Tag Archives: Orthodox

Little Jewish School on the Prairie

By Scott Fox

A girls’ high school catering to Orthodox Jews in the little town of Bricelyn, Minnesota, population 340.  Sounds crazy, no? On the surface, The Minnesota Girls Academy (MGA) seems unusual for several reasons, which could be a reason for its lack of success. The school opened in 2009, but was forced to shut down earlier this year after running out of money to operate. Yet it is a needed resource for a community that is sometimes unnoticed.

People sometimes assume that due to their devout nature, teens in Orthodox Jewish communities in places like Borough Park, Brooklyn, do not succumb to self-destructive behavior like abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting themselves, or  suffering from eating disorders. Teens facing emotional and/or behavioral challenges, also known as at-risk teenagers, are not only just as prevalent in Orthodox communities but have become a growing problem there recent years. A  New York Times article from April featured rabbinic leaders confronting a growing of number of teenage girls in their community dealing with eating disorders.

MGA, also known as the Miryam Ghermezian Academy, was devoted to putting the lives of at-risk teenage girls on the right track. Its student body was entirely composed of girls from Orthodox communities in the U.S., U.K. and Israel. The school was the first Jewish-run therapeutic boarding school in the U.S.

“In the non-Jewish world, there have been programs running for troubled teens for a long time,” Rabbi A.Y. Weinberg, founder and director of the school, explained. “That left a need for Jewish troubled teens that are searching for some sort of spirituality, which they will not get in a non-Jewish program.”

Going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been Jewish groups, such as local Jewish Family Service organizations across the country, devoted to helping troubled children. However, there had not been a year-round Jewish therapeutic boarding school before MGA.

Why Bricelyn? Weinberg was surprisingly nonchalant in discussing the seemingly unlikely selection of a town 90 miles from the nearest Jewish community (Rochester).

“We came across a vacant public high school with the right price and right location,” he said. “Rural Minnesota is not a problem. Twin Cities Poultry distributes kosher meat and products throughout the Midwest.”

One factor that likely helped Weinberg pick Minnesota was that the company run by the school’s largest benefactor, Don Ghermezian, helped create and currently owns the Mall of America in the suburbs of Minneapolis. MGA has used the Mall of America for fundraising and to educate the girls on life skills and professional experiences. Weinberg also said it is not uncommon for therapeutic boarding schools to be placed in remote areas.

Bricelyn turned out to be a welcoming community for the Jewish educational center that took over the community’s old public school (Bricelyn has become too small for its own school; the nearest public school is in nearby Wells). The local school district helped set up an online-based program for the girls to take classes in English subjects. and has also employed several local residents as dorm staff and cooks. Many of the town’s residents attended the school’s dedication ceremony in 2009 to show their support. Students were also involved in the community by volunteering at local hospitals, schools, and senior centers.

After 19 years spent serving as Midwest Regional Director of National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox teen group, Weinberg founded MGA’s parent program, Project Extreme, in 2001 when he saw an unfulfilled need in his community for the teens that required the most help. Project Extreme began as a summer camp that took Orthodox Jewish boys and girls whose behavior was alienating themselves from their loved ones and community out to the Canadian Rockies. The program, based out of Long Island, soon introduced weekend and holiday retreats in upstate New York, character-building “Nights on the Town”, and a helpline to provide year-round service.

Starting a full-time school was the next logical extension of the program’s reach. Advertising itself as “kosher, therapeutic, residential setting,” the school opened its doors in 2009 as a year-round facility with a student body of 15. It closed last September.  For now, the school is on hold until a source of outside funding can be discovered.

One could argue that the school’s downfall was its extensive commitment to its students. MGA had ten staff members for its 15 students. Each student’s individualized treatment was overseen by a clinician, program director, assistant program director, program nurse and academic administrator. According to Weinberg, the cost of caring for each student is $75,000 a year. Since each student’s parents are required to only pay what they can afford, much of that $75,000 for each student needs to come from fundraising. Weinberg has so far explored several avenues, including state and federal governments, in search of funding, with no luck.

