Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rabbi Gary Creditor: "A Sermon on Handgun Control and Violence and the Megillah"

Would You Let Your Children Read the Megillah of Esther?

Shabbat Dedicated to Reflecting on Handgun Violence

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

March 14th, 2014

I wonder: if we really stopped to read the Megillah of Esther carefully and critically,

                If we paid attention to Haman's designs upon the Jews,

                If we analyzed the details of the Jewish self-defense,

Would we let children read this book?

Would we merrily dance around in costumes?

Would we make this holiday such happy holiday?

You all know that I will be dressed up in costume tomorrow night and we will be as raucous as possible. At the Purim dinner we will sing some traditional yet silly songs.  This is our normal modes operendai for Purim.

But perhaps it is the reflection that age allows, or because of issues about our society today, as I have been reading and rereading the Megillah that I hear episode after episode of extreme violence. It is a loud subtext of the Megillah. There is violence towards bodies, violence towards women, violence against children, violence towards Jews and violence towards Persians.

This is the story about a very bad, violent and malevolent society.

The Megillah of Esther, far from being a silly children's tale, is a very adult book, a clarion warning about violence and what it does to society. The Jewish observances that stem from, that are included at the end of the Megillah for no real rhyme or reason shows the radically different Jewish view.

On this Shabbat, Saturday and Sunday, synagogues and churches around the country are dedicating themselves to reflect on the issue of handgun violence and the need to control the sale of arms and lessen the violence in our society. It is an epidemic that must be addressed. Though other issues come to the fore, if we forget about and ignore the issue of handgun violence, we really do it at the peril of lives. Reading Megilat Esther is most appropriate on this Shabbat.

Violence Against Bodies:

The Megillah says that in the third year of Ahashverosh's reign he made a party and they drank for 180 days. After Esther was chosen as queen, he made another party. When Esther evolves her plot to save the Jews she throws two parties for Ahashverosh and Haman. Now they were certainly not drinking sarsaparilla! Regardless of historical inaccuracies, the Megillah reports a society that abused their bodies through alcohol. And we know that intoxication goes hand in hand with other forms of violence, whether it be physical, sexual or with guns.

Violence Against Women:

We usually make light about Vashti and her role in the plot. But when we read the Megillah  it is clear that it portrays the subjugation of women in the Persian world. After all, if you can do this to the queen, you can do this to any woman. Vashti was not invited to a grand ball. She was commanded to appear naked in a scene that superseded the Roman debaucheries. Though it allowed Esther to enter the story, it is important to listen to her voice too, that she is also subjugated to a drunken tyrant. Esther was also subject to death for appearing without proper summons and authorization. It is absolutely clear that the women were opportune for violence and abuse.

Violence Against Children:

Haman's degree to exterminate the Jews was all inclusive, "from young men to old, babies and women." We can look at this from both sides. We do not have to imagine the impact of genocidal violence upon children for there is sufficient literature from the Holocaust. But in Persia this was to be hand-to-hand combat and slaughter. Can you imagine what Haman had planned? The violence against children destroys the last shred of humanity. Several times the Megillah alerts us to this degradation of the society of perpetrators, not only of the victims.

Violence Against the Jews:

Violence Against the Persians:

The climax of the Megillah is the actual battles between the Jews and Persians. The latter thought that they were going to murder defenseless prey and instead confronted a seriously armed camp. How many Jews died? We don't know. There had to be some amount of casualties. How many Persians died? Ignore the hyperbole and the questionable historicity. On the first day in Shushan there were 500 dead plus Haman's ten sons. On the second day in Shushan they killed 300 more. In the rest of the country they killed 75,000. And then they publicly hang Haman's ten sons. And we sing and dance and make sounds with groggers while we recount all of these deaths, no matter how righteous in self defense it was.

Shouldn't we read it in subdued voices?

Shouldn't we discuss how to tell this to children?

Do we really want to advocate for a violent society?

I can present the Megillah in many different ways. Surely I wish the Jews of Europe could have defended themselves, like the Jews of the Megillah, before, during and after the Holocaust.

