Category Archives: Misc

The Rise of the Religiously “Unaffiliated”

One in five adults in the United States—and one in three adults under the age of 30—do not identify with any religious tradition, a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows, marking a noticeable growth in the number of “unaffiliated” Americans in the past five years. But lack of religious affiliation does not correspond to spirituality, the survey also finds: Of the 46 million Americans that don’t claim a religion, more than two thirds say they believe in God, more than a third consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” while just over a quarter are self-proclaimed atheists or agnostics. These changes affect more than just demographics, as the religiously unaffiliated are becoming an increasingly important part of the electorate. In 2008, they came out for Barack Obama as strongly as white evangelicals did for John McCain, and continue to show preference for the Democratic Party and support liberal social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Mayim Bialik Goes Vegan

Mayim Bialik is speaking out about the benefits of a meat-free diet in a new ad for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Bialik, star of “The Big Bang Theory” and a longtime vegan, says much of the inspiration behind her decision to shun all animal products was Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. “There were two major shifts for me when I became vegan,” the Emmy Award-nominated actress tells PETA in a video interview. “I never had a sinus infection or been on antibiotics since cutting out dairy… I’ve noticed that my true seasonal allergies are much less severe… But I think he most significant shift for me was I used to feel guilty, even as a child, I felt very guilty about eating animals and never knew there was something to do about it. And as I got older, it became clearer that there are things that I can do and choices I can make.” For Moment‘s interviews with Bialik, click here and here.

Can Politics Stay Off the Field?

By Rebecca Borison

Israeli judokas practice on their side of the barrier, separated from the Lebanese athletes (photo courtesy of the Israeli Olympic Committee)

For 15 minutes, a group of boys lived their dream. These boys met their idols and played soccer during the half-time break of a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Madrid. And after the game, those boys returned home…to their Israeli and Palestinian families.

The game was sponsored by Children United, hosted in L.A., and supervised by Jose Mourinho, the coach of Real Madrid. As the world struggles to find the “solution” for the Middle East, groups like Children United are trying to think outside of the box and employ sports.

According to Spanish journalist Henrique Cymerman, “People like the Real Madrid manager have more power than governments, in many cases, because football is like a religion. We strongly believe that the fastest road to peace isn’t with political agreements but through education and sport. Football is a very useful instrument to encourage different people to live together.”

Even though we may all have different political views, Cymerman thinks that we can put that aside for the name of sport. These young boys all share this passion for soccer, and by creating these opportunities, we can bring them together even though they come from entirely different backgrounds.

If only it were that easy.

While soccer-loving kids may be able to put aside their differences, there are still entire governments that can’t seem to put aside politics in the name of sportsmanship. Just look at the current Olympics, and you will unfortunately find an abundance of examples.

For starters, Iran has long maintained a policy of prohibiting their athletes from competing against Israeli athletes. And while this year, Bahram Afsharzadeh, secretary general of the Iranian Olympic committee, promised that Iran would “be truthful to sport” and “play every country,” no Iranian athlete ended up facing an Israeli athlete. The only hope of a show-off was in judo, but the Iranian judo champion, Javad Mahjoub, mysteriously dropped out of the competition because of a “critical digestive system infection.”

Last year, Mahjoub reportedly told the Iranian newspaper Shargh that he threw a match against a German opponent, explaining, “If I won, I would have had to compete with an Israeli athlete. And if I refused to compete with the Israeli, they would have suspended our judo federation for four years.”

Mahjoub had some issues leaving politics out of the arena.

And apparently, so did Lebanon.  After the Lebanese judo team refused to practice in the same gym as the Israelis, the Olympic organizers agreed to place a barrier between the two teams.

But before we get too depressed about the power of sports to overcome any obstacles, Itamar Marcus has a bit of good news for us.  While there may be no way of sugarcoating Olympic conflicts, we can at least find a slight improvement on the Palestinian policy towards competing against Israelis.

Reporting on the Children United soccer game, the official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida had only positive things to say about the tournament. In the August 8th issue of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the newspaper reported, “[The game] aims to create a warm atmosphere in order to draw the nations together, and support peace between them… Mourinho’s influence may be much stronger than the influence of the governments, and football is capable of achieving what political agreements and treaties have been unable to achieve”

According to Marcus, “the official PA policy is to ban sporting events promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” And the PA has been known to condemn such events in the past. In 2011, for example, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida reported on a similar tournament in Canada, but wrote that the PA was planning on forming a investigative committee which would “submit its recommendations before legal steps are taken against the players.”

The fact that the newspaper was able to report on the LA soccer game without any condemnation is a big deal.  We can’t be sure that this represents a total shift in policy, but it is definitely a step up.