While it was open, the school was able to attract girls primarily through word-of-mouth in Orthodox communities. Though Project Extreme’s programs are run by Orthodox Jews, separated by gender, and have a solely Orthodox clientele, the program is open to teenagers from all backgrounds and hopes to attract Jews from other denominations in the future. Students at MGA were not required to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle beyond keeping kashrut and observing Shabbat.

One especially helpful aspect of MGA and Project Extreme is their requirement that all of its staff sign a social contract stating that they will maintain contact with each teen that they work with into adulthood.

“It’s a necessity,” Weinberg explained. “If you run a program, the impact needs to last. If we follow up, the impact lasts or we send them to another program where they need to go to. We need to be there to pick up the pieces when they slip. There’s nothing like helping (these kids). You’re basically saving their life.”

The Jew With Two “Beards”

By Steven Philp

To their neighbors they look like every other Orthodox Jewish couple, a man and woman married for five years with two children in tow. Even the fact that their marriage is a product of convenience rather than love is not unusual, yet the particular reason for their union is unique: the man is gay, and the woman is lesbian. Their marriage owes its genesis to Areleh Harel, an Orthodox rabbi living on the West Bank; over the past six years, he has paired thirteen Orthodox gay and lesbian couples. For Harel it is a simple solution to a more complex problem: these are men and women who are attracted to people of the same sex, yet desire to remain in good standing with their communities by acquiring the familiar roles of Orthodox adulthood—a traditional family of one man and one woman.  Are the members of these couples simply “beards,” a slang term that usually describes a woman who marries or dates a gay man to “prove” his heterosexuality?

According to Time, Harel has been quietly pairing gay and lesbian couples for years. It was not until this past spring, when he mentioned his service at a Jerusalem-based panel on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights that other communities became aware of these couples. Not surprisingly, he has met criticism from both fronts. LGBT organizations cite his pairings as disingenuous, leading to loveless—perhaps unfaithful—marriages. On the other hand, several of his peers believe that Harel should do more to discourage their attraction to people of the same sex. They look to the controversial practice of “reparative” therapy, which claims that homosexuality can be “cured” through counseling and aversion treatments. However, prominent health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have questioned the efficacy of “reparative” therapy, citing evidence that its methods can cause lasting negative psychological effects. Although Harel believes that many men and woman can change their sexual attraction, he concedes that some individuals cannot—hence the necessity of pairing the men and women who continue to desire a traditional Orthodox marriage despite their homosexuality. “This is the best solution we can offer people who want to live within halakhah,” Harel explained to Time. “This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s kind of a solution.”

After his project went public, Harel found an increased demand for his services. He revealed plans to launch an online matchmaking service—Anachnu, Hebrew for “We” —for Orthodox gay and lesbian individuals who desire similar pairings. At the moment there will be five matchmakers on staff, all heterosexual. Harel will oversee operations as a consultant. Membership for the site will be $42, although if successful pairing is made both the bride and groom will pay $430 each.

When Harel began pairing gay and lesbian couples in 2005 there were no LGBT Orthodox organizations in Israel. Currently there are five, including one that is working closely with Harel to promote his matchmaking service. Kamoha—Hebrew for “Like You” —announced its intent to host a link to Anachnu. The founder of Kamoha, a closeted Orthodox man who has adopted the pseudonym Amit, explained the reasoning behind their decision to support Harel. Although many gay and lesbian individuals want total acceptance within the Orthodox community, there are some whose desire for a quiet, normative lifestyle outweighs their sexual attraction. “We’re not pushing this on people,” explained Amit to Time. “This is for people who want this because Jewish law says this is the normal way and because it’s the easiest way to have children.” As for himself, Amit explained that he has not desire to utilize Anachnu; after many years of therapy, he came to the conclusion that he is “100% gay.”

However, not all LGBT Orthodox groups are comfortable with the implicit support that Kamoha has lended Harel. Daniel Jonas, a gay Orthodox man living in Jerusalem and spokesperson for the pro-LGBT organization Havruta, explained that the matchmaking service will lead to unhealthy relationships. “I am not the one to judge, but if you ask me what a family is, it’s about caring, loving, and sharing,” Jonas told Time. “This kind of technical relationship, it is not based on love, and I do believe that if the parents don’t love each other, the kids will feel it. It’s not healthy for the kids or for their parents to live like this.” Concerns have been raised about the fidelity of these marriages, a problem that Harel acknowledges and addresses with the potential gay and lesbian couples. In an interview with the Associated Press, Harel pointed to his belief that having children will provide a substantial foundation for the pairing to build a genuine relationship. “Their love is based on parenthood,” Harel said. “Parenthood is the glue and it’s strong.”