My point of reference in this sermon is singularly focused on us, the readers of the Megillah, the revelers in the story and its projection of violence. This text is filled with violence against bodies, against women, against children, against Jews against the Persians, and by extension, against us too. We become desensitized to violence when we read this over and over and take the violence for granted, don't even bat an eyelash at the numbers of the dead, don't flinch at the threat to men and women, babies and children.

And if this is true about the Megillah, then it is certainly true about violent video games and the plethora of violent images on television and cable networks, in music and in art. The campaign to diminish gun violence is not just about guns, it is about all forms of violence, it is about our vision of society and of the world. They need to shape a different image where people are respected, where each human being is considered sacred, where life is holy and thus cherished and not threatened nor destroyed.

Whatever laws need to be enacted, do so.

Whatever curriculums need to be written, write them.

Whatever reforms of social exposition need to be implemented, change them too.

Somehow we need to create a kinder, gentler, more respectful society.

The end of the Megillah gives us a clue. There are two mitzvot created in the ninth chapter, mishloach manot and matanot l'evyonim, gifts to each other and gifts to the poor. There is no hint to why these behaviors are instituted. They don't connect to the plot. But maybe, just maybe they are created to be the antidote to violence. We give food gifts "each person to his neighbor" and other gifts to the poor. We break down the walls that separate us. We behave with mercy and kindness, even love to each other, and those we don't know. That is how to diminish violence in the world – change how we think about each other. That is what Isaiah was dreaming when he spoke about breaking weapons into plowshares, instruments to feed the world instead of killing. Just maybe….

"Once in the days of King Ahashverosh.."

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶
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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

update on the shefanetwork website

Dear Shefa Chevreh,

Over the last 9+ years, the ShefaNetwork has morphed many times, from an online conversation, to 3 conferences and a Learning Mission to the Conservative Yeshiva, to 9 journals, and, most recently to a book, archiving all of the journals for posterity. Shefa's website migrated from a yahoogroup to a formal website, and finally to the most recent incarnation as a blog: There remains much work to be done before the mission of the ShefaNetwork, "to bring together dreamers from within the Conservative/Masorti Movement and to give their dreams an audible voice" is accomplished.

(The ongoing need for movemental healing is well-attested to by these two recent publications: today's NY Jewish Week OpEd by Jerome A. Chanes, "What Went Wrong With Conservative Judaism?" & last week's ejewishphinlantropy piece by Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, entitled "The Missing Piece.")

The important news is that that the two things everyone seems to agree upon - and care about - are:
  • 1) Conservative Jews are the majority on the ground and in leadership positions in so many national and local Jewish efforts (Avodah, Hadar, AJWS, NIF, AIPAC, T'ruah, etc...)
  • 2) The vital middle Jewish stream must survive for the Jewish community to endure
So, as the ShefaNetwork morphs yet again into an infrequent email list and a more static website (, the work goes on in many spheres, only some of which are institutions of the movement, perhaps proof of the success of Schechter's desire to see our ideology spread broadly within "Catholic Israel" and Kaplan's delivery systems of shuls as "Community Centers." Regardless of what has been accomplished to date, the need is ever greater for strength and dynamism throughout the Jewish institutions and far beyond. That was why, over 9 years ago, we chose the name "Shefa", to help Torah "flow" (Shefa translates literally as "flow") within the world.

May we all do our part in amplifying others' creative souls.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Letter To the Editor NYTimes: In Search of Concern

Letter To the Editor NYTimes: In Search of Concern

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

It was painful to read Marc Tracy's review of Shai Held's "Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence" (The Prophet's Prophet, Feb, 16), not only because Heschel's profound emphasis on 'transitive concern', one spiritually mature human being's response to the needs of another, seems to have gone unlearned, but also because Held's deft treatment of Heschel's passion for truth and meaning is so quickly dismissed by Tracy (a co-editor of 'Jewish Jocks') as "opaque." Most clear in Tracy's screed is a conservative worldview that precludes the wonder of expansive theological writing and, more to the point,  ignores the lessons of prophets, as if distracted by their "big glasses." A clearer lens would have seen that Held's writing offers newcomers to Heschel a much-needed transfusion of interpersonal concern and a reminder that the present isn't so perfect.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Congregation Netivot Shalom

Berkeley, CA



Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fwd: Kiev Riots affecting Masorti Community

Update on Kehilla Masoret in Kiev
As the news from Kiev, Ukraine worsens and grows more violent, we spoke this morning with our Masorti/Conservative Rabbi Reuven Stamov and his wife Lena who are in Israel for a short visit. Their two young daughters are still in Ukraine but are staying with their grandmother outside of the city.