So while it may take awhile for this sports over politics philosophy to fully permeate, I can’t help but think that it can’t move much more slowly than the current peace process.

Six Figures for a Thirteenth Birthday

By Lily Shoulberg

Growing up in New York City, I’ve always had plenty of Jewish friends, gone to public schools with significant Jewish populations, and, in turn, attended my fair share of lavish bar mitzvahs.  I think most Jewish New Yorkers can attest to the fact that when seventh grade rolls around, the fancy envelopes start pouring in and the schedule becomes filled with saved bar and bat mitzvah dates.  The parties usually feature at least one ice sculpture, and would not be complete without a photographer to capture embarrassing images of all the awkward pre-teen guests.

But what, really, should a bar mitzvah entail?

The bar mitzvah is supposed to occur at the time of the Jewish child’s (traditionally, only Jewish boys) thirteenth birthday.  He reads a section from the Torah, and in doing so, proves that he would be prepared to lead the congregation in a service.  Additionally, there is generally a tzedakah component, wherein the bar mitzvah contributes to a charity of his or her choice.  The significance of a bar mitzvah originally was that it symbolized the coming-of-age and manhood of a Jewish boy.

Today, however, many bar mitzvahs more accurately represent social standing and financial status than religious devotion.  Most of my peers who went through the entire process feel very little connection to their Jewish identities and ultimately regret the exorbitant sum that was spent on a single night of loud music and mediocre food.  Furthermore, very few of them maintained any knowledge of Hebrew and went on to assist in services at their synagogues.

I think I have a unique perspective on the issue.  I attended a number of very fancy bat mitzvahs and certainly felt the societal pressure to follow suit, but had been given quite a bit of freedom and independence by my parents, who felt that I could make the decision for myself.  I attended a year of Hebrew school when I was nine, before deciding that it wasn’t for me.  My parents, as usual, supported my decision.  When seventh grade rolled around, I naturally became envious of my peers and their larger-than-life celebrations, and decided that I would get a private tutor and cram for a bat mitzvah so I could have a fancy party of my own.  Luckily, this decision didn’t even make it past my mind to my parents’ ears.  I realized, not several hours after making this resolution, how fundamentally flawed it really was.  I felt very little religious fervor at the time, my Jewish identity was entirely cultural, and my motivation was completely attributed to societal pressure.

Of course there are Jewish children who feel that their bar mitzvahs signify their religious identities.  Some parents raise their children with the expectation of this rite of passage.  My mother grew up attending Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah without a big party afterwards.  I expect that this greatly contributed to her religiosity and spirituality as she got older.  Because of my mother’s example, I see no problem in raising your children with religion and expecting them to pursue a bar mitzvah for the purpose of instilling them with a spiritual identity.  That being said, it should go hand in hand with actual interest in religion.  The fact that I will have to pursue an adult bat mitzvah of my own volition means that I’ll first have to establish a religious identity, which, to me, is more significant than being motivated by social pressure.  I know that my parents have had their doubts about being so lenient when it came to religion, but I’m glad that it went the way it did.  They clearly did something right if I realized that my superficial desire for a bat mitzvah was for all the wrong reasons.

No Gaga Here: Extreme Summer Camps in the Middle East

By Rebecca Borison

While I grew up at a Jewish summer camp playing Gaga, kids growing up in slightly (read: very) different areas than me are partaking in slightly (read: very) different activities in summer camp. The Times of Israel recently published two separate articles on Extreme Summer Camps. The first article discusses a Hamas-run Gaza summer camp, where “activities include walking on knives, cleaning beaches and experiencing life as a security prisoner in an Israeli jail.” Five days later, the Times of Israel released a second article about a right-wing camp in Ramat Migron, where the girls learn “self-defense techniques, how to construct temporary dwellings and basic agriculture.”
So we have two camps representing the extremes of Israelis and Palestinians. But let’s take a closer look at these camps.

We’ll start with camp “We will live honorably” in Gaza. Now that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) no longer runs summer camps in Gaza, “We will live honorably” is the only option for kids in Gaza. This Hamas-run camp attracts around 70,000 kids from across the Gaza strip.  According to one of the camp directors, Omar Aql, the camps try to “strengthen the importance of volunteer work and create a clean social environment.” For example, campers participated in a campaign to clean the Nuseirat beach.

But then there are some disturbing camp activities as well. Campers are introduced to a model of an Israeli security prison in order to “reenact the daily suffering of Palestinian prisoners,” according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. The “prison” consists of an investigation room, a detention room, a confession extortion room, a solitary confinement room, a courtyard and an infirmary.
At Camp “Hilltop Youth,” the campers partake in some disturbing activities as well, learning krav maga in order to fight against any Arabs that may happen to attack them. The girls are also introduced to extreme living arrangements, spending four days without electricity or running water.  Unlike the “We will live honorably” camps, the “Hilltop youth” camp is one of many summer camps available in Israel. An Israeli child can have a normal camp experience at Camp Kimama or Camp Tapuz.

Both camps promote the immense value of devotion to one’s people. A camper from Gaza named Abdulaziz A-Saqa explained, “We learned that Palestinian prisoners suffer greatly for the Palestinian people.” One of the campers at Ramat Migron named Esther told the Israeli Newspaper, Ma’ariv, “Whoever comes here isn’t looking to go to a luna park (amusement park), rather to fight on behalf of the State of Israel.”

Both campers have been taught to devote their lives to their nation. They are instilled with a great sense of patriotism—to the extent that they will fight no matter the cost.

While Gaza camp counselor Abdul-Ghafour denies that the camp is training future Hamas militants, it definitely appears to be a strong possibility. Why else would these campers need to learn how to “slide over thorns using his elbows for propulsion” and run and jump through flaming hoops? According to the Washington Post, the campers are “told to fight Israel to liberate Palestine.”

According to Ma’ariv, the goal of the “Hilltop Youth” camp “is to train and recruit the next generation of warriors to settle the hills.” They even bring in speakers from the settlement movement, such as MK Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Yes, that sounds just as extreme as training Gaza youth to be Hamas militants, but there is one crucial difference between the two: the camps’ relationship to their nation. The camp in Gaza is organized by Hamas. As the ruling power in Gaza since 2007, Hamas is not only condoning such camps but is funding and running them. The camp in Ramat Migron, on the other hand, is run solely by extremists. According to Ma’ariv, “security forces came to the outpost tens of times and destroyed the wooden shacks that the youth had built,” but each time the youth return to rebuild it. The State of Israel is not supporting extremists. They are trying to stop them. In fact, Ramat Migron is scheduled to be evacuated by August 1.

You can make an argument that likens these two camps, and you could make an argument that contrasts the two.  What it comes to at the end of the day is does the camp represent an extremist minority or an extremist people.

Thousands of Little Pharaohs: The Plight of the Agunah

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

In this Passover season, consider the plight of Jewish women whose marriages have ended but whose (former) husbands refuse them a get (bill of divorce), which only the man can grant under the traditional version of halachah (Jewish religious law). The spectacle of thousands of Jewish men behaving like little Pharaohs, in whose hands is the power to enslave or free their former wives, has become sadly familiar.

Not so well known is the inner world of the agunah. What are the emotional and spiritual consequences of being “chained” to a dead marriage? I spoke to “Deborah,” a former agunah from an Orthodox community in England, who was married for 13 years and had two children with a man who refused her a get for nearly five years following their February 2007 civil divorce, until he decided to get remarried.

Describe the community you and your ex came from.

I come from an ultra-Orthodox community in Manchester. I am the eldest of nine children. The average family has seven or eight children. My ex came from a modern Orthodox family in London, one of four. We were never on the same level of orthodoxy. No two families are!

At what point did you become aware that your ex was not going to grant you a get? How did he inform you?

I knew from early on this would be an issue. My ex mentioned in [British civil] court that he would give me the get after the “decree nisi [provisional decree of divorce].” Many times afterwards, he would say he would grant it on certain conditions. He asked for money—half the value of the matrimonial home, £200,000 [about $320,000]. He asked my family to pay him money in order for him to grant the get.

Was the Orthodox community supportive of your struggle? What are your feelings about that?

It was “oh dear, poor fella”—meaning my poor ex. It was a case of how can we support the man. I never had support. Of course my friends supported me, but even that became an issue. I lost people I thought were friends, but seemed to side with my ex. You definitely learn who your friends are when you divorce. I felt the community did not know how to handle the situation. For example, should my ex and the children be invited for Shabbat lunch, or me with the children? The rabbi carried on allowing my ex in the synagogue. I feel very let down by my community, then and now. I tried talking to so many people and so many rabbis. I have over 20 rabbis’ numbers in my cell phone. … I wanted action. I never got it. After I agreed to take part in a TV documentary about agunot, I was even more shunned. In the end, I left the Orthodox community, five years ago now.

What steps did you take to appeal to the Jewish religious court, the Beth Din, and other community authorities, and what did they do to try to convince your ex to grant the get?

I applied to all four Beth Dins here in London for a get. I do not feel there was any pressure for him to grant me a get. His rabbi made him his gabbai [sexton]. That had a ripple effect. People left the synagogue. But my ex would not go to the Beth Din when called to do so. Except on a few occasions, I was called to the Beth Din, I would go with my solicitor [attorney]. [My ex] got me excited, feeling the get was almost there, but then it all fell apart. I had various meetings with my rabbi and solicitor, but to no avail. He said he will go when he is ready. I always prayed that he would meet someone, it would be the only way he would grant the get. I was right!

What were the practical and emotional implications of your agunah status for you?

My life was put on hold, I was in limbo land. I couldn’t date, I couldn’t marry, I couldn’t anything. I tried talking to various people and rabbis to assist, but to no avail. I was depressed, I was very unhappy. I was doubting myself, I was doubting G-d, life, religion, everything that I always lived by.  What was my purpose in life? I cannot live like this, I felt strangled. It all vanished.

It was an awful situation to be in. It was a very dark time for me. I felt I would never have love again in my life. It was scary, frightening.

I did have wonderful people and friends around me who supported me through my awful ordeal. The husband of a friend of mine walked out of the synagogue my ex-husband was a member of when he was honored with an aliyah to the Torah.

I was so desperate I got a liberal [non-Orthodox] get [not requiring the ex-husband’s consent], but that did not do it for me. I still felt chained to my ex as I am not a liberal.

I have so many questions now. What is the Jewish life and way all about?

I do not wish being an agunah on any woman. I feel the power should be taken away from the man. It is wrong! I am a free woman.

Escape from Freedom?

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

As Passover approaches, I have been reading the psychologist Erich Fromm’s 1941 work, Escape from Freedom. Writing when Nazi Germany was at its height, Fromm sought the reasons why so many people felt their freedom to be “an intolerable burden” that they wished to escape. The questions he raised are still vital.

We often think of people who live under tyrannical regimes as helpless victims. This neatly avoids the problem that even the most monstrous regimes enjoy some level of popular support, without which they could not continue to function; and even worse, that a people granted the vote may freely elect a dictatorship, as happened in Germany in 1932 and as appears to be happening in Egypt today.

Why does this happen? In the case of Egypt, we can begin with the failure of the old regime’s ideology of “pan-Arab nationalism” as championed by the wildly popular dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970. Nasser’s enmity to Israel was later abandoned by his successor Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, although not before launching a devastating war of his own, the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

After Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists bitterly opposed to the treaty, the dictator Hosni Mubarak came to power and ruled for almost three decades, preserving the letter of the treaty with Israel while discouraging “normalization” and encouraging anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media, most notoriously in a 2002 TV series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” which was based on the anti-Semitic fantasy “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a text originally composed by the secret police of Czarist Russia but now ubiquitous in the Muslim world. While he was far from being the Arab world’s most vicious dictator, Mubarak mismanaged the Egyptian economy while allowing corruption to flourish, leaving an impoverished and deeply religious people vulnerable to the slogan “Islam is the answer” (which begs the questions, which Islam? whose Islam? Questions the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more extreme “Salafists” have already answered, and woe betide anyone who draws different conclusions.)

Hatred of America and Israel, already encouraged by Mubarak despite the billions in U.S. aid he received, is at the heart of today’s political Islam, whatever the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremely canny spokesmen may pretend to gullible Western reporters. The Middle East Media Research Institute reports that, “In addition to antisemitic content, articles on the [Brotherhood’s] site also include praise for jihad and martyrdom, and condemnation of negotiation as a means of regaining Islamic lands. Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the September 9, 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo – which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.” So how surprising is it that we are now witnessing the slow death of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty? In case any Egyptian harbors doubts about the wisdom of a new anti-Jewish jihad, recalling perhaps the disastrous wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70 and 1973, MEMRI reports that state-owned TV is again showing “Horseman Without a Horse.”

The Torah teaches us that while the yearning for freedom is innate, so is the yearning for a Pharaoh who tells us what to do while “benevolently” providing for our needs. This is what our ancestors demanded in the wilderness to which they had escaped from Egyptian slavery, driving Moses and even God Himself to the verge of despair. What terrified the Israelites was the prospect of freedom as a barren wilderness; that is, a negative freedom consisting of the removal of all restraints. It is what today’s Egyptians, beset by poverty and violent crime, think they are glimpsing as well; and so two-thirds of them have turned for answers to Islamists who claim to have a direct line to God Himself. What these dangerous people have to offer is not a return to the medieval Islamic caliphate, but a religion-infused version of the twentieth-century totalitarian political movements that claimed tens of millions of lives. We have to start telling the truth to ourselves as well as the people of Egypt: that what they are building is not freedom, but a bridge into the abyss.