Still the efficacy of these relationships is called in to question. In an interview with one of the men paired by Harel—who chose the pseudonym Josh—Time revealed that even the presence of children is not a foolproof safeguard against infidelity. Josh, a 30-year-old Orthodox gay man, admitted to cheating on his wife at least three times over the three years of their marriage—most recently in February of this year. They have an 11-month-old son. “I haven’t told my wife, but I think she knows,” Josh said. “She can see it in my face when I come home.” Yet he explains that their mutual struggle with same sex attraction has provided space for an intimate, if unorthodox, partnership. “But she give me space,” Josh concluded. “I really love her because she understands me.”

The IDF’s Rightward Movement?

by Lily Hoffman Simon

The Israeli Defense Force is often viewed as a reflection of Israeli ideologies, and of the Jewish state in general. This conception is slightly problematic, as the IDF operates primarily outside the realm of democratic processes. However, it is interesting to consider how recent increases in religious military participation have changed the IDF and the face of Zionism.

In the past few months, religious membership in the IDF has been a hot topic, as the Knesset has discussed the halachic legitimacy of conversions officiated by the IDF. This past week, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the religious party Shas, approved these kinds of conversions as valid. Much of the motivation behind the controversial bill, which proposed to give legal status to all IDF-performed conversions, was to promote Jewish presence in the IDF. According to MK David Rotem of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, who introduced the bill, “no one will want to convert during his military service anymore [if IDF conversions are not legitimate], and we will find ourselves in a big problem.”

The Israeli Defense Force is an extension of the Israeli state, and in that light is an extension of the Jewish people. However, this relationship is more complicated than that. In an effort to simplify slightly, let’s ignore the complicated discussion of to what degree Israel reflects the Jewish people, or if there is even a singular Jewish people to represent. The topic at hand is how participation in the IDF reflects different Jewish and Zionist ideologies, and how that reflects on Israel as a whole. The increase in religious participation in the IDF reflects certain nationalist beliefs. These beliefs tend to favor the right wing of the political spectrum, including the transformation of the recent Gaza war into a spiritual battle representing the dominance of Jews (in the extremes). Religious beliefs are permeating into the IDF outside of the battlefield as well. Examples of this include the opposition of the chief rabbi of the IDF to women’s participation in combat units.

The religious influence on the army has some positive effects. For example, the recent adaptations to enable Haredi participation in the IDF have brought traditionally civilly-disengaged citizens into civic service, and therefore national consciousness. However, religious influence and power in the IDF has many negative consequences. First, the integration of religious belief into the army, as well as the emphasis put on rabbinic approval of the IDF, is transforming the secular IDF into an institution for religious militancy, undermining the IDF as a secular institution seeking to embody the democratic state. In addition, religious soldiers are inclined to act according to religious Zionist beliefs. In practice, this could mean, for example, a refusal to fulfill orders to evacuate West Bank settlements. With a growing number of religious soldiers, the IDF increasingly reflects militant religious Zionist ideologies, which encourage expansion of Israel, as well as Jewish strength. As a result, international communities are more inclined to define the IDF, and Israel in general, as a militant force, concerned with expanding Jewish settlement and concerned with the strength of the Jewish people above all else.  This raises the question of the role of nationalism in the IDF. Is nationalist fervor and ideology an inherent part of the Israeli army, or should military nationalist tendencies be solely in defense of the nation?

With a need for an Israeli army, it is also important to remember the need for soldiers within that army from all kinds of Israeli identity. This is especially important in a society with a military draft, suggesting that the IDF serves as a space for civil engagement with other Israelis. However, it is crucial to constantly analyze how different soldiers and influences in the IDF affect its functioning and legitimacy.