As of Thursday morning, 28 people had been killed and almost 250 hospitalized following the breaking of the barricades by Ukrainian authorities.  The protestors have refused to capitulate to government demands and recent attempts at a truce have not held. The dispute began between the opposition and the current President Yanukovych over a trade pact with the EU but has since escalated into an Russia/EU divide.

The Masorti Kehillah Center is only 2 metro stops away from the violent protests at Independence Square. According to Reuven, they can hear everything, see the fires and smell the smoke that comes from only a 20 minute walk away. All of Kiev is scared to leave their homes and send their kids to school. At night, there are no street lights making a bad situation even worse.  People are stocking up on food, buying at least a 2 weeks supply in anticipation of rioting or shortages. The entire Jewish community is working together to safeguard their schools, synagogues and centers.

On a previous Shabbat, there was a general panic in the city and some people called for not holding services. But, according to Rabbi Stamov, the majority of people wanted to come together as a community even amidst the crisis.  

Is anti-semitism part of the opposition? According to Reuven and Lena, anti-semitism is indeed alive and well in Kiev but not as official government or protest policy. However, the government doesn't have the time or money to try and combat incidents of anti-semitism from people who are taking advantage of the overall chaos. A neighbor of the Stamov family received a coarsely worded note informing her that because she was a Jew, she needed to leave Kiev. Yet another reason, people are afraid to leave their homes.

The Stamovs are not sure what will be happening when they return next week but they don't have plans to close or cancel their many synagogue activities. They are already gearing up for a fun Purim which last year included a carnival and a funny dramatic reenactment of Megillat Esther. All they need is to find a safe place to celebrate another historic occasion of Jews eluding danger and being welcomed in a strange land.

Purim Appeal:  Support our Kehilla in Kiev

In light of the difficult events in Kiev, Masorti Olami is launching a Purim Appeal with all proceeds going to our Masorti Kehilla in Kiev. The Kehilla Masoret Kiev is supported by Masorti Olami and by Midreshet Yerushalayim at the Schechter Institute.  Funds are limited and the kehilla is in immediate need of a sophisticated security system that will enable them to feel safe in their space.  


We will also be raising funds to purchase food for the homebound and elderly, medicines and anything else that the kehilla needs to insure the well being and safety of their community.  


We need your help to treat the children to a day of fun outside of the city. Toys and treats for mishloach manot will be provided as well to make sure that smiles abound on Purim!


Help us support our kehilla in Kiev by clicking here. Be sure to mark Purim Appeal in the dedication box.


Thank you,


Rabbi Tzvi Graetz

Executive Director, Masorti Olami & MERCAZ Olami

Rabbi Mark Cooper presenting Rabbi Tzvi Graetz with a Megillat Esther for Kiev this week.  The Megillah was a gift from Rabbi Cooper, Rabbi Stephen Stern and Rabbi Benjamin Adler.  
Purim Play Kiev 2013
Lena & Rabbi Reuven Stamov Purim 2013
Purim 2013


Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NJ Jewish Standard: "Conservative youth seek campus revival"

NJ Jewish Standard: "Conservative youth seek campus revival"

Cranford grad student leads push to restore college outreach effort

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, a founder of Masorti on Campus, said the Shabbaton in February will be + enlarge image

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, a founder of Masorti on Campus, said the Shabbaton in February will be "about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus."

+ more images

A February Shabbaton, whose aim is to reinvigorate Conservative outreach on campus, is modeled on the annual Koach Kallah, above, now on hiatus along with the organization.

If you go

 What: Masorti on Campus Shabbaton

Where: Jewish Theological Seminary, Manhattan

When: Friday-Sunday, Feb. 21-23

Fee: $90 (includes all meals and programs); students are urged to contact their campus Hillel and other sources for further support.



Visit the NJJN Community pages for the Events Calendar, Synagogue listings, Obituaries, LifeCycle events and more!

by Joanne Palmer
Jewish Standard

January 22, 2014

Last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the Conservative movement's affiliated congregations, discontinued Koach, the movement's main outreach program to college students.

The move disappointed many in the movement, who noted that according to USCJ's own strategic plan, adopted in 2011, "a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation."

Some alumni of Koach are now trying to restore that bridge and are putting together a new organization, Masorti on Campus. The result of a meeting between students and representatives of various Conservative groups, the fledgling organization is offering a Shabbaton, based on the signature Koach Kallah — an annual gathering of students that featured workshops, community service, text study, networking, and Shabbat observance. They hope it will be the seed of a new Conservative movement on campus. (Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America.)

The event, to be held Feb. 21-23 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will include Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the movement's flagship seminary, plus Torah study and practical advice on growing Conservative Judaism on campus.

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, who recently graduated from Pace University and is about to start a graduate program there, is a founder of Masorti on Campus.

The Shabbaton is the result of a meeting Kandl and other students had with representatives of Conservative movement groups, including JTS, the Los Angeles-based Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, Women's League for Conservative Judaism, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, the National Ramah Commission, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Argentina, the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and two organizations representing the movement outside North America, Marom and Masorti Olami.

"Some of them" — particularly Women's League — "are giving us money, and some are giving us advertising," Kandl said.

The goal is to draw 80 students; after two weeks, 25 had registered, which puts it firmly on track, he said.

"I was really involved with Koach in its last year," Kandl said. "We tried to save it. We were out at the Salute to Israel Parade [in New York City] in 2012, getting signatures; we got about 1,000 altogether." Kandl also helped raise about $100,000, which, when matched by USCJ, renewed Koach for a year until the organization decided to put the program on "hiatus."

"What happened next was that a lot of students reached out to me, saying that they wanted to do a Shabbaton on campus, something like the Koach Kallah, so we decided that it would be our starting point," Kandl continued.

"We also hope to run an Onward Israel trip through the Jewish Agency, and we hope that we will have a program to Israel that will combine an internship and Jewish studies in the summer of 2015."

The Shabbaton will be modeled on the Koach Kallah, but there will be significant differences. "Thekallah was more about Jewish learning," Kandl said. "We will have Torah lishma sessions, but it will be more about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus." The Shabbaton will feature PresenTense, an organization that works with Jewish startups, and will be coordinated by Megan Goldman, a rabbinical student who led a Shabbaton with similar ideas last year, Kandl said.

Galvanizing students

Marc Gary, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at JTS, represented the seminary at the discussions that gave birth to the Shabbaton. He said that the seminary, like most of the rest of the movement, is working to keep college students connected.

"It is a mistake to infer from the decision of one organization to discontinue a particular college program that there is a lack of commitment among the leaders of Conservative Judaism to our college students," he wrote in an e-mail.

In a later phone conversation, Gary cited as examples of new initiatives the Nishma program, begun last summer, which provided 15 students with intensive Torah study at JTS. "We will have maybe 20 students this year, maybe more," he said.

He also talked about Reshet Ramah, a new program aimed at graduates of the highly successful network of summer sleep-away and day camps that span the country. "A significant number of Ramah staff already are on college campuses," he said. "And we have had some alumni events where we partner with Reshet Ramah here, and it attracts college and graduate students. It is a strong recognition on the part of Ramah and JTS that we already have thousands of present and former campers and staff on college campuses already."

And, of course, there is the Masorti on Campus Shabbaton.

"One of the great strengths is that it is a student-led organization, without a top-down structure," Gary said. The program's goal is to train leaders, who "will go back to their campuses and galvanize students there. It is a different concept, that students will be most effective in galvanizing their own communities."

Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a senior at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, is Masorti on Campus's director of institutional advancement.

"There are a significant number of students across North America who consider themselves to be committed Conservative Jews, or who identity with the movement as closest to the way they interact with Judaism," he said. Those students "find significance in following Halacha and have egalitarian values," he said.

"We are trying to fill the void that was left when Koach was shut down," he said.

"I think there needs to be more on campus for progressive Jews in general, not just for Conservative Jews," said Kandl, who grew up in USY, the Conservative movement's youth group, and was active in Jewish life on campus, including Hillel. "The URJ" — the Union for Reform Judaism — "doesn't have a college program right now. The market is only Chabad, Aish, and the Orthodox Union.

"We want to fill that gap."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rabbi Gerald Zelizer in the New York Jewish Week: "Conservative Movement’s Impact On The Left And Right"

Conservative Movement's Impact On The Left And Right
Tue, 01/14/2014
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer

First the Pew survey, then the eulogies for Conservative Judaism. Compared with ten years ago, the absolute number of Conservative Jews has declined precipitously. It has the lowest retention rate among the three major denominations. Worst of all, only 11 percent of respondents under the ages of 30 define themselves as Conservative. But hold on. 

It is true that the Conservative Movement is not doing so well.

It is also true that Conservative Judaism is doing quite well.            

Conservative Judaism, as contrasted with the Conservative Movement, is a particular approach to Judaism. It stands for "tradition and change," or as someone called it "authenticity and relevancy." It also means analyzing Judaism's sacred texts, like the Hebrew Bible, historically and scientifically. Conservative Judaism understands those texts as shaped by both indigenous "Torah only" authors and themes, while also impacted by the forces of societies and religions that surrounded ancient Israel. Gauging by those two core definitions, Conservative Judaism is flourishing, even if some of its institutions are not. How so? Because the two lenses of tradition and change, and the historical study of Judaism's sources, increasingly shape the vision of movements both to the left and right of my own. Indeed, these two core principles of Conservative Judaism have permeated both Reform and Modern Orthodoxy.

The shift of Reform towards tradition has been widely observed. The new Reform Prayer Book is more traditional, Shabbat and kashrut are given a higher priority in terms of observance, and it is commonplace for worshippers wear a kippah and tallit. In addition, strong support of Israel and the Hebrew language are now central to the Reform movement.

All these late 20th century tilts to tradition followed the pattern of Conservative Judaism and Solomon Schechter, but a century later.

Modern Orthodoxy, however, has moved in the opposite direction. In significant ways, it too has liberalized towards Conservative's "change."

Prenuptial agreements, encouraged by the Rabbinical Council of America, have since the 1990s offset the unilateral power given to men to initiate or refuse a get, or religious divorce. "Prenups" provide that even when the couple ceases to share a residence, the husband's obligation under Jewish law to support the wife becomes legally enforceable as long as they are married. This is a strong incentive for the husband to acquiesce and initiate the get. The Orthodox prenup follows by decades the so-called Lieberman Clause of the Conservative ketubah, which already in the 1950s required a recalcitrant husband to have the Rabbinical Assembly bet din adjudicate his arranging a get after a civil divorce.

Bat Mitzvah is becoming a norm in many Modern Orthodox synagogues, emulating the Conservative ritual begun in the 1920s. To be sure, Orthodox synagogues do not allow the girl to have an aliyah and read the Torah as in many Conservative synagogues. But depending on the synagogue, girls celebrate this rite of passage in creative ways, like chanting a non-Torah text before the congregation; delivering a d'var Torah; and/or leading services in a separate women's only group.

And note the increase in women yeshivot and hakafot on Simchat Torah, even in Israel!

Regarding the scientific and historical approach to sacred texts, the Maggid imprint of the respected Koren Press offers "contemporary approaches to traditional texts." Its salesperson at a recent United Synagogue convention pitched the books as "incorporating modern Biblical scholarship" to the traditional texts.

My roots and allegiance to Conservative Judaism run deep and wide. My father, a graduate of JTS, served a Conservative Congregation in Columbus, Ohio for over 40 years. My own service here in Metuchen NJ is approaching 45 years. I attended Camp Ramah, served as president of USY in my youth, and later was president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

I am saddened by the struggles of our movement and am confident its leaders will find the means of revival. If not, though, I am sanguine that Conservative Judaism lives because much of its take on tradition and change has leaked into Reform and Orthodoxy. According to Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, "Solomon Schechter never wanted to create a separate movement." It was the Conservative ideology he hoped would embrace much of American Jewry. It increasingly has.

Rabbi Gerald Zelizer is spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor ▶