Exodus 1947," which will be published this summer by Times Books. She urges those with information or stories to contact her at (212) 874-3438, or fax her at (212) 362-6346.

The exhibit is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays and Mondays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays; and by appointment. It is in Room 140, 5700 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call (323) 761-8170.


 

"We don't want your money. When people write checks, they feel they have done enough. If one of you goes home and lights Shabbat candles tomorrow for the first time, or does another mitzvah, that's all we want."

--David Suissa

The Rebbe's Reach

There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and, last Thursday, about a dozen of them were sitting in the conference room of one of the city's hippest, slickest, most successful advertising agencies, talking about the Rebbe.

Famous screenwriters, producers, agents and executives sat, staring at a short middle-aged man with a fedora and a long beard that ended in two bushy gray prongs. His name is Manis Friedman and he is a Chabad rabbi from Minneapolis who writes and lectures about Judaism, morality and relationships.

"He's Bob Dylan's rabbi," a screenwriter whispered to a friend across the table, as Friedman wound up a half-hour after-lunch talk. Maybe it's not fair to boil his insights -- punctuated with biblical allusions, real-life anecdotes and quotes from the Rebbe himself -- down to one line, but, on the other hand, he himself did. Bottom line, said Friedman: "Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it."

The men nodded -- lunch had gone long, and there was really no time for pushing into gray areas. But more remarkable than Friedman's talk was the fact that such a lunch was happening at all. How is it that men with places to go and things to do, could put it all on hold for two hours to hear Torah commentary?

One reason was David Suissa. The youthful, Moroccan-born owner of Suissa-Miller, an advertising agency, had invited these people, employing the kind of perseverance and charisma that he has used to close deals with Honda, Sony, Jenny Craig and Boston Market. You don't end up with two floors of a Brentwood high-rise by taking no for an answer.

"We don't want your money," he said to everyone, before introducing Friedman. "When people write checks, they feel they have done enough. If one of you goes home and lights Shabbat candles tomorrow for the first time, or does anothermitzvah, that's all we want."

Suissa doesn't look Chabad. He wears no yarmulke, dresses in expensive, simple chic, and keeps his office television tuned to the World Cup playoffs. But, 10 years ago, after meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, at the late Chabad leader's home in Crown Heights, Suissa began devoting much of his life to carrying out the ideals of Chabad's brand of Judaism.

"It gives me a reason to wake up every morning," Suissa said. "He wanted us to be leaders, not followers. He wanted us to give of ourselves, to think about others."

Along with sponsoring the monthly lunch-and-learns, Suissa helps Chabad with its extensive publicity campaigns and donates to other Chabad efforts.

"The Rebbe taught that we should only fear God," he said. "In business, that's given me confidence and a sense of morality."

This Saturday marks the fourth anniversary of Schneerson's death. Chabad has taken some big hits since then. At a 50th-anniversary salute to Israel in San Francisco in April, Israeli columnist Zev Chafets compared the group to the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas. Jokes circulate widely about the Chabadniks' propensity to cast the Rebbe as the Messiah. And, though, Chabad leaders maintain that the death has brought no divisiveness, critics are waiting for what they see as a cult of charisma to shatter.

Meanwhile, the Rebbe's minions march on. Thirty years ago, the Rebbe told a young rabbi named Boruch Shlomo Cunin to bring Yiddishkayt to California. Today, there are close to 130 Chabad centers in the Southland, including a regular minyan at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (The centers will all hold special celebration of the Rebbe this Saturday.)

Cunin pioneered the multimillion-dollar Chabad telethon, the traveling Mitzvah-mobile, and has succeeded in bringing Chabad's message to the famous and mighty. He and Vice President Al Gore have grown close, working together for the past decade to retrieve the Rebbe's 12,000-volume library from Russia.

"The Rebbe took a generation destroyed by the Holocaust and rebuilt it," said Cunin. "The movement goes on with phenomenal vitality."

There is something simple, and simply brilliant, about a vast international organization, worth who knows how many millions, focused at any given instant on getting one more Jew to light Shabbat candles or bind phylacteries or hang a mezuzah. Suissa calls it "multilevel mitzvah marketing," and even the most cynical observer must admit that, as millionaires, cab drivers, Chassids, heathens, and a U.S. Presidential hopeful pay their respects this week to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe's reach goes on. -- Robert Eshman,Managing Editor

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