Always a “Moment” Ahead of the Curve

One of the great things about Moment is that through its 36-year history, it has documented breaking trends in Jewish life with insight and forward-looking prowess.  Our last cover story, “A Woman Orthodox Rabbi?” made a splash in the Jewish community.  But a peek through our archives unveiled that Moment was ahead of the curve on the evolution of women in Orthodox Judaism.  Exactly 17 years ago, our cover story delved into the same issue, anticipating some of the breakthroughs that took nearly two decades to to come to fruition:

For your reading pleasure, InTheMoment is giving you exclusive access to this fascinating story from our archives, which is all the more enlightening in light of our last issue.  Enjoy!




Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of

By Lily Hoffman Simon

The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.

A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.

The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.  A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’  This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.

By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism.  Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.

Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women.  By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).

The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.

Desires of the Flesh and Spirit

By Steven Philp

Following a handful of screenings in the United States and Canada, the critically acclaimed Israeli film Eyes Wide Open was released on DVD for North American consumers this past month. The debut of director Haim Tabakman is a nuanced examination of the conflict between the desires of the flesh and the spirit; it finds its particular power in the recognition that these two spheres are often closer than we care to acknowledge. Written by Merav Doster, the film is set in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem where the daily rhythm is defined by the obligations of work, family, and fulfilling mitzvot.

Our protagonist, Aaron (Zohar Strauss)–having recently inherited his deceased father’s butcher shop – finds purpose, albeit one characterized by predictability, within this community; he is recognized among his neighbors as a tzaddik, working against an implied lack of formal education through devout study and prayer. Although it is apparent that he cares for his wife, Rivka (Tinkerbell), and their four children, he lacks the same passion for his wife as applies to Torah-study. Their relationship is one of respectful cohabitation, punctuated by the intimacy that comes with familiarity.

In an act of charity Aaron takes in a young yeshiva dropout named Ezri (Ran Danker), allowing him to stay in a spare room at the butcher shop in exchange for his apprenticeship. Although Aaron seems oblivious to the unspoken attraction between the two men, it becomes apparent that he sees these feelings as an obstacle to be conquered; in a discussion with his study group, Aaron expresses his belief that the opportunity to sin – through diligent resistance – can lead to spiritual development. Yet Aaron’s intellectual justifications eventually fall short of his desire, allowing for physical and emotional intimacy to grow between the two men.

Here the quiet tension of the film is most palpable, as we see Aaron attempt to navigate between his sense of obligation to community and the desire for self-fulfillment. He becomes victim to the same “modesty squads” which he himself, at the behest of his rabbi, has participated in. Most poignantly Aaron is forced to acknowledge the quiet pain of his wife, who faithfully maintains their home even as she faces growing rumors of his infidelity. What is unique about this story is the careful examination of Aaron’s two relationships; unlike similar films–Brokeback Mountain comes to mind–the contrast is not between his passionate love for Ezri and the cold deceit of his wife. Rather, Aaron is faced with making a decision between the fire of his relationship with the young man and the predictable comfort of his wife. His love for both individuals, although qualitatively different, is obvious throughout the film.

This is where Eyes Wide Open finds its strength; it refuses to condemn, even as it carefully examines the constraints of living within the ultra-Orthodox community. Tabakman captures the rhythms of its inhabitants beautifully, highlighting the sense of pride and purpose that can be found in strict observance. He also illustrates the multifaceted nature of human relationships, showing with equal weight the limitations of unchecked passion versus love without desire. The conclusion of the film leaves us with a degree of dissatisfaction that artfully mirrors the painful necessity of Aaron’s decision; Tabakman is smart to withhold the happy ending that we desire, arguing that acquiescence is the necessary response to the entanglement of passion and obligation.

A Rabbah by any other name….

By Sarah Breger

A few weeks ago a woman’s title, but not her duties, changed. Maharat Sara Hurwitz, a member of the religious leadership  at a modern Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale became Rabba Sara Hurwitz at the same synagogue. This set off a firestorm in the Orthodox community, perhaps because of the close relationship of the term,  Rabba to Rabbi, which according to many is what Sara Hurwitz is.

The ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America denounced Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Riverdale synagogue  who had conferred both the title of Maharat and then of Rabba on Sara Hurwitz, followed by rumblings that the centrist Rabbinical Council of America may expell him as well. Continue